You did it! You’ve survived half a semester, more than a year, or almost all of law school. You’ve found your groove—the perfect combination of reading, note taking, and outlining that works for you. You feel ready to take on anything that law school throws at you with this foolproof method.
I’m here to tell you that your “foolproof” method may not be so foolproof after all. While it may have gotten you an A in Torts, it may not get you an A in Evidence. Blasphemy! I know. But I’m not asking you to reinvent the wheel with each law school course; I’m simply asking you to tweak your foundational approach to meet the demands of each course and professor. Your strong foundation will continue to serve you but getting to the next level will require some fine tuning.
Specifically, there are a few factors that should shape how and whether you tweak your study approach:
What is the primary source of law in this area?
The relevant authoritative source of law will shape your focus while studying.
- If you’re taking a constitutional law or related course, your studying should focus on developing an understanding of the various methods of constitutional interpretation and the way in which they dictate divergent interpretations. This will require an understanding of the historical backdrop of the Constitution; knowledge of constitutional text; and a consideration of the policy ramifications of expanding and contracting constitutional rights.
- Case law. This type of course is the bread and butter of law school—think of contracts and torts. Studying for these courses will begin, but not end, with comprehensive and nuanced case briefs. Once you’ve pulled out the rules of various cases and become comfortable applying the rules to a set of facts, you’ll then want to examine how various cases interact with one another.
- Statutory/Regulatory/Rules-based. In such courses, case law is interstitial—the primary source of authority is the statute, regulation, and/or the rule. It is imperative to be well-versed in these codified laws going into the exam; flashcards or other tools to develop familiarity may be helpful here. However, cases will still be pertinent in applying the law. This is especially true in an exam context, which often focuses on issues implicated by ambiguity in the text.
What does my professor care most about?
Given that your professor will be the one grading your exam, it’s crucial to understand what matters most to them.
- Sophisticated legal analysis. Your professor may spend much of class time focusing on the various ways to frame the holding of a case, how to apply the rule of a case to borderline fact contexts, and how to reconcile potentially contradictory cases. This is often a sign that these skills are highly valued by your professor and that demonstrating excellence on case analysis will be rewarded. Spend extra time flexing these muscles when studying.
- Understanding policy arguments. Many professors will highlight the competing policy considerations embodied in a particular area of law. Perhaps the law in a given area is murky, thus elevating the significance of policy as a swing vote. Or perhaps the development of jurisprudence in this area was heavily driven by policy. It may be beneficial to have an outline specifically for policy issues in a course like this one.
- Engaging with normative questions. Professors may emphasize their view of what the law should look like or push you to formulate your own opinions on areas of legal reform. It is to your advantage to spend time thinking about laws you disagree with for logical, policy, or other reasons. You should then develop your own theory of how you would shape the jurisprudence.
What is the form of assessment in this class?
Some classes will assess your performance on an exam, whereas others will use a paper. Still others will use presentations or group work. Your study approach should correspond with these various forms of assessment.
- Within the universe of exams, there are closed book and open book exams. For any kind of exam, you want to outline the doctrine of the class. For open-book exams, you want to make sure that your outline is digestible enough to be useful for game day. For closed-book exams, you want your outline to be concise enough to commit to memory. Moreover, exams can take one of several formats, most commonly either issue spotters or policy-based short answer questions. The doctrinal outline is most useful for issue spotters; policy-based questions may require a separate outline focusing on the policy themes of the course.
- Papers and other group work. Legal papers require in-depth knowledge about one issue from the course rather than broader knowledge of the entire corpus of law. For such an assessment, you generally don’t need create a doctrinal outline. Instead, the best form of preparation is paying close attention in class to identify the issue that most moves you.
It can certainly be helpful to your study to make sure you’re thinking about the subject and the professor when deciding the best way to approach it. Let us know if you come up with any other study suggestions for particular classes!
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