Help a poor 1L...
August 24, 2006 11:28 AM   Subscribe

Next week I start law school after a three-year hiatus. Any advice for (1) New law school students or (2) Those entering grad school after a break? [more inside]

By the end of undergrad, I was getting a bit burnt out on all the required classes, but I've been looking forward to this for a long time -- ever since I picked up a Lawrence Lessig book my sophomore year of college. But for the first time I'm a little worried about getting back into the swing of things as far as higher education.

(1) I've never had good study habits. I was the type of person who skated through school because I was smart enough to do the work without thinking about it. I had to learn real fast how to fix that problem when I started working in the real world, and I'm not certain that those skills will apply to school as well.

(2) I've already looked through most of these guides, but I'm having some trouble distilling all of it. I would find specific advice from MeFites much more useful.
posted by spiderwire to Education (29 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You sound like me, although I had been out of school for 5 years when I went to law school.

First of all, you can't skate through law school. I managed to get through high school and college rarely cracking a book (or attending classes in college). That won't fly in law school - you need to develop good study habits and attend your classes. On the plus side, though, the competitive nature of law school (combined with the enormous amount of money you are probably dishing out) will likely keep you motivated. Also, be motivated by the fact that grades are really, really important in law school. They can make or break your career. Yeah, it's all a lot of pressure, but it will keep you working.

There will be plenty of other people in your class who are returning to school after some time away. I found that most of the students I attended school with had taken a year off between college and grad school, although there were plenty of exceptions. Three years isn't so much - you won't feel out of place.

Get involved - become a member of student government, join clubs, try out for mock trial, moot court, law review. All of those things will look great on your resume, and put you in groups with a lot of hard workers who will be a good influence on you.
posted by amro at 11:38 AM on August 24, 2006

Also, feel free to email me with any other questions. My answer was just off-the-top-of-my-head stuff.
posted by amro at 11:41 AM on August 24, 2006

Best answer: i teach law school and my best students are those that have done something other than go to school in their lives. that won't be a detriment; for one thing, you have perspective the rest are lacking and should avoid the craziness-from-stress that afflicts all law students.

amro's absolutely right, however. if you don't have good study habits, you'll sink completely. my worst students (and i was one of these law students) are those who have always been smart enough to rise to the top of the class without trying. that skill is simply inapplicable to law school. that's where having been in the professional world helps. like you said "I had to learn real fast how to fix that problem when I started working in the real world."

i'd suggest study groups, even if you always hated them and never benefitted from group projects. it's another way that law school is unlike any other kind of environment you've ever been in. knowing what everyone else is thinking is an enormous advantage.

shoot me an email at gmail if you have any desire to chat about it further.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:48 AM on August 24, 2006

How rigorous was your undergrad program? I have a friend in a top-25 law school right now, who went to a fairly rigourous undergrad program and worked for a few years. He didn't have the best grades (or study habits) in college, but did really well on the LSAT.

Now he's in the top quarter of his class, finds the homework fairly easy, and spends a fair amount of time scoffing at the other law students on his livejournal.

Compared to a rigorous undergrad program, law school's really not that bad, he says. I know others will probably disagree.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:59 AM on August 24, 2006

I should add that he was a philosophy major -- that may have something to do with it.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:59 AM on August 24, 2006

I just started: Oh my god, its so much work.

I'm just coming towards the end of my first week, and so far the 2L's advice of treating it like a 9-5 job no matter the actual time you spend in class has worked for me, except 9-7 is what its been like this week. Although I guess I won't know what actually works until finals...ack. Law school is hard, but everyone's been really nice, I'm not finding that super-competitive atmosphere everyone's heard about, but maybe that's specific to my school.

I'm actually in class now though, so maybe I should pay attention...
posted by wuzandfuzz at 12:04 PM on August 24, 2006

I'm actually in class now though, so maybe I should pay attention...

Oh yes, do not give in to the temptation of screwing around online or IMing or writing email or whatever during class. For god's sake, just disable your wireless card if you can't resist the temptation. You'll find that a) the whole class went by and you have no idea what was said or b) you get called on and make a complete ass of yourself because you didn't hear the question. Plus, it's distracting as hell when everyone around you is online or playing solitaire.

/end rant
posted by amro at 12:08 PM on August 24, 2006

By all means develop the best, most rigorous study habits you can manage. That way when you inevitably stop scrupulously briefing every case and outlining every course -- probably about three quarters of the way through your first semester -- you'll be right where you need to be.

