Every law student wants to be at the top of the class. Good grades and high class rank can yield significant rewards, like law review membership, better odds of passing the bar exam, and more desirable employment options. How do some students get to this enviable position? What can you do to be one of them?
Choose the right law school
Consider these two strategies: (1) attend the best school you can, or (2) attend a school where you’re likely to be one of the best students. For most students who attend a T14 school, it’s not essential to be at the top of the class. Many employers would prefer to hire a student in the bottom half of the class at, say, Harvard than a higher ranked student from a third tier school. In general, the more prestigious the law school, the less important your GPA. Some top schools even use a pass/fail grading system that deemphasizes differentiation among students.
At less prestigious schools, GPA is extremely important. Because undergraduate GPA and LSAT score correlate with law school GPA, some students enter law school with an advantage. If your credentials are on the high end for your school — perhaps you’ve received a merit scholarship — you have the potential to do very well. But potential is not a guarantee. If your credentials are below average for your law school – perhaps you were admitted through an alternate path, such as a trial admission program, due to your weak GPA or LSAT score – be prepared to work extra hard. Many students overcome their weaknesses and excel. You can’t undo your college GPA or LSAT, but you can take control of your legal education.
Regardless of where you fall on the continuum of law school prestige and incoming credentials, here are steps you can take.
Manage time effectively
The single greatest cause of academic difficulty in law school is poor time management. It’s easy to fall behind and may be impossible to catch up. From the outset of the semester, make a plan for managing your time and stick with it. Schedule consistent weekly time for class preparation, reviewing notes, and outlining. Stay on track and avoid cramming for finals.
Go to office hours
Use office hours to clarify concepts you didn’t understand in class, ask follow-up questions, and get to know your professors. One of my students recently told me that after her disappointing performance when called on in class, she went to her professor’s office hours to discuss the material. She improved her understanding, made a positive impression on her professor, and gained confidence for future class participation.
Take advantage of academic success programs
Academic support is not just for struggling students – it can make any student more effective. Many academic support departments offer programs and workshops available to all students on topics such as note taking, time management, outlining, and study skills. The audience for such events often seems to consist of students who don’t “need” support; these savvy students take advantage of all resources offered.
Use supplements wisely
Supplements, such as commercial outlines and summaries of the law, can help you organize material logically, especially if your professor is not well organized or you’re having trouble seeing the “big picture.” They can also help you get to the heart of a confusing case quickly and efficiently. But top students know that supplements are no substitute for creating their own outlines and personally synthesizing challenging material.
Create useful outlines
Understand the purpose, process, and product of outlining. The purpose is to help you learn the law and do well on final exams. The process requires synthesizing information from your casebook, class notes, and other sources, like treatises or supplements. The product must be concise and usable, not overwhelming and unwieldy. Good students conquer the outlining process; they’re not crushed by it.
Do practice exams
The only path to good grades in law school is to do well on final exams, and the best way to do well is to practice. If your professor releases old exams, locate these early in the semester to get a sense of what to expect. Pay attention to format, which may be multiple choice, short answer, or traditional issue spotter. Does your professor favor IRAC or something else? Do the questions expect you to play a role, such as prosecutor or law clerk? Are policy arguments required? If you know what to expect, you can study and practice accordingly. If your professor has not released past exams, look for exams from other professors at your law school, or use released bar questions. The most important thing is to practice writing thoughtful, complete legal analyses within a time limit.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Seven Things Law Students Need to Stop Doing Immediately
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