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Although it was several years ago, I remember the summer before my first year of law school all too clearly. By the time August 2013 rolled around and my law school classes were days away, I thought I had already mastered everything I needed to be prepared. Boy was I wrong! The weekend before classes began I recall receiving a flood of emails from my professors with a ton of reading assignments for the upcoming week. Each email with a stern warning that we would be delving straight into the material on the first day and straight into cold-calling, so we needed to be prepared.
That weekend I had no idea what I was doing during my class preparation. I spent hours reading and re-reading just one case and still remained confused after several reviews. Unfortunately, this confusion and inefficient preparation continued throughout my first semester until I finally figured out what worked best for me. By my second semester, I was able to prepare for classes in about half the time I was taking my first semester. By my third year of law school, my ability to prepare for class had improved so much that I was able to prepare between the quick breaks my class and work schedule permitted.
So how does one get to this point? What you should be doing to prepare for class and how long it should take depends on a variety of factors. As a 1L, you will probably only be enrolled in traditional lecture classes. These classes will require you to read a variety of cases beforehand to be prepared. Additionally, these classes will likely employ the Socratic method, a teaching style which encourages your preparation at the very least out of a fear of being embarrassed.
So how do you adequately prepare?
1. Schedule your Preparation Time
Before you lose track of your day, it’s important that you set some time aside to prepare for your upcoming classes. I recommend including class preparation time in your daily schedule. Having a schedule will: (1) give you a visual of all you need to complete each day and prove to yourself that there is time in the day to prepare for your classes, (2) keep you organized and ensure that you don’t go over time and spend five hours completing one case reading. Therefore, as you organize your class schedule for the week be sure to include the specific time slots that you will dedicate towards class preparation. Most importantly, once you’ve created a schedule, be sure to stick to it!
2. Read the Cases Carefully and Draft a Case Brief
Now on to the most time-consuming portion of your class preparation, reading cases. Every day during your scheduled review time, you should carefully read all your assigned cases. Depending on the class, you may get a short case that’s only about 5-10 pages or a longer case of about 15-20 pages. Although these small numbers may not appear daunting from the outset, let’s face it, many law students suffer the torment of spending up to 4 hours or more on a ten-page case. So how can you efficiently get through your case readings?:
- Utilize case summaries – One way to cut your review time in half is by utilizing case summaries. You know those summaries provided at the beginning of an opinion, in a case summary booklet keyed to your case book or on an online site? Usually, they’re drafted in an easy to digest manner, and they, at the very least, provide a quick overview of the facts, rule and holding. Read this through, gain a general understanding of the case and then, with that knowledge, review the assigned case in your case book. You’ll be surprised how much quicker you get through the antiquated and difficult language within these cases if you possess a general understanding at the outset.
- Utilize a case brief template – Another way to efficiently prepare for class is to prepare a case brief of all your assigned cases. Preparing a case brief will allow you to understand the case better because it will require you to break down the case into the most important sections: facts, issues, holding, rationale. However, it will be even more helpful when you inevitably go blank during a cold call. Your professor will likely be asking you about the important sections of the case that have already been fleshed out in your case brief. Therefore, if you blank during a cold call, you can simply read what you have from your prepared case brief to answer the question. This has definitely saved me a few times. Need a template? Try this one.
- Use the review and refresh technique – Another way to assist with retention as you prepare for class, is by utilizing the review and refresh technique for your longer case assignments. This technique involves checking your syllabus ahead of time to determine when a longer case will be assigned, then scheduling your initial preparation for those classes the weekend before. Assuming you have some more flexibility in your schedule on the weekend, use the extra time you have to read through these cases carefully and draft a detailed case brief. Once you have that in place, you can simply use your case brief to refresh your memory the day before that class or even right before that class depending on your schedule.
3. Use a Law Dictionary
In addition to applying the above techniques, be sure to remain vigilant! While reading through your assigned cases, if you come across a new word that you don’t know, look it up! Using a Black’s Law Dictionary would be helpful or just a simple google search. Once you find the definition, plug it into a definitions section on your case brief template. This will not only allow you to start understanding legal jargon from early on, but you will also impress your professors when you can give them a clear definition for terms such as “res judicata” and “res ipsa loquitor” before they provide a definition to the class.
How Long Should you be Taking to Prepare?
If you’re a 1L, the length of time that you take to prepare depends on your particular abilities. Are you a fast reader? Do you usually have to complete several reviews before grasping the material? Although there’s no magic number regarding how long it should take you to prepare, if it’s taking you several hours to prepare for one class this may not be the best use of your time. If you’re taking extremely long, this may be because the material is too complex to understand. In that case, I’ve found that using the case summaries example highlighted above, should be super helpful in speeding up your review.
Another way to make your review time more efficient is to cut yourself off at a certain time for each class. When preparing your schedule, set time limits for your class preparation. These limits should be dependent on the complexity of the class and the density of the material you have to review. For example, if you have a 15-page case to review for Torts, maybe tell yourself you won’t go over 2.5 hours to prepare for this case. Be strict about this time limit, even if you’re not done preparing. At the 2.5 hour mark you may already have enough information to survive a cold call and, even if you don’t, you simply need to answer to the best of your ability and let your professor know that you’re unclear about certain aspects of the case. I know it’s tough, but don’t feel guilty if you don’t get through all the material. At the end of the day, just taking the time you already did to prepare is completing half the battle.
Give these tips a try and let me know how they work out!
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