Just keep up with the assignments and go to class and you'll be fine. It's when you fall behind that you get in trouble, particulary during the first semester when you're still trying to figure out the "language" of case law.

Don't compare your study habits to anyone else's. Most of them have no idea what the heck they're doing either, and the rest of them -- the ones with who carry twenty different colored highlighters and have a hundred tabs sticking out the side of their books -- are the ones who'll make you feel like a total screwup.
posted by schoolgirl report at 12:17 PM on August 24, 2006

Best answer: I was in your situation a few years ago. Good luck. You'll get through it.

First year grades - They are extremely important. If you want to go to a firm, they're even more important. First year grades will determine which firms you can apply to/get interviewed by for EIW (Early Interview Week, which is the week where the big firms select their 2L summer associates). First year grades also factor significantly into whether (and which) journal you're on, which can affect your employment options, and also your chances of a clerkship later on (and doing one is a BIG PLUS for your future career). Now, if you don't want to go to a big firm, then grades are not nearly as important, and you may be able to slightly relax on the whole grades thing.

Study groups - Try study groups, but don't stay in them when they're not helpful. I heard that I needed to be in study groups in law school, but I found that there was so much chit chat/other distractions, that I was more efficient on my own. For some of the rare closed book exams I would team up with one other good student and we would quiz each other.

Part of managing law school involves learning the language of the law (new vocabulary, mostly), learning how to decipher cases, and learning what each professor expects. The language of law comes to you via osmosis - you need to do a lot of work until you understand what you read without needing to look things up. You will read tons and tons of cases, and you will develop skills to help you understand them rapidly. I think part of the reason why it's hard to coast through law school is that you need to go through this process. It took me close to a year, and I have always done well in school, and I also have excellent reading comprehension. So put in the time and effort early on this. Eventually you will learn which professors expect you to have memorized the caselaw, and which will never reference the caselaw. By the second year, I was only reading cases for professors who expected memorization - for the rest I would read a Westlaw brief of the case. (Brief-It is the tool.) You will also get lots of copies of former students' outlines. I would sometimes go through an entire course just reading the outlines, rather than the actual cases. And you can use those outlines to build your own outlines at exam time.

The reason I skimped on the work later in law school was because I felt the need to prioritize or be killed by law school, and because I determined that I no longer needed to read entire cases to get the gist of them for purposes of passing my classes/not humiliating myself in classroom discussions. Some classes I was more interested in, and I may have read some of those full cases.

Outlines - you should outline the subjects yourself in preparation for exams, rather than relying completely on outlines prepared by others. It's a helpful tool to have an old outline, but the process of outlining will probably (not definitely) be your main method of studying for exams. (Outlining is a process of distilling the information in the cases you read into one big document that you use to prepare for exams.)

Computers - Most law students bring their laptops to class and take notes on them. It helps with boredom (everyone is playing games/emailing), but I think it hurts comprehension/future exam performance. I alternated between the two methods, and did better when I wrote by hand, and re-typed my notes soon after class into my emerging outline. I noticed many of the hand-writers were doing particularly well in class.

Humiliation/aka socratic method - Depending on your school/professor you may be subjected to the socratic method. At its best, it can be a useful way to get the class actively thinking about the cases, the options etc. At its worst, it is abject humiliation, and I saw several people shake and cry in class. If you have one of these egomaniacal professors, I recommend you work extra hard on their classes, try to relax, volunteer whenever you know something so the chances of your being cold called on are reduced, and remind yourself that eventually you will graduate. (I also found this more common among 1st year professors, so 2nd and 3rd year might be better.)

Clinics - if you have them, take one. Excellent on your resume, often a good GPA boost, and interesting stuff.

If you're a gunner (e.g. you volunteer answers all the time) everyone in your section will hate you. If you care about that, volunteer enough to keep discussions flowing, but don't monopolize class discussions, and keep your personal opinions out of discussions as much as possible.

Exam strategy - and this took me a long time to grasp - Law school exams are not like other writing. Simple is best. Know your material, but write in short sentences, and avoid complex thought. This could be controversial, but I firmly believe it one key to success on law school exams. Also, be extremely organized and clear in your writing. You may make a great point, but it will be lost by your tipsy, rushed professor (or law student assisting, as the case may be), if you don't underline, bullet, bold, use headings, etc. One of the most successful law students I knew came off at completely ditsy, but she worked very hard, and wrote in incredibly simplistic terms/structure on her exams. This goes for bar exam essays too.

