In college, I had my study process down. I would transcribe everything the professor said in class into a separate word doc for each class. Towards the end of every semester, I would add in important information from the reading and then memorize the entire document. This was my fool proof process for getting an A on a final exam in college. When I got to law school, this process went out the window because I was overwhelmed by all the talk about case briefs, study groups, and other things that I thought I was supposed to be doing. What I eventually learned was that law school is different from being a political science/history major in college, but not completely different. The main differences are that law school requires a command of vastly more material than college every semester, and what you learn from doing the reading and going to class is just the tools to answer exam questions, not the answers themselves. After emerging from my state of confusion 1L year, I gradually created a modified version of my college study process that addressed these key differences.
Obviously, the first thing I did was actively read the casebook. This is pretty straight forward. Everyone has their own preferred way to read actively. Some students produce written case briefs that identify the parties, issue, holding, key arguments, and any law to take away from the case. I chose to book brief, underlining all over the casebook in pen and writing copious margin notes in big letters (I’m sure the people who bought my used textbooks hated me). By the way, this is still how I read a case as a practicing lawyer. I often keep key cases printed out since my underlining and margin notes make it really easy for me to find important language quickly. The other thing that I made sure to do was to read the day of class. If this was infeasible because either the class was early in the morning or I had several classes in the same day, then I read the day before class. For me, having the material fresh in my mind allowed me to get a lot more out of class and ultimately take better notes.
2. Go to Class
Ideally within a few hours (but certainly within a day) of doing the reading, I would go to class. As a 1L, I stuck with my college studying habits and transcribed the lecture word-for-word on my computer. This didn’t work in law school. In college, the professor spent the lecture exhausting his (more frequently her) views on a particular topic and providing lots of great content that I could regurgitate on an exam. Memorizing lectures was a great way to do well in college. Law school lectures are different. In law school, a lecture is usually a mix of the professor asking a student questions about a case and the professor discussing his views on a body of law. There is nothing in a lecture (or in the reading) that can just be repeated on an exam because doing well on an exams requires using the rules from cases as tools to analyze totally random hypothetical situations.
So what’s the point of going to class? This is a actually a great question and one that I struggled with throughout my three years. First, going to class kept my mind focused on the course. Without the constant reminder that class provides, I could sometimes let a course fall by the wayside. Second, it got me versed in the way that experts talk about a certain area of law. So, while listening to a professor’s endless war stories may not have helped me do well on the exam, these stories did help me understand how practitioners think and ultimately taught me what type of things that I should be looking out for in cases. Finally, professors sometimes reveal certain key aspects of the law that weren’t obvious to me from reading the cases, and in higher level courses especially, professors often gave me their individual take on a disputed area of the law that showed up on the test.
3. Consult a Supplement
A few days after class, I would read a supplement that discussed the subject we had just covered. I found supplements most useful in the 1L curriculum and in easier more straight-forward courses. This is because good supplements are easier to find for the more common courses and are most correct when the area of law is not heavily disputed (i.e. not for federal courts). A good supplement is one that tracks the course organizationally, covers similar material, and largely agrees with the professor (again, not federal courts). For me, supplements were most useful for getting a sense of how all the cases fit together and for checking to make sure that I understood the relevant law from a particular case. If a supplement didn’t give me the feeling that I finally understood a topic, then I found a different supplement.
The last step in the process was to write everything down about a topic soon after reading about it, so I didn’t forget what I had learned. I would usually start by using the supplement to get the organizational structure of the topic and then figure out where each of the cases went. Once I had a few cases in the proper place in the outline, I re-read the case and my margin notes, copying down the relevant law into an easy to read format. Then, I compared what I decided was the relevant law to how the supplement phrased it and made slight changes depending on which one I thought was correct. This last process was more important in upper level courses because the supplement was almost always correct about the 1L curriculum. For more detail, check out this article that Alison wrote about the outlining process.
— – —
Want more law school tips? Sign up for our free mailing list today.
And check out these helpful posts:
- 4 Reasons to Not Wait Until After the Halloween Party to Start Outlining
- November – Starting to Prepare for Finals
- Need Help Outlining for Law School Finals?
- How to Cope When You’ve Got Too Much Going On
Image Credit: Sokkette / Shutterstock
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.