What is the most effective way to study in law school?
May 25, 2014 12:01 AM   Subscribe

I've been given lots of conflicting advice about how one should approach the study of law. While I know the hoary old advice that one should do whatever works best for oneself holds true, I hope that the collective wisdom of former law students has more insight to offer than that!

So I've heard that briefing cases is useless, but I've tried the 'LEEWS' method of reducing each case to a single legal premise to limited success (FWIW, my law school is known for its 'theoretical' bent). I've also tried flashcards (primarily using Anki), question-driven notes, etc but I'm still trying to feel my way around. If you have done well in law school using some sort of method/approach to studying law, please do share your tips here! Thank you in advance.
posted by AtavisticApple to Education (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I got mostly As and A-s in law school, on a strict B curve. What got me those grades was more outlining and listening/participating in class than briefing. In fact, I don't think I ever briefed a case after the intro to legal whatever class in the first three weeks of school.

My method:
1) never skip a class ever. I missed half of one labor law class for an interview 2L year, and that's it in three years.
2) prepare for every class by reading the full assigned reading. Don't brief anything. Law school is like the Supreme Court: the professor hands down what the law is, and you follow. It never made any sense to me to swim upstream; apply the law they tell you they're interested in.
3) try to participate every day. Answer a question or ask a question, it doesn't matter. Sit in the front half of the room. You don't have to be an ass to participate in class--being a gunner versus being an engaged learner are different things.
4) Outline each class that same day. Take your class notes and scribbles from the reading and make them a cohesive whole. You'll probably end up re-reading or at least skimming your assignment in full again, even if quickly. At the very least, make sure every class is 100% up to date by each weekend.
5) if you follow 4), you will have a complete outline by reading period, when a lot of people are just starting on their outlines. Spend the reading period actually reading and thinking, not writing. I tended to read each of my outlines over and over, making hand annotations as I synthesized things or read other outlines.
6) take as many practice exams as you can. I often found practice exams from other schools to try, particularly if your professor is visiting from somewhere else.

I've always felt like the briefing rubrics are crutches for people who (understandably) want a something tangible and easy to hold on to. But I think nothing (short of being a certified genius, of which my school had four my year, all of whom went on to clerk for the Supreme Court, I believe) succeeds in law school like consistent daily toils. It's not fun, and I personally hated law school more than anything in my life, but the rest of my legal career will always be easier for graduating from a good school with high honors. It's just an investment in your future.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:25 AM on May 25, 2014 [11 favorites]

AH has it totally right. I did really well by doing ALL the reading, never skipping class, and participating at least a little every day.

I'll add that in code based classes like civ pro and evidence and UCC stuff, a shocking number if students never actually read the code. You can't get by just on cases in those classes. Read the code AND the commentary between sections. So many exam questions are answered by a close reading of the code and/or commentary. It's like free points that everyone else is missing!
posted by ohio at 2:22 AM on May 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Psychologists have found that learning is much enhanced if you study while you walk on a treadmill. See, for example: "More on the Synergy of Walking and Learning". I'm not in school anymore, but if I were, I would definitely try this.
posted by alex1965 at 3:51 AM on May 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I used the same basic method as A.H. and got good grades at Michigan. I also used secondary sources, most the examples and explanations books, for a few classes that were particularly difficult such as commercial transactions.
posted by Area Man at 4:41 AM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

What AH and others are saying. For me, repetition and getting information into my head in different forms helps. So first do the reading, slowly and thoroughly, marking up and underlying or taking notes or whatever helps you retain information. Then go to class and listen/participate, as that is how you learn the issues and analysis that the professor takes from the material and believes is important. Then outline it in your own words -- that's the essential step for me, because that's the part that cements and confirms the information and helped translate it from the professor's thinking to my own internalized understanding. Best of luck to you.
posted by Cocodrillo at 4:53 AM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

LEEWS made my grades jump and i still wish i had done it for the first semester. figure out whatever makes you focus in class and do that, but when it comes time for exam prep, get the professors' old final exams or midterms and drill them until you can write a great answer within time constraints. if there are no old exams buy a commercial outline and do all the practice questions. the way to get good grades is to kill your exams, not to have every detail memorized from flashcards. figure out what the professor is looking for, then train yourself to give it back to them on the exam as quickly / succintly as possible.

