One of the first “law school-isms” that you hear is that a law school semester is “a marathon, not a sprint. ” It’s supposed to be an encouraging message—that there’s a long road ahead but there’s time to work your way to the front of the pack. If you just keep running, you’ll make it to the end. But don’t people spend months training for marathons? You can’t really just show up, out of shape and hope to win the race—or even come close to winning without hurting yourself.
If we’re being honest, a law school semester is like a marathon—one you haven’t trained for at all. When you’re set to become the first lawyer in your family or community, it can feel like you’re even more out of shape than everyone else. But as you start your first race, there are things you can do along the way to make sure you make it to the end in one piece!
Everything won’t work for everyone, but as you’re taking your first strides consider these tips as different strategies you should try when you start to lose your breath. OK, maybe I stretched the metaphor a bit for that last part. But read on for ways to be prepared and successful in class and on the path towards having a successful exam period as well!
1. Get Organized.
The most important thing you can do at the start of a semester is to make a plan. Map out your class schedule, and then designate time for reading for class. Most law students read for class throughout the week, reading for each class one or nights ahead. But for some law students, reading ahead on the weekends and then reviewing each day before class works best.
Whatever strategy you choose to implement, decide ahead of time how you will spend your time. Whether you prefer a traditional planner or a Google calendar, have a place where you can go to keep track of your responsibilities and deadlines. (Here’s a look at organizational tools that might help you with your planning!) Revisit your plan frequently to adjust for what you’ve actually accomplished and other events or obligations that come up. The way I look at it, there is enough time to be a law student and still be a person with a family, friends, hobbies and interests. The best way to have it all is by having a plan that you actually stick to.
2. Read. No Seriously, Read!
It might seem comical that yet another person is suggesting the most obvious thing to do. But you’d be surprised at how many law students do not read every case and every note. It is possible to get by in law school without reading everything that’s assigned, but there really isn’t any other way to excel. Reading cases closely and contemplating the questions posed in the notes are ways to prepare yourself for meaningful class participation. But not only do you prepare yourself for class, but you also prepare yourself for the kind of analysis required on exams and legal writing.
Here’s more detailed advice on how to read and brief cases for class (and some other great advice!).
3. Put the “Supplemental” Back in Supplemental Materials.
Sometimes when time is running low or there’s a case that’s too many pages, we can be tempted to replace our casebook with materials that should be supplemental. Quimbee, Lexis Headnotes, and other online case summaries take a lot less time to read and understand than the actual cases. But reading those summaries instead of reading cases also replaces the necessary time spent building up a necessary skill for lawyering. Lawyers have to know how to read and synthesize the law and it starts with preparing for class. I suggest saving these supplementary materials for review after you’ve already taken the time to read and understand on your own. They can be helpful once you’ve tried and failed to understand a case or concept, but keep these materials as a last resort. There is no substitute to reading the textbook and doing the work on your own.
4. Make the Most of Class Time.
This is another tip that might seem obvious, but here it is: Pay attention in class. Everyone’s afraid of being cold-called in law school, and that’s one motivator to be prepared for class. But what about when you’re not the poor soul who has to recite the facts and holding of the case at hand? While you’re sighing out of relief, be sure to listen and take notes about the conversation happening in class. Did the student who was called on get it right? Do you have the same holding that the professor accepted as true? Write down any discrepancies between the class conversation and what you understood when you read the case on your own so you can check it later. Class time is important for your own understanding not only because you get to ask questions, but you get to think about the questions presented by your professor and contribute meaningfully to the discussion as well. Your professors are trying to help you understand the cases and theories; take advantage of it! This is all part of the learning process and you should see class time as integral to helping you prepare for those final exams!
5. Know Your Professors.
Depending on your class size, this can seem like a daunting task. But knowing your professors doesn’t necessarily mean becoming their best friend. Knowing your professor means understanding your professor’s interests, line of thinking and legal philosophy. If you get to know that by going to office hours once a week, that’s amazing! But more realistically, you can get this information by paying close attention to the questions they pose to the class. You can start to note patterns in the way that they ask those questions or form hypotheticals. You can draw thematic connections between the way they answered questions on one topic and another. While this may seem like useless mind games, it’s actually a useful insight into how the professor may ask questions on their exams. At the end of the day, professors are just people too. Chances are, the way they communicate in the class room correlates with what they will want you to communicate on the exam.
