If I had to choose one characteristic that I think would separate out the 1Ls who will do well in school versus those who won’t, it would have to be a self-starter attitude.
What do I mean by this? Well, law students who are self-starters take it upon themselves to learn. They don’t look at “studying” in terms of hours put in, they look at their understanding of the material and how well they get what’s going on in lecture—how well they can answer practice problems. They’re not looking for someone else to do the work for them, they do the work themselves. Take these two hypothetical students for example, and tell me which one you think will get the better grades:
Student A does the reading and goes to class, she may even brief every case, but she doesn’t take extra time to understand each assignment in the context of the course as a whole. She thinks doing all the readings and going to class is enough to get good grades. She turns in practice hypos if they are assigned but is otherwise more consumed with other tasks that she thinks are more important, such as reading each case (sometimes multiple times) and memorizing factual minutiae about each one. She complains that her professor doesn’t explain the material well enough, or that he is notoriously difficult, instead of teaching the material to herself. She thinks her whole class is lost and confused like she is and doesn’t realize there are plenty of people who are doing extra work and that these people will probably end up filling out the top of the curve when exam grades come out.
Student B also does the reading and goes to class, but she then reviews her class notes after each lecture and takes it upon herself to clarify anything that she doesn’t understand (either by talking to the professor, going back to the readings, looking at supplements, or all of the above). She tries to figure out the reason she was assigned each case by asking herself what it means in the big picture for the subject she is learning. She writes the available practice hypos and then looks for more. She doesn’t wait until the end of the semester to start memorizing and writing.
With each hypo she writes, she tries to understand how what she is learning could come up on a final exam so she can practice struggling through the material in a way that will prepare her for the test. If her professor doesn’t explain the law in class, she looks up the confusing cases in supplements, she talks to her classmates and compares ideas, and goes to the professor as a tie-breaker after already grappling with the issue herself. Throughout the semester, she practice writing out hypos on each issue that could possibly come up on the exam multiple times so there will be no surprises, and for that reason, she probably does pretty well.
As you’ve probably surmised, Student B is probably more likely to get the better grades. What is interesting, though, is that neither of these examples above is a “bad student.” Both are highly motivated, intelligent people. Student B just does a better job of seeing the big picture and focusing on results rather than just the process.
If you want to be more like Student B and get on track to doing well in your first semester of law school, try out the following:
Realize now that no one is going to do the work for you.
This isn’t undergrad. One of the biggest challenges of law school is that there are no rough drafts (no assignments to gauge your performance before the final), and your professor doesn’t care who you are when grading your exam (most grading is anonymous). What this means is that you won’t necessarily know whether you’re getting it unless you take the initiative and ask someone who can tell. Hint: this probably doesn’t mean your classmates. Also, no amount of impressive argument skills or preparedness in class is going to be enough to save a bombed exam. You won’t get any special treatment and the exam you turn in will have to speak for itself.
What to do: Go to office hours to make sure you understood the take-away point from each case. Imagine how that point could be tested on an exam. Actually sit there and think of possible exam scenarios to test the different elements of the law you’re learning. Try a practice exam that tests on those concept. Understand that this is all about you, and there aren’t any shortcuts.
Understand the importance of quality over quantity.
Law students love to talk about how much time they spend studying. One of my favorite questions from new law students is how many hours they should spend studying, or how many pages a hypo write up should be. Well, you should study the material until you feel confident you understand it. And, your write-up should be no longer than necessary to convey the required analysis. Are these answers satisfying or particularly helpful? No, of course not! But hey, that’s law school, you won’t get any better responses from your professors. And, these circular answers point you toward what is important here: you decide how much is enough. You are in charge of what it takes for you personally to learn the material. No one can understand it for you, and everyone is different.
What to do: A good rule of thumb is that you should, from the beginning of the semester, be setting aside exam study time that is separate and distinct from the time it takes just to prepare for lecture. Exam study is different than preparing for class. Exam study includes things like de-briefing your lecture notes, going to office hours, memorizing legal rules, and practicing writing hypos. Going into your finals, you should be able to rattle off the black letter law rules you learned for each concept covered in your class. Whether your final is open or closed book, you should be able to do this from memory (why? So you can write your exam faster). You should practice writing hypos on each of these concepts if you have essay exams. The more hypos, the better, and if you crash and burn on anything the first time, rewrite it, and then write another until you feel comfortable and quick with the process and your analysis. We constantly see very high correlations between the students who write a lot of practice (early and often) and the students who are happy with their exam grades.
Keep zooming out to the big picture.
The vast majority of well-intentioned law students who end up doing poorly their first semester actually tried really hard, but probably just focused on the wrong things. This can be scary and confusing as a law student because throughout the semester, you probably felt you were doing pretty well and then your exam grades told another story. Why does this happen? It’s easy to think that if you do all the readings, brief every case, go to every lecture, and memorize the material that you will get the grades you want. Why wouldn’t you? No one ever tells you any different. Well, because there is a lot more to it than that. You not only have to know all the law you’re learning, you need to know the right pieces of it, and you need to be able to analyze new factual situations which touch on that law. On top of all that, you need to do this analysis faster and better than the majority of the other people in your class if you want to get the grades at the top. How can you do this? Keep your eye on the prize and practice, practice, practice.
What to do: The point of each case is not just to facilitate class discussion (although, that’s part of it). You need to find the one (or sometimes more than one) kernels of important black letter law in each case you read. You should be thinking about your final exam at every turn. What sorts of facts raise this type of legal issue? How could the law from this case be tested? Can I find examples from past exams that I can practice on? Try to learn each area of law on your syllabus as you go. Once lectures move onto a new topic, make sure you’re working on boiling down, memorizing, and practicing the preceding ones.
Get help if you think you might be lost.
Law school is a tough game to catch onto, but inevitably, it is the students who figure out the game the earliest who end up earning the best grades. If you feel like you’re doing a lot of work but still not seeing the forest for the trees, or if you have a hard time winnowing out the key points from the excess details, ask an upperclassman who has done well. Go to the academic support office on campus if your school has one. Talk to your professor in office hours. Find a tutor who can guide you.
What to do: No handholding doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel or struggle on your own without knowing which way is up! This is a surefire way to waste valuable time during the semester. There’s no shame in getting help with figuring out how to play the law school game.
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Other helpful pre-1L posts:
- Pre-1L Summer Checklist
- The People You Will Meet in Law School
- All The Supplies You Need to Start Law School Right
- How to Think Like a Successful Law Student
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