case briefing is largely a waste of time, except perhaps in your first couple of months of school.

think of this whole thing as one vocabulary lesson which is basically what it is.
posted by zdravo at 5:15 AM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I briefed everything--the whole way through. That helped me learn the law--not for grades but for the practice. To get good grades, do practice tests over and over again. Also it depends on how you learn. If you're more of a math person, use any of the systems that get you to memorize the main holding. What briefing does is teach you how to look at a fact pattern as much as memorize the law. If you remember every case but you didn't read the fact pattern in the exam to catch the tricks they put in there to make it a less than straightforward answer, you won't do as well as you could of.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:13 AM on May 25, 2014

The advice is conflicting for a good reason: it depends on how you learn. Beyond that, assuming you know the law and whatever else you need to know, it really depends on how you write exams. And that, in turn, depends on how your professors grade, which may vary from professor to professor.

So, there's lots of good advice here and will be more, but what I will add is that you should talk to your professors and find out how they grade exams. Then prepare with that in mind.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:46 AM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

All the above ... But also hook up socially with some 2Ls who graded on to Law Review and get real guidance. 1Ls love to tell each other stories but really don't know anything.
posted by MattD at 7:12 AM on May 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

The best book on this subject I've found is Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. It is the best one I've found because it goes over the illusions you have of learning. These illusions are:

1. Rereading texts will give you the illusion of having mastered them (fluency) but not the ability to recall them when you need to. To recall them when you need to, you should use recall. This will give you the impression that you haven't learned anything, but in actuality it will work better.

2. Massed practice will give you the illusion of having mastery, and will actually give you mastery for a short time, but you will forget it faster also. You will not like spaced repetition and you will have the distinct sense that it's not doing anything for you, but it will work better.

3. Going through concepts one at a time and mastering each one before going onto the next will give you the impression that you have mastery. This is not the case. Frequent variation on what you study will help you with overlapping, jumbled recall like in real life and in lots of tests.

I recommend reading the book for an explication of why each of these things are true, but those are the big counter-intuitive findings.
posted by curuinor at 10:17 AM on May 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

As others have suggested, exam technique is very important in law school, more so than in college. I strongly recommend Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams. Good luck!
posted by caoimhe at 11:19 AM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

The advice is conflicting for a good reason: it depends on how you learn.


I did well in law school, but I'm not a classroom learner. Unlike the other posters, I went to maybe 1/4 (or less?) of my classes; I didn't do the reading as it was assigned; I didn't have a study group. Generally, I'd try all that for the first few weeks, then it just was too boring and I'd ignore the classes/assignments until finals came around. The week before finals, I'd take 2-ish days per class and just read all of the assigned reading, generally using color-coded highlighting (orange=issue, pink=holding, etc), and sometimes making an outline. Usually my outline would be more along the lines of "for discussion of 'contributory negligence' see pg 250." I mean, the exams are open book, so no reason to re-type the book into your notes, IMO. I also bought the hornbooks for my 1L/basic classes. In 2L/3L, the journal I was on had an outline repository, so I used that as well.

What definitely makes a difference in your grade is knowing how to write an exam. You need to be concise, but complete. Look at practice exams from your professor (if available). Outline your exam before writing.

You need to figure out how you learn best, then leverage that. Don't get bogged down by what others are doing. Class doesn't work for me. I would have wasted soooo many hours of my life if I actually attended class. But for others, class is essential. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Edit: Oh, and I agree that in a statutory class (civ pro, bankruptcy, tax), you can get an A- by using just the code and ignoring 99% of the other material (but not vice versa). Perhaps this is why I ended up going into tax law.....
posted by melissasaurus at 11:28 AM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was going to say LEEWS is worth absolutely every penny, and you need to pour over a bunch of old exam questions -- but I see @zdravo has already beaten me to the punch.
posted by hush at 2:55 PM on May 25, 2014

I strongly recommend Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams.

I agree. I remember one of my classmates telling me he had read that book in the summer before 1L year. I read it in the middle of law school and wish I had read it earlier. My classmate who read it before law school transferred to a top-6 law school after 1L year.

