A new law student e-mailed me this morning and asked what she could do to make sure she was getting the most out of tutoring. This was a great question! It also got me to thinking about generally applicable advice about what law students need to be doing to make sure they’re reaping the full benefit of tutoring, learning, or just law school as a whole. If you’ve ever wondered how you can take better advantage of the advice around you, whether from your tutor, professors, or T.A., here are some guidelines to follow.
Own Your Process — This Is About You
Bottom line, you’re only going to get out of this experience as much as you put in. It is your job to meet your advice-giver half way. To be accurate, way more than half way—you should be doing the majority of the heavy lifting. In law school, no one is going to sit you down and teach you this material from scratch, you need to at least try it on your own first. If you still have specific questions after that, that’s fine, but if you’re looking for spoon feeding, you should give that up now. This isn’t undergrad.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, it’s not your professor’s job to saliently set forth every nuance, twist and turn that could appear on the final exam. It’s her job to guide you and give you the tools to teach yourself. If you’re sitting back passively waiting to be taught, it might not happen, and worse, you might be left behind in the shuffle! Step up and take ownership over your own learning process. Take initiative. Try to teach yourself, and then ask for advice if you get stuck.
Make It Your Mission to Follow-Up
Along the same lines, you should learn to follow up. Even if you’re planning on having a secretary take charge of your calendar once you’re a lawyer, you’re not there quite yet. You still need to be able to manage your time and projects on your own. If you don’t have these skills, start developing them now. Use a calendar. Set reminders. If it’s about your education, it’s your job to make sure it happens. If a professor says he will give you feedback on a hypo., it is your responsibility to make sure that meeting comes to fruition. You need to write the hypo., remind him he was kind enough to offer help, set an appointment, and go to office hours.
Similarly, if your tutor assigns a hypo. for you to write up this week, it is your job to finish it and send it by the deadline you’ve set. Tutors can be fantastic at helping to remind you and keeping you on task, but the students who do exceptionally well are more often than not those who make it their business to stay on top of everything without too much prompting. These are learned skills. Don’t fall for the cop out of “I’m just not that organized” or “I am a procrastinator.” If there’s a problem that’s hindering you, do something about it. No one else can learn this for you.
Take It Upon Yourself to Take the Next Step
All too often, law students seem content to do the bare minimum. Why? Three easy reasons:
- Because there is virtually zero accountability in law school. No one checks your homework, or whether you briefed every last case. Frequently, there are no quizzes to assess your understanding of the material.
- Law school is extremely busy, doing the bare minimum—i.e. reading for class and showing up—can easily take up almost all of your time.
- It’s really difficult to know what the bare minimum actually is. There is usually no one to tell you that reading every case and going to lecture is not actually enough to get you the grades you want.
The students who perform at the highest levels are the ones who go above and beyond. They don’t just write out hypos., they re-write them, they critically review them on their own and then get feedback from outside sources, and then they review those rules again. They don’t just do the readings, they spend extra time asking themselves the tough questions and making sure they actually understood what they read, why they read it, and how it is the same or different than other cases they’ve seen, and why. And, if they come up short, they search for the answers in the most efficient ways possible. They go to office hours and they ask for help when they need it.
Learn to Recognize the Warning Signs When Something Isn’t Working
The suggestions above must be tempered with the caveat that you need to know when to give up grasping at straws on your own and actually reach out for help. I have heard about some law students doing some really inefficient things to try to cover their bases. You don’t need to type and re-type your lecture notes. You shouldn’t memorize your case briefs in full. You won’t benefit from making a huge stack of flash cards if you don’t first teach the material to yourself, synthesize it, and break it into bite-sized pieces that you can actually assimilate.
You probably have some instincts about what sorts of activities are actually helping you, and which ones are more like busy work. If you find yourself re-inventing the wheel, copying down your supplements verbatim, looking up unabridged versions of your assigned cases online, or otherwise getting lost in exercises that make you feel “productive” but ultimately don’t do much to bolster your understanding of the material, stop! Assess the situation. Ask yourself if you really need to spend time on what you’re doing. Reach out for help from an upperclassman who had your professor, the academic support program at your school, your professor or your tutor.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask the “Easy Questions” (But Maybe Don’t Ask Them In Class)
If you don’t know the difference between the outline you use to study over the course of the semester, and the outline you make before writing out an essay, this can make for some very confusing hypo. writing. If you’re not positive whether concurring or dissenting opinions or minority jurisdictional approaches matter in your class, this can cause you to miss out on studying important things that could be on your final exam. It’s necessary to ask questions to clear up this kind of confusion, even if you feel silly doing it. It’s understandable that you might not feel comfortable asking about these things in lecture (and frankly, that probably isn’t the best forum for these sorts of inquiries), but make sure you are getting answers from somewhere. Go to office hours, seek out someone else who has been in your position before who can help guide you. Find a research librarian, a tutor, or at least scout out some helpful blogs with information you can trust. As noted above, though, your conundrums will always be better-received if you at least try to solve them on your own first.
So, where does this leave us? Basically, being a good law student has a lot to do with skills you can learn and practice, but perhaps even more with how you view yourself in this situation and how you react to it. Are you passively waiting for the answers, or are you actively seeking them out and finding them on your own? Are you doing just enough to scrape by, or are you going the extra mile and learning the material so well you could teach it to someone else? Are you wasting your time on study methods that aren’t working well for you, or do you know when to stop get help?
No amount of tutoring, coaching or hand-holding is going to get you the grades you want if you’re an unwilling participant in the process. The drive to do well has to come first and foremost from you! Your professor or tutor can want you to succeed and give you all the tools you need, but it’s your responsibility to make something of the material you are given. That said, though, no amount of drive and ambition can substitute for the hard work it takes to perform well in law school. Remember, it’s not so much about the hours you put in, but rather, whether that time was well-spent. It’s crucial to take stock of what you’re doing and ask yourself if it’s working for you. Don’t be scared of voicing the easy questions, but also make sure you’re asking the hard ones as well.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Tips for Making the Most of Your Professors’ Office Hours
- What Can Your Law Library Offer You?
- Need More Time? Study Smart Before Your Law School Class
- Avoiding Office Hours? Go, and Get Something Out of It
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