I hated the first year, academically. It was the hardest work I had ever done, it was often boring, it was often terrifying (see socratic method) or humiliating, and I often felt that my brain was being closed in, not opened up. (Friends were a different question - I was surprised to find that I liked my fellow students a lot. I sought out the slightly older ones and did just fine.) But second and third year were perfectly enjoyable. I worked hard, and I rarely experienced the bliss of a lazy weekend, but I chose my classes, learned how to slack off a bit, enjoyed my active social life (which I ALWAYS insisted on, even 1st year, for my sanity), worked out a lot, enjoyed the flexibility of a student's life.
posted by Amizu at 12:17 PM on August 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. I wanted to say in response to the wireless thing that I'm trying to work with some people in my section to set up collaborative note-taking with SubEthaEdit.

I felt like that would be a good way to keep focused and on-task. It worked for me very well at the last developer's conference we used it at.
posted by spiderwire at 12:31 PM on August 24, 2006

Best answer: Good advice here.
Take a clinic if you have one available. Treat it like a 9-5 (or 8-7 or whatever works for you) job, which, having a had a job, you should be used to. As someone else mentioned, I alternated between typing notes and writing notes and did better when I wrote. Look at practice exams if your prof offers them. Do your own outlines. I never did study groups, I just found them frustrating. Pay attention to your professor becuase while they might not be teaching you the most important things on a particular subject, they're teaching you what THEY think is the most important thing, and they grade the exams. Go to office hours - you're going to need letters of recommendation someday, and profs are used to this, so pick one whose style you like, or whose subject you find interesting, and make nice.

For con law, get Chemernisky's treatise (or whatever its called). I used it in many classes, and his explanations are great. If you have a hard time with the basics in other classes, get study aides if you need them, but never skimp on the readings. Don't use other people's case summaries.

My best advice, though is: study for exams somewhere where there are no law school students, or just the ones you enjoy being around. They WILL make you crazy, and make you doublt yourself. I studied at our graduate school, and that helped.
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:32 PM on August 24, 2006

Response by poster: Depending on your school/professor you may be subjected to the socratic method. At its best, it can be a useful way to get the class actively thinking about the cases, the options etc. At its worst, it is abject humiliation, and I saw several people shake and cry in class.

This is something that I'm confused about. I don't mind humiliation much, but I am a bit defensive when challenged intellectually. Is the *intent* to humiliate? What are some examples of forms questions like this might take?
posted by spiderwire at 12:38 PM on August 24, 2006

Best answer: Here are my suggestions - FWIW I got great 1L grades and made law review.

- Go to class every day
- Disable your wireless card and don't play games in class
- Don't bother with study groups, except at the end of the semester to review old exams -- they're vital then.
- Do your own outlines -- collaborative outlining is pointless
- Review as many old exams as you can before the exam
- It seems cheesy, but the LEEWS course really helped me do well on first semester exams.
- Treat exams like a sporting event -- timing, endurance, and psyching yourself up is everything
- Slow and steady wins the race during the semester. But be prepared to study yourself ragged for three weeks before finals. If you aren't killing yourself, you're not studying hard enough.
- Eat right and get exercise.

Good luck!
posted by footnote at 12:44 PM on August 24, 2006

This is the book I was referring to.
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:45 PM on August 24, 2006

Response by poster: Also, what is this 'lingo' that everyone's talking about? I've spent a fair amount of time reading Supreme Court opinions that interested me -- are those representative examples?

And I've been having a great time this summer reading through the legal sections of Wikipedia... are we talking about the style of writing, or specific terms? Any suggestions for places to start?

Is it relevant to be reading about theories of constitutional interpretation at this point?
posted by spiderwire at 12:47 PM on August 24, 2006

It’s quite possible to skate through law school, depending on the program. Many law professors base students’ entire semester grade on a single exam, or on an exam/midterm combination. A competent writer with a knack for cramming can do pretty well in that sort of setting. I know a number of several attorneys who spent most of their class time IMing and neglected their courses in favor of mock trial or spending late hours at the office. The same thing isn’t true of the bar exam, and developing more regular study habits early is probably an excellent idea.

I’d recommend taking a look at this book, or one like it, just so that you go into your first year with some grounding in the core concepts. I found that having a basic overview of the subject matter made it easier to grasp some of the more esoteric concepts.
posted by Phlogiston at 12:47 PM on August 24, 2006

what is this 'lingo' that everyone's talking about?

