Quick: how do I become a good student?
July 4, 2008 1:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting law school next month. I want to do well, but my study habits up till now have been terrible. How do I become a good student and succeed in law school?

I'm about to begin law school at one of the best schools in the country. Because I'll be going into roughly $180k of debt for this privilege, I want to do as well as I possibly can. This will require working harder and studying better than I ever have before. The problem is I'm really not sure how.

I've always done well in school, mostly through a combination of natural talent and being able to turn it on when it counts. But not since high school have I been what you might call a "good student." I went to a great college but was fairly apathetic about my classes, skipping most of them, ignoring most of the assigned readings, and starting 10-page papers hours before they were due. My GPA reflected these weak efforts, and it was only through a stellar performance on the LSAT that I managed to squeak into the high-ranking law school that I did.

Now I've resolved to turn over a new leaf and apply myself like I never have before. I know that maintaining my old habits, I could wind up about in the middle of the class and get a decent job out of law school. But I feel like I'd be shortchanging myself and my ambitions if I gave law school anything less than my full, devoted effort. For once, I want to work hard and see where it takes me.

So I have two questions, really. First, how do I become a classically "good student"? Obviously things like going to class and doing all the assigned readings are minimal first steps. But should I be taking notes in class? How do I even do that? How do I highlight stuff I'm reading (and what use is it)? How many hours a day should I spend studying? What should I do in class to keep my attention from wandering 30 seconds into lecture, as it inevitably does? All these little things that most people figured out in high school or at the start of college, I need to learn over the next two months before I begin classes.

Second, what things do I need to know to do well in law school in particular? I know that exams are the main determinants of grades and there are all sorts of approaches to those that I've read about, but how should I be studying throughout the semester so that when exam time comes, I'm not doing my typical last-minute scramble to learn everything I've neglected up to that point? Thanks for any words of wisdom.
posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I've just finished my first year.

Law school is unlike college in that, most of the time, your grade is determined by a single exam. There will be very few papers and midterms. The work requires you to think in different ways that you had to in college, so give yourself plenty of buffer time to figure out how it all works.

You've got to start studying for a final at least 3 weeks to a month before you take it. If you prefer papers, look for profs that allow take-home final exams or papers instead.

Study on your own, then start talking to people about different topics.

Never fall behind on the homework, even if there is a lot. That said, all of law school is about separating the wheat from the chaff. One of my profs assigned 400 (yes, hundred) pages on gender discrimination for two class periods. It was not mentioned once in class and was not on the final. Find out which profs pull that kind of shit.

Your profs might tell you not to buy case outlines or other such books. Buy them anyway, but make sure you learn this stuff on your own and don't lean too heavily on commercial outlines.

Some people will think their in college and go out during the week. Ignore their invitations and get ahead on your work. The weekends are yours until finals get too close.

There's more, but I don't want to keep thinking about all the mistakes I made :(.

Good luck.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 1:58 PM on July 4, 2008

think their in college

Ugh. *They're.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 2:01 PM on July 4, 2008

I just got done with my second year and I've always been easily distracted from my studies. The general consensus from my classmates has been that a "good" law student will (1) always outline, either as you are taking notes in class (my preferred method) or that night; (2) stay on top of the material. This doesn't mean reading every case and briefing it. That works for a very, very few people but you have to put in ridiculous hours to maintain that schedule. You will need to skim the reading and take notes and/or get a brief book. Also you need hornbooks. Generally professors will suggest one but my default is the Examples and Explanations series because I have had several professors teach straight from the E&E on that subject. Also ask your local University bookstore owner; ours in downtown Durham has been a godsend because he knows exactly how the professors teach and what former students found helpful. Getting a general grasp of the material will be crucial to getting anything out of class and feeling in charge instead of relying on last minute cramming. Brief books and hornbooks are not "cheats" or short cuts but a necessary part of lawschool and staying realistic about your schedule, whatever you decide that to be, will keep you from getting too frustrated with the material. I hope this helps you and good luck!!

on preview, ditto above ;)
posted by ausb├╝rgern at 2:06 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

A general tip for lectures that I've discovered over the years (i'm not a law student, but I imagine it's universal): it can be tempted to space out during a lecture, especially if you are given the material ahead of time as lecture notes or printed slides or whatever. If you get lost you can always study it later. That's a sure way to fall behind. Be an active participant in the lecture. As an engineering student, this meant I wrote down everything that was presented, even copying full slides that I didn't need to, because the act of writing forced my brain to go over the material as it was flying at me. During the process of writing, the concepts would either solidify, they would remain baffling, and if it was really baffling I would sometimes stop the prof and ask them to explain it again.

In the few humanities courses I took I could tell this approach was somewhat overkill -- my artsy friends chuckled at me as they saw me furiously writing and underlining with 3 different colours. As you get comfortable you can filter information and summarize more liberally. But the default state should be to go over everything the prof says as it happens and make sure you 'get' it right there and then in the lecture.

