Law school can be a shock to the system because it requires us to learn, write, and take exams in different ways than many of us have ever done before.
I was an Organizational Psychology and Media Studies major in college. I spent the last two years of college writing papers and completing projects. Sure, I had a few in-class exams, but they were typically essay exams, which were heavy on the thought and light on the memorization. Memorizing meant understanding the material, not reciting it word for word. (So studying was simply reviewing my notes before an exam.) After undergrad, I worked in public relations and then was a consultant. I spent a ton of my day writing. And my supervisors and clients thought I was good at it. So law school exams should have been a breeze, right?
Well, what I wasn’t exactly prepared for was that law school required some different academic skills than I had gained throughout undergrad. Specifically, I was required to memorize a lot of material in a short amount of time.
And by memorize, it wasn’t just that I had to understand the material — I actually had to regurgitate it using key words and terms of art. I had never done that before!
Come exam time, although I felt that I knew the law pretty well as far as understanding it, it wasn’t until my mom (who is an attorney) started quizzing me over the dinner table about two weeks before final exams that I realized, “Ouch — I actually have to memorize this stuff word for word.”
Now luckily, I can memorize fairly quickly. But I spent most of that final exam period just memorizing law and not practicing as much as I should have. My mistake (and not one that I repeated).
So, what can you learn from my experience to help set yourself up for success in law school?
Realize that you are going to need to memorize material from the beginning.
Most people memorize by seeing something over and over again. So don’t just listen to a lecture about a topic, review some law, and then move on. You want to make sure you review it a few times, perhaps put it in an outline (more about that later), and even do practice questions in which you write out the rule.
Or maybe you love flashcards. (I hate them, but Alison loves them — no judgment.) Then you should be making flashcards from the beginning and actually reviewing them. If you memorize and learn the law throughout the semester, that frees up final exam time for practice and substantive understanding of the law. And students who study this way not only feel better prepared, they typically end up with better grades.
“But, Lee, I hear my school has open book exams, so I don’t need to memorize anything.”
False. Open book exams lull you into a false sense of security. You may think you don’t need to know the law, but you actually do! Because if you spend all your time looking things up during the exam, you will fall behind and not do very well on the exam.
Open book exams are nice, but they really should be treated the same as closed book exams. If you know the law in your head, it is likely you will understand it better and will be better able to work through the question faster (which typically means more time to write analysis, which in turn leads to higher scores). And who doesn’t want higher exam scores?
And, you must learn to memorize, because the bar exam is NOT open book.
If you don’t know this already, the bar exam (that huge licensing test you will take after you graduate) consists of multiple days of closed book exams. To prepare, you are going to need to memorize massive amounts of information. And do you know what information will be on that test? The classes you take in your first year. So pay attention and memorize the law now! It will make the bar exam easier down the road.
Before entering law school, think about how you learn and memorize. What worked for you in the past? What do you want to try out during your 1L year?
We all learn differently and you know best how you have learned information in the past. So, ask yourself what worked then and what do you want to try now. Interestingly, some of my friends who were science majors in undergrad did really well during the first year of law school. Why? Because they knew how to memorize large amounts of information (as that was part of what they did in undergrad).
The past can help you figure out how to be successful in law school. But don’t be afraid to experiment in the beginning to find out what works best for you.
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Here are some other helpful posts:
- Lessons from My 1L Year: You Don’t Have to Live in the Law Library
- Is Handwriting Notes a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?
- Go See Your Professors – They Are There for You!
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