Review, connect, and practice: three words that summarize what we consider the keys to success in law school. They work hand in hand – each step reinforces the others, ultimately creating a solid understanding of the building blocks, the big picture, and the application to different scenarios.
Review For Understanding
Class notes: I make a habit of reviewing my notes from every class on the same day. This allows me to highlight the key takeaways, add comments or context that I did not initially record, clarify words hand-written hastily, and reorganize the content in a logical manner. I make note of any points of confusion and questions so that I can follow up with a classmate or the professor. At the end of the week, I again review these notes to start compiling my outline for the class. After attending multiple classes in the week, I am able to distill my notes, experiment with formats that best present the concepts and their relations, and identify common themes.
Past student outlines: When they are available, I reference past student outlines from the same course and professor, ideally those that are recent. There is usually substantial overlap between the content from these outlines and my notes, but sometimes I find different ways of phrasing or framing the same idea, additional arguments and examples, or the professor’s thoughts – all of which greatly strengthen my comprehension.
Make Connections Between Concepts
Connecting the concepts: After getting clarity on individual pieces, the next step is to see how the puzzle comes together. There are different types of relationships possibly at play. Below are some examples.
- Order: In certain legal topics like contracts and civil procedure, timing matters. It is critical to understand when an action must be undertaken or a requirement must be met.
- Contingency: As you may recall from the LSAT, the “if… then” statement and its variations show up quite often in legal doctrine. Sometimes there are multiple if’s, or exceptions, or exceptions to the exceptions. These conditions can get complicated, so it’s important to sort them out early.
- Elements: When it comes to a criminal charge or a civil cause of action, there are often multiple elements that the prosecution or plaintiff must prove. They don’t have to be shown in a particular order, but must all be supported by the evidence. There are often sub-elements or factors as well.
Representing relationships: These are the types of formatting you can use to show the connections:
- Flowcharts can show the chronology for procedural requirements or the events in a case.
- Decision trees allow you to map out the conditions that trigger obligations or consequences, creating multiple “branches” that lead to different outcomes.
- Tables can represent the similarities and differences between concepts. They are also great for noting arguments and responses the disputing parties will make.
Practice To Make Perfect
Understanding is improved by practice. In the law, it means applying concepts to hypothetical situations, real life cases, and grey areas, just like practicing attorneys do every day.
Practice exams: Your professor’s past exams are very helpful tools for practice. By taking them under conditions as close as possible to the real exam, you can test your knowledge under time pressure and amidst possible distractions. Reviewing your responses and comparing them to the model answers or exam memoranda, you will see where more elaboration or argumentation is needed. You will also realize gaps in your understanding just by virtue of noting when you slow down and need to look up the doctrine during the practice exam.
Practice problems: When you exhaust your professor’s materials, a good place to turn are practice problems. You can find them online, in supplemental materials like the Examples and Explanations Series, or from your school library. These practice problems, like exam questions, come in different types including short answer, long issue spotters, policy questions, and multiple choice. As you practice more and more on the question types you will likely see on the exam, you will get better at identifying issues, presenting all the plausible arguments, and organizing your exam paper in a logical and eloquent way.
Writing out problems: For an added challenge, and a way to understand how issues are triggered, creating practice problems is a great idea. Just in formulating the problem and providing its premise, you will be forced to think about the possible outcomes depending on the facts and circumstances. One of my 1L professors had students submit self-written problems, and I found them very helpful in my exam preparation.
Variations on cases: Another great to practice applying the law is brainstorming hypotheticals spun off from real cases. You may already have encountered this in class – the professor questioning “Let’s say in the case [this] happens instead, what result?” Similarly, you can change the facts, the order of events, the identity of parties, and determine if the outcome stays the same.
Review, connect, and practice is easier said than done, but once you get the ball rolling, I am confident you will find this approach effective.
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