I love an oversimplified analogy. Law school reminds me of swimming. Some people dive right in. They have to get used to the currents, and they might get tired, but they do just fine. Some people need those little floaty things on their arms. They go into the water knowing they need some help, and they take the time to learn what they need to do to stay afloat. Some people jump in, realize they hate everything about being in the water and get out as quickly as possible. If you’re the second or third type, this post probably isn’t for you. You already know you need help or that law school isn’t for you.
There’s a fourth type. Some people think they’re doing just fine (the first type), and don’t realize they’re struggling until they are WAY over their heads. I’m going to outline four indicators that you might need a boost, and suggest some resources for each. The earlier you recognize the need for help, the more likely you are to get the type of help you need to make it through law school successfully.
You Aren’t Finishing Your Reading (or losing sleep to do it)
We all assume that law students are perpetually sleep deprived. The thing is that if you are a full-time law student and manage your schedule effectively, you shouldn’t actually be too sleep-deprived until finals get close (sleep is important to learning!). So, if your reading is regularly taking too long, you might need a lifeline.
How do you know it’s taking too long? Aside from not finishing, a lot of professors will indicate how long you should spend preparing for class, or your school might indicate that each credit hour should correspond to an hour of prep time. Now, these estimates are just that – estimates. We all know that different people learn differently, and things come up to put a crimp in our schedules. But on a day-to-day basis, you should have enough time to do all of your reading/work for all of your classes, actually attend those classes, and get a reasonable night of sleep. Daunting? Yes, absolutely. Possible? Also yes.
If you’re not there yet, that’s okay! Law school takes a LOT of getting used to. But don’t dismiss the possibility of getting some outside support. You might have an advisor, a TA, or just a professor you trust. If your school has an academic support office, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to take advantage of that resource. It’s part of what your tuition pays for! You also might have a friend in your classes who can be an accountability partner and help you stay on a good schedule (just keep in mind that a “good” schedule will be different for different people) or who can be a sounding board to make the reading more effective. And, of course, you can always find an outside tutor for a few sessions to help you find a good rhythm for your reading.
You are Consistently Losing Track of Class (or finding massive gaps between what you think and what the professor says)
Professors are confusing, and the Socratic method takes some time to figure out. But if you are consistently failing to pick up the thread of the class, or if your reading notes rarely match your professor’s takeaway, you might want to look for some support.
Where can you go? Step one is office hours. Talk to your professor! Find out more about their approach to the material and see if you can figure out how to make class sessions more productive for you. If the issue is systemic, though, office hours probably won’t offer as much help as you need. So I once again suggest turning to a friend in class (keeping in mind that they might be as confused as you are, but less willing to admit it), a TA, a tutor, and/or your academic support office (always try the supports at your law school first). You can also take a look at supplements. Not to replace reading or lectures, but to give you a better structure for understanding the material so that you will be better placed to figure out what your professor wants to tell you.
Your Outlines are a Summary Without Synthesis (or you don’t know where to start)
This is a tricky one to identify. But I look back at my first-year outlines, and they were terrible. It all ended up okay, but, seriously, all I did was shorten my class notes and put them in outline form. This is…not what we mean when we suggest outlining. Your outlines should be a synthesis project that helps you go from “the professor told me this” to “I know how this rule can be applied on an exam.”
Where should you turn? Well, the same resources mentioned above, but with a few cautions. First, supplements, friends, and TAs. If you get an outline from any of these sources, treat it as reference material, not as a final product. Core classes are taught differently by different professors. Even the same professor might teach it differently each semester. So the information in a past outline might not be strictly correct for your class. There are also as many ways to outline as there are ways to teach a core class. Basically, the multi-colored flow chart that helps your friend might baffle you. Second, while they can help you find a way forward, don’t expect your tutor or academic support specialist to outline for you. Half the point of the outline isn’t to end up with a study document, it’s to learn the material while you create a study document. So, once again, identifying the problem and addressing it early will be key to proceeding as effectively as possible.
You are Halfway to Your First Exam and You Haven’t Written Any Practice (or you don’t know how to evaluate)
We talk about it repeatedly on our site, but practice is key. Law school exams don’t resemble the exams of any other program I’ve ever been in, and knowing how to use exam time effectively is not intuitive. If you can’t find time to practice, if you don’t know how to practice, or if you’ve been practicing and have no clue how to figure out whether you did a reasonable job, you might want to reach for some help.
Where do you go? The only resource I’ll add to the recommendations above is your law library, which might have banks of past exams available. Just a word of warning. Don’t expect your professor to review your practice essays. Some will offer, but most will not have time to do this. You can absolutely ask! But be prepared with a backup plan if they say no.
There’s no shame in asking for help. Just like we don’t expect a person go off the high-dive the first time they go swimming, we shouldn’t expect a brand-new law student to know exactly what to do without any support. Pay attention to signs you might be struggling, and identify people who can help you find your way through successfully.
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