6. Outline, Outline, Outline.
For many law students, outlining is the one unique thing they’ve never heard about before law school. And then all of a sudden, upperclassmen start offering outlines for the classes you’re taking. That makes it really easy to either not outline at all or wait until the finals reading period to begin outlining. It’s best to avoid both of those options.
Instead, include time in your plan weekly for each class to review your notes and to outline what you’ve learned so far. I like to fully outline once we’ve completed a chapter in class to that I can synthesize what I’ve learned. For me, outlining is where a lot of learning happens. That’s when I have the opportunity to recognize trends and themes in the cases and figure out exactly why each case was included in the casebook. One of my first professors told me that every case is included for its own unique reason—it’s not there to demonstrate the same principle as the case prior— and I’ve taken that to heart. Once you find the reason for each case and outline it, you truly begin to understand the law. There’s simply not enough time at the end of the semester to cram a meaningful outlining process in. So as soon as you’ve finished a concept in class, start outlining. And keep adding to your outlines each week. By the end of the semester, you will not only have an outline, but a deeper understanding of the course.
For a more in-depth look at outlining check out this online resource!
7. The Infamous Study Group— Consider Joining One.
When I came to law school, I remembered the scene in Legally Blonde where no one would let Elle Woods into their study group. Luckily for me, the culture of my school wasn’t as cliquish and exclusive. I took advantage of the openness and posted in the 1L Facebook group that I was looking for people to study with, and people actually responded. We weren’t necessarily all friends beforehand, but we were all interested in trying to tackle this law school thing together. Honestly, this was one of the most important things that I did in my first year.
It wasn’t just important because I met people who I now consider my best friends, but it was an important part of my learning process. By meeting with a group of several other 1Ls once a week to discuss what we had learned in class and attempt practice problems together, we were all able to be better law students. Five minds are better than one. Chances were, between all of us, we could solve any problem, explain any case, and understand any rule. Because we had the benefit of all our understandings, we were much better prepared for the exam than we could have ever been on our own.
8. Treat Yo Self!
Maybe by now you’re thinking that there’s too many things that you need to do during a law school semester. You’d be correct. Law school is a lot of work and a lot of stress. But that’s why you also must take steps to take care of yourself. Find the things that bring you joy in life and make time for them weekly. Whether that means going to the gym, watching Grey’s Anatomy, or even cooking yourself a balanced meal—don’t forget to take care of YOU. Perhaps it’s not convincing enough to take care of yourself just because you should. So I’ll also let you in on another secret. Taking care of yourself will make the time you spend working more productive. If you are well rested, well fed, and happy—it will be a lot easier to read 50 pages of a casebook than if you were sleepy, hungry, and sad.
9. Ask Your Questions.
If you’ve tried every tip out there about learning the law and you still can’t figure something out: ASK! First, ask your peers and see if you can talk it out. Sometimes speaking out loud with someone else about a legal issue will lead you to a logical conclusion. But sometimes it won’t. When that fails, ask your professor. Your professors are there to help you, and answering your questions is literally why they have office hours. If you really put in the effort to learn a concept and still come up short, your professors will be happy to help and proud of you for trying and realizing that you were missing something. It takes not only courage to ask questions, but the wherewithal to know what you don’t know.
And when it comes to jobs, internships or anything about the legal profession—ASK! Go to your career counselors, professors, or other attorneys in your law school for guidance. First generation or not, getting advice from people who’ve made it to where they want to be in their career can only help enlighten you as you consider your own path. It can be intimidating when you don’t even know what to ask about, but these people are here specifically to help you. Take advantage of their willingness to answer open ended questions like: Can you please help me figure out what to do with my life? You’d be supposed how much they are willing to do just that!
10. Practice Makes Perfect– Or As Close to Perfect as You Can Be.
When it comes to law school exams, oral arguments, opening statements, legal memos, or even briefs—practice will get you as close to perfect as you can be. (Click here for more on how to practice legal writing!) One of my mentors once told me that being a young lawyer is about trying to be a lawyer every day until you feel like one. You brief what feels like a million cases until you can recognize the holding and rules of a case in less than five minutes. You practice problems and fact patterns until you feel like you can sit down in a timed exam and get it done. At your first internship you’ll write your first real memo and then you get feedback to make the next one better. In a clinic, you’ll do your first argument in front of a judge and learn a million ways to make the next one better.
I say all of this to say that you have the power to get better at law school. And you will. You will if you take the time to do the work and practice the skills as much as you can before you’re tested. That’s what the law school semester is about. A marathon of steady determination, and not a sprint.