Another general tip for notes is to use the margins to annotate your notes. When you're reviewing later on and looking for a key piece of information it can be daunting to sift through pages of handwritten scrawl; even if you have subject headers and stuff the eye is not good at parsing them at a glance. It's far easy to scan the margin for brief (like 2 or 3 word) identifiers.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:17 PM on July 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

I haven't been to law school (just architecture school, where lectures are secondary but the related exams have to be passed), but:

What should I do in class to keep my attention from wandering 30 seconds into lecture, as it inevitably does?

With this, and taking notes, I think you really need to figure out how you learn, if you don't know already.

I can't keep focused unless I take notes, so I do, constantly - even if it's not something I'll need to read again. It's how I listen and it makes things go into my brain instead of washing over me as a droning wave of speech. The downside is that I look like a huge nerd, scribbling away constantly.

I have symbols and use capitals or underlining for things I need to follow up on later: one for a book title, another for a piece of art, another for a person, another for a building (modified for unbuilt projects). This is the only part of my notes I tend to revisit.

When doing required reading, I scribble away to learn, too, making notes about it all. I also keep index cards to hand and use them for points, names, details or facts I need to remember, and I revisit those (usually copying them out) as revision for the material. I tend to omit things I know I won't remember (for me, dates and figures) except where it's vital, and there, I rewrite and rewrite it and repeat it out loud a bunch of times, and try to connect it to something logical/set (i.e. "it's two years after WWI ended", "it's divided by 4 because 4 appears in step 1") or just say it until it seems like something I always knew. It sounds very laborious but it's exactly right for me, and I do well and have high retention using it.

Maybe you're auditory or do best using diagrams or mind maps/tree diagrams. Once you figure this out, you'll be putting your energy into the right things.
posted by carbide at 2:37 PM on July 4, 2008

On preview (type faster, girl!), PercussivePaul learns a lot like me, it seems.
posted by carbide at 2:38 PM on July 4, 2008

carbide's comment reminds me: for the really hairy rules, like Civil Procedure *shudder* then flash cards are excellent. Basically every class will need a slightly different approach, just keep chugging at it and trying techniques - highlighting, note taking, doodling, whatever - and keep what works.

If your lectures are anything like mine you will not be paying attention half the time. Its just a fact. That's why identifying the important information is key, so that you make sure to tune in for the right information. There is just too much BS in lawschool to read and listen to every little thing. Stay big picture and keep up with concepts and you'll be ahead of the game.
posted by ausb├╝rgern at 2:55 PM on July 4, 2008

My uncle, also an attorney, gave me a great piece of advice before I started law school. (I wish I'd done a better job of following it.)

Study less, think more.

Learning the law is all about understanding concepts. Sure, basically a contract is just offer, acceptance, and consideration. To appreciate the nuances of these terms you need to tease out for yourself what these terms mean, how they apply in different situations, how their definition has changed over time. This is part of what it means to think like a lawyer.

So yes, definitely keep up with the reading, use commercial outlines and hornbooks if you find them useful--but most importantly, analyze what you've learned in your own words. Meditate on it, if you will.

Don't be too hard on yourself if the first year is really difficult. It's that way for everyone; this is going to be a wholly new learning experience for you. Find a good study group early on. Start your outlines as early as possible! Remember, if you haven't internalized what you've learned, borrowing the best outline in the world will not help you. I learned that one the hard way.

Congrats, and good luck!
posted by orrnyereg at 2:55 PM on July 4, 2008

I'm an undergrad interested in law school, and have heard the same advice re: studying from many people who have been there. The basic idea is to treat law school like a 9-to-5 job, at the very least. During that time, when you're not in class you're studying.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:00 PM on July 4, 2008

Actually, I suppose I should clarify and interpret what I think they were saying: I believe the 9-to-5 attitude is the biggest help to procrastinators or people who want to party or mostly relax during the week. It's seems like an attempt to reframe the problem, as it's easier to get to work if you view a block of time as always being for work. Studying will always be a pain if you see it as taking the place of relaxation time.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:09 PM on July 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

You must love the law; you have to want to be in law school. Think about the reason why you signed up. It wasn't just to have some way to spend the next three years, was it? This isn't college; you don't have to be there. You had goals in mind, dreams you want to accomplish. Keep those in mind always.

Law is one of the most fascinating subjects you can study. As technology is to natural science, law is to social science, history, philosophy, and politics--it's the concrete application of everything man knows about how to run a society and structure relationships. Studying this subject will expand your mind, force you to see the world in new ways, and give you a better sense of humanity than you have ever had before. It is a privilege and a joy to study this stuff. If you remember that, you won't have a problem devoting yourself to law school. But if the prospect of this does not thrill you, and if you aren't sure that learning this is more important than, say, watching reruns of "ER" or paying attention to the latest Youtube popular videos, then reconsider your decision now.

