Getting your first law school grades can be shocking. And what can be even more confusing is trying to figure out what you did wrong. I mean, you studied a lot, you did your best…why didn’t you get an A?
Mostly, the answer is “the curve,” of course. But there are two fundamental ways that things can go off the rails:
- Problems with the substantive law.
- Problems with structure and formatting.
Otherwise known as:
- Not actually knowing what you’re talking about.
- Not convincing your professor you know what you’re talking about.
Figuring out which category you’re in (and it may be both) is critical, because that’s what’s going to tell you how to improve matters.
So, let’s look at each one more carefully.
Did You Actually Understand the Substantive Law?
The first question to consider — and it’s not a very easy one — is whether you truly understood the substantive law you needed to apply.
Many 1Ls go off course here, because they had all of the law — every single tiny detail — in their outline. (Never mind that “their outline” was an incoherent mishmash of three prior student outlines and a few commercial supplements. It was all in there!)
I’m not asking if the relevant law was somewhere in your outline. I’m asking if YOU actually understood it.
Could you explain the major issues in each course to a lay person without looking at any notes? Did you understand how to apply the law to new problems, in a structured, step-by-step manner?
If not, you need to change your preparation tactics this semester.
Rather than relying on fairly passive “outlining,” force yourself to start applying anything you learn to sample hypos, as soon as you learn it.
Actively using what you’re learning is the only way to ensure that YOU really know what you’re talking about.
Did Your Answer Really Deserve a High Score?
Assume for the sake of argument that you really did know the law. You could identify the relevant rule, you had a process for applying each rule, and you feel like you generally knew what you were talking about.
If this is true, chances are good that your answers just weren’t sufficiently coherent to merit a high score. You failed to demonstrate your knowledge in a compelling way, so what you knew didn’t make it onto the page.
We’ve talked about this before, but law school is training you for a profession.
A large part of being a professional lawyer is the ability to write logically and coherently.
If you’re not writing with standard spelling and grammar, chances are good you’re not presenting a very professional appearance. Ditto for a “brain dump” with no internal organization.
How can you improve the professionalism of your writing and get better law school grades?
- Follow your professor’s instructions. Did your professor ask you to use IRAC? Then use IRAC. Did you professor ask you in the hypo to analyze the claims of three individuals? Be sure to distinctly examine each person’s claims. Why? Because your professor is the one grading your exam. Give them what they want.
- Work through the question logically. Law is a structured thinking process. If A, then B. If not A, then C. Your exam answer needs to clearly lay out your thought process, so your professor can easily understand it (and give you points for it). If your exam answers have no headers, topic sentences, or transitions, get help. This stuff isn’t that hard, but you’re not going to get better at it without structured practice.
- Do not ignore basic grammar and spelling. An occasional typo is no big deal and won’t impact your grade. Completely ignoring all precepts of the English language, on the other had, will negatively impact your grade. Take a quick look at one of your exams. Does the thought of deciphering it make you want to crawl into a hole and die? That’s the same reaction your professor had, which isn’t going to get you an A.
- Think about your audience. Always remember who you’re writing for. Your professor knows the law, and isn’t interested in packaged recitations of a bunch of rules that you’ve blindly copied from an outline (or from memory). They’re interested in your analysis. They want to see you “thinking like a lawyer” (even if it’s early days). Envision yourself in the role of a law clerk or young associate when you think about exam questions. What would the judge want to know when making a decision? How could you most clearly explain the issues? What thoughts do you have about how they should come out? Which ones are hard, and which ones are easy? This is the kind of mindset you should be in to write a professional-quality answer in law school, too.
Law school is tough partly because you don’t get a lot of opportunities to practice before your first exams.
But — now that you’ve taken those first exams — you have a lot more information to work with.
If your grades weren’t the best, seize the chance to learn and improve your performance. Figuring out which category your shortcomings fall into is a critical first step.
Best of luck!
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Unhappy with Your Law School Grades? Get Real!
- Need More Time? Study Smart Before Your Law School Class
- So You Didn’t Get an A: How to Deal with Your First Law School Grades
- Five Steps to Second Semester Success
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