I rarely found it very helpful to write up a whole "brief" on a case. Early in your 1L year, it's worth doing this just to be able to do it. But I didn't find it to be the best use of my time. Briefing cases is what I'd do if my whole goal were to do well with the Socratic method, but that's not the most important thing — getting good grades on the exams is the most important thing. The classes where I tried to study from my own case briefs tended to be classes where I didn't do as well. I tended to get better grades when I did this:

— Read everything before class, underlining key points and writing in the margins to make the main points stand out, at least so I'll be able to survive the Socratic method (e.g. a big letter "R" next to the "Rule" of the case, "π" or "∆" next to the part where it explains who the parties are).

— Go to every class (of course), pay attention (of course), take rigorous notes on a laptop, and back them up regularly. The notes from a given class all go in one document; don't start a different document for a different day or unit of the course. I know some people say don't take a lot of notes — it's too distracting. I totally disagree: the more notes I take, the more I focus on what the prof is saying. The less notes I take, the more I let my mind wander and trick myself that "oh, I think I'm getting the gist of this" when I'm really not. I didn't worry about writing some stuff that ended up not mattering. If I spent 10 minutes writing down a bunch of stuff the prof was saying that I later realized was a pointless tangent, I'd take 1 second to shrink it to a tiny font to let myself know I probably didn't need to focus on it when studying for finals. (Take advantage of the magic of computers!) Conversely, I'd watch for the prof to get particularly emphatic about a certain point as if s/he wanted to be extra clear we understood it — then I'd put a symbol (like ***) so I could see later on: make sure to understand this when you're studying for finals.

— In the days leading up to finals, I'd take my document called "Contracts Notes" (for instance), then "save as" a document renamed "Contracts Outline." Then I'd go through that and distill everything to the main points, taking my raw notes and putting it in the form of numbered lists (with the format that goes "1, 1.1, 1.2, 1.1.1, 1.1.2, etc."). So I could easily eyeball the document and tell whether I was looking at "notes" or "outline" based on whether it was numbered. I'd also use hornbooks and other students' outlines from past semesters as supplements. My goal was to finish my own outline significantly before the exam, then print it and study from that. The process of creating the outline was the most important thing, so I didn't just rely on other people's outlines. So while the first comment is correct that you could get this started earlier in the year, there's actually an upside to waiting until finals studying period.

You say your law school is "theoretical." I thought my law school, Cornell, was pretty theoretical too. And I can remember one question on one exam — out of all three years of law school — that asked for a purely theoretical answer. Remember, you're in law school, not philosophy school — they're required to test you on actual rules of law. No matter how passionate your professor is about theory, your focus should be on black-letter rules.

I never tried color-coding or flash cards, and I avoided flow charts. I instinctively avoided these things because that's just not how I learn. To me, the law is fundamentally not a visual topic, so trying to make the law visual is as arbitrary as trying to make the law musical. It isn't, and introducing arbitrary elements would burden me with a bunch of unnecessary stuff to worry about. You already have way too much stuff to worry about; be ruthless about cutting that stuff down into the simplest possible form. But what's simple for you might seem unwieldy to someone else, and vice versa. Do what works for you, not what you think you're expected to do.
posted by John Cohen at 3:18 PM on May 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thirding "Getting to Maybe" because it cracks open the black box that is law exam grading.
posted by ajr at 5:51 PM on May 25, 2014

I would like to second the suggestion by others that you read Getting to Maybe.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:49 AM on May 26, 2014

I would nth Getting to Maybe for a good explanation of the thinking behind law school exam questions. But the two most important things you can do are (1) stay engaged in your classes (do the reading, take notes, etc.) and (2) look at your professors' old exams.

Beyond that, my main tip is to make smaller, condensed outlines (checklists, basically) that you can easily refer to during the exam itself, because you do not want to be flipping through your 50-page civ pro outline just to find the basic requirements for diversity jurisdiction. That's assuming your exams are all open-book and open-notes; closed-book exams are not something I had to deal with until the bar, so I don't have any practical advice to offer there.
posted by Carmelita Spats at 8:42 AM on May 26, 2014

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