It's part of "thinking like a lawyer." You'll know a year from now, trust us!
posted by footnote at 12:54 PM on August 24, 2006

Best answer: I am in the middle of my second year. I cannot stress this enough: KNOW HOW YOU LEARN. You will get to school and lots of people will tell you to brief ALL the cases and make sure you keep on top of your outlines. Which is great if that sort of stuff helps you learn, but it doesn't work for me. I have found invaluable to constantly go over hypotheticals throughout the semester (I typically use the hypos in Crunctime). For me that is the best way to learn how spot specific issues and be able to answer them on the exam. Also, I don't know if your school is associated with CALI (, but if they are, use it. It's just another way to apply what you are learning in the classroom to fact patterns that are similar to those that will appear on the exam.

I was also one of those people that just skated through high school and undergrad. You can't do that in law school. You need to keep on top of your reading. I like making a schedule before the semester starts, so I know when my classes are, when I am working and when I am studying. I also make sure I have time to just be away from the law books (usually Friday night). You need to remember to take care of yourself first, then law school. Because if you aren't healthy and sane, you are not going to be able to make it through finals.

Finally, get away from the school sometimes. Find a place off campus (or even at the undergrad campus) to study. As it gets closer to finals, the atmosphere in the law school becomes more and more tense and just doesn't help when you are trying to pin down various concepts.
posted by miss meg at 1:00 PM on August 24, 2006

Don't shy away from hanging with the younger kids. They're your peers now, and they'll welcome you with open arms if you go out with them a few times and have some fun. Having a support group of friends who are going through the same pain as you are makes a huge difference.

Good luck!
posted by chrisamiller at 1:02 PM on August 24, 2006

Best answer: This is something that I'm confused about. I don't mind humiliation much, but I am a bit defensive when challenged intellectually. Is the *intent* to humiliate? What are some examples of forms questions like this might take?

Okay. In theory, the intent isn't to humiliate, it's to stimulate active thinking. And some people go through law school without ever encountering the professors who aim to humiliate. I had a couple, so this was one of the low aspects of law school, even though I wouldn't say I was ever humiliated myself. Don't be defensive about being challenged intellectually - law school is all about that. That's the point - you argue, you're challenged intellectually. As for the humiliation... a few of my professors liked to make personal comments about their students' clothing, personal lives, physical defects, etc. One liked to subject female students to hypos involving the student being raped. One had students find personal ads and read them in class as examples of offer & acceptance in contracts class. This resulted in, among other things, one male student being told to repeatedly read a sexually explicit personal ad written by a gay man seeking oral sex. There were a lot of disparaging comments about the students' speed of comprehension and response to questions. A couple of my professors made us stand to give our answers - quite uncomfortable - and addressed us by our last names.

But don't stress this part too much because you can't do much about it, and if you're lucky, you won't have one of these professors. And you'll have class solidarity.

Lingo - I'm mostly thinking of vocabulary - terms of art and other archaic legal terms from old tort and contracts cases, for example.

I also completely agree with the suggestion to treat law school like a 9/5 (or 7) job. You need to be disciplined, and you'll have a lot of work to get through, and that approach seems to work well.
posted by Amizu at 1:23 PM on August 24, 2006

Is it relevant to be reading about theories of constitutional interpretation at this point?

nope! but it might be interesting.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:37 PM on August 24, 2006

Best answer: I went to law school after 10 years as an editor and graphic designer. I found that several things helped:

1. Read Slower Than You Can. It's important to understand everything. You can't skim. Force yourself to slow down.

2. Brief the Cases. At least for the first year, "brief" each case as the introductory class teaches. Writing engraves the material in your mind. Avoid, if possible, the "canned" (commercial) briefs and outlines. They're never very good, and when you don't make them yourself, you don't remember the material.

3. The Casebook Table of Contents Is Your Pre-Made Course Outline. Legal subjects, particularly in the first year, always teach pretty much the same thing. Look up at the running head at the top of the page to orient yourself about what's going on and what to pay attention to.

4. In Classes, Each New Case Teaches Something New. Unlike legal practice, where clients come in randomly, in law school, everything is there for a reason. If a case seems exactly like the one just before it, go back. You've missed something.

5. Law School Is a Full-Time Job. Be ready to spend every afternoon, evening and weekend on it, especially during the first year.

6. In Law School Exams, You're Assumed to Know Nothing, So You Have to Say Everything. Write out every element of each rule, and then fill in the facts from the question, even if they're stupidly obvious. Use the Salami Slicer method -- slice it thinner and thinner.

7. Look at Old Exams. They'll be in the library. Some profs lay the exam facts right down the middle of the rule and want you to discuss the rule. Some lay the facts at the edges and want you to discuss policies and resolve ambiguities.

8. Love the Law Librarians. They've seen thousands of people go through this and are founts of information and assistance.

9. Talk to the Prof. They love to be asked questions, at least after you've made a good effort but are still confused.

10. Your Life Experience Puts You Miles Ahead of the Others. Everything you learned in college has pulled together, and you have a wide skeleton of reference that you can hang the law knowledge on.

I had more fun in the first year of law school than any other time in my life. It was certainly more fun than practicing law.
posted by KRS at 1:42 PM on August 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's my advice, and although it makes me sound like a pompous ass, I too made great 1L grades and the school's law review, AND I had taken off five years in between the end of college and beginning of law school:

1. Don't miss class.

2. If you have to miss class, get notes from someone and go through them when you get them.

3. I participated in a small study group during my first year, which I found helpful to make me understand what methods of learning worked for me and to pick up concepts I was missing that other people in the group realized were important. It probably would have been just as effective to get together with a few friends, but the fact that we were there to study cut down on chatter.

4. On a related note, make friends/study pals early, within two or three weeks after classes begin. It is especially helpful to have someone who is about as smart as you are, or smarter, there for you if you miss a class or need help.

5. Make 2L and 3L friends, too, through bar or other social events. They can give you advice, and even in some cases outlines, for the classes you are taking. And you will learn via osmosis information about how the job market and experiences they are having in legal clinics, law journals, moot court and the like.

6. Outlines: As others have said, many people learn best by doing their own outlines; try this to see if it works for you. It may still be helpful to have samples from previous years to start you off. If you are looking at other outlines as samples, the most helpful ones will be not just outlines of the same subject, but that subject taught by the same professor you have. Different profs focus on different material.

PS: One trick I learned on outlines was to use the tool in Microsoft Word to create an outline index. The tool is automated so it's very fast to make one. Since so many exams were open book, having an index made things so much faster and easier to be able to flip to the relevant page instead of hunting around my 40 page opus for the relevant section.

7. Reduce distractions. Ten years ago in law school I signed up for an internet connection with MSN, and cancelled it three days later because it was much more fascinating than the treatises and was consuming hours of my time. It hurt, but I did it, and caught up on this whole internet phenomenon after law school was over. I'm not saying you should do this (much different now than a decade ago), but recognize what your limits are and don't distract yourself out of your post-law-school potential.

I loved law school, probably exactly because of the hiatus I'd taken before starting it. Hope you have the same experience!
posted by onlyconnect at 2:43 PM on August 24, 2006

A law professor's collection of advice.
posted by ajr at 3:38 PM on August 24, 2006

Response by poster: A law professor's collection of advice.

Yeah, it's, uh, linked in the question ;) I was looking for something more immediate and with the opportunity for a bit of dialogue.
posted by spiderwire at 3:42 PM on August 24, 2006

Ahhh. Consider that an illustration of why you should read carefully!
posted by ajr at 3:53 PM on August 24, 2006

Best answer: The best advice is above: treat it like a job! Get to school at 8 a.m. and leave at 6 p.m., studying when you're not in class. Add in weekends and stretch the time to 9 p.m. around exams. You'll do far better, at a cost of far less stress, than people who try the various skating / cramming / class skipping strategies that they used in college.

The second best advice is this: law school is more like high school than it is like college. It's true superficially: one building or set of adjoining buildings, lockers in the basement, cliques, everyone with a common schedule. It's also true substantially, in the sense that law school is filled with people with a sense of purpose pursuing a common goal (a great job, analagous to the high school goal of a great college admission) by common means (high grades, good extracurriculars). This makes it dramatically different from college -- where people have all different kinds of ends and means, or no ends at all, or only a goal of finding a ends -- and equally different from the workplace, where most people are just trying to make the money that lets them do whatever it is that really turns them on.
posted by MattD at 4:04 PM on August 24, 2006

Start outlining right away. Our tutors told us not to, which was terrible advice. By the end of school, most of my friends were adding to their outlines every week, if not every day.
posted by MrZero at 4:42 PM on August 24, 2006

MattD, did you go to USC or are all lawschools really just that similar? (Sorry for the derail.)

In addition, I just wanted to thank everyone for the advice even though I'm not the original poster. I'm in the midst of my first week of class and I'm already getting tired of feeling stupid. Hopefully some of this advice will help!
posted by wuzandfuzz at 8:52 PM on August 24, 2006

« Older how do i spy on tweenage style?   |   Sniffing glue. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.