You don't have to let "law school" fill your life, but you should let the study of law fill your life. When you are done reading for your classes, read more. Study whatever fascinates you; and if you don't have 10 or 15 things to fascinate you by the end of your first month, you weren't paying attention. Always have an interest in software copyrights? Go search for a law review article on Westlaw about that subject, and read it. You are not doing this to be a "gunner," to intimidate your friends, to impress your professors, or even to improve your grades; you are doing it for yourself.

(And for the record, law school is a distant but very happy memory for me).

Now, on your specific questions:

> But should I be taking notes in class? How do I even do that?

Have a paper notebook in front of you; when the professor says something that you did not already know, write it down. You have done the assigned reading before class, so much of what the professor says you will already know.

Kids these days use laptops for notes. Why? You're not studying to be a court reporter; you need to filter and write down only what you'll realistically be able to read later. Even stupider: people who tape record lectures.

> How do I highlight stuff I'm reading (and what use is it)?

There are two reasons to highlight: to help you make an outline, and to make it easy to answer a professor's question during class. So, highlight material that will help you meet these goals. Usually, this means highlighting the portion of an opinion that gives key facts and key reasoning.

> How many hours a day should I spend studying?

This is like a marathon runner asking how much time he should spend running in the race; he should ask how far he needs to run. Study until you feel you thoroughly understand the material that has been assigned to you. Especially in the first weeks, this will take up almost all of your non-class, non-eating, non-hygiene time.

> What should I do in class to keep my attention from wandering 30 seconds into lecture, as it inevitably does?

Back when professors used the Socratic method this was not a problem. Lack of attention usually means that you have idle brainpower you're not using; try crossword puzzles. Also, don't forget the gym. A good morning workout does wonders for my ability to pay attention.

> how should I be studying throughout the semester so that when exam time comes, I'm not doing my typical last-minute scramble to learn everything I've neglected up to that point?

Day-to-day: Read every word on every page that is assigned; read footnotes, dissenting opinions, everything. Read all of this before the class session where that material will be discussed.

About halfway through the semester, begin your outline. Start with the course syllabus; it will already be broken into major and minor topics. Fill in each topic based on the assigned readings (you highlighted the good stuff, remember?) and the professor's comments in class. Focus on the elements of offenses.

The outline is important more as an exercise for you to review your work. Getting someone else's outline is almost entirely useless. Ditto hornbooks and any outline you download from the Internet. Whoever wrote those probably learned a lot; that doesn't mean you'll learn a lot by reading it.

Finally, one of the most important things you can learn in your first year is how to learn the law. You should be gaining expertise not just in substantive areas of the law (how is a contract formed? what are the elements of manslaughter?) but in the skills lawyers use in identifying questions and answering them (did Wally and Joe just form a contract? how do I research what the elements of manslaughter are in North Carolina?).
posted by profwhat at 3:09 PM on July 4, 2008 [5 favorites]

I think there has been a lot of good advice given in the answers above and there was only one thing I wanted to add.

"I know that maintaining my old habits, I could wind up about in the middle of the class and get a decent job out of law school. "

How? How do you know? Because law school is going to be very unlike undergrad, especially a top one. Everyone there is going to be smart and hardworking. I was a lot like you in undergrad in terms of doing well because of natural talent and being able to turn it on when it counts, and I think its great that you recognize that you need to step it up when you get there.

But don't underestimate how much you need to step it up. A lot of people there will have very good study habits already, and be as smart as you. You are in direct competition with them. Not knowing you at all, but knowing the general arrogance and intellect of law students ( ;) myself included), maintaining your old habits, you would likely be in the bottom 1/3 of the class. So listen to the kind people above, and don't let your ego get the best of you. Good luck!
posted by wuzandfuzz at 5:05 PM on July 4, 2008

First off, congrats! I just graduated from law school this May, and while I'm immersed in studying for the bar exam (which involves completely different techniques), I can still remember what helped me get through that tough first year.

There's no one right way to do law school, so what might have worked for us might not work for you. My study techniques got me a pretty sheepskin with the words magna cum laude, but YMMV.

Some of my friends swore by making their own outlines, but I never made a single outline of my own. I found the best outlines that I could from upperclassmen, and I'd read them, update them with new cases, and modify them to my own tastes. I also made flashcards, and I really found the Examples & Explanations series (mentioned above) to be helpful. Some of my friends swore by study groups, but I found them to be a distracting waste of time.

I would recommend a laptop if you're a fast typer. It makes studying at the end of the semester so much easier if you can just search your notes for a case name or a term instead of flipping through notebooks and binders of handwritten notes. I always tried to pay attention to the view the professor took on a particular rule or issue, or the way she or he would phrase something. It's a cheap trick, but feeding the professor's own words back to him on an exam can make it that much easier for him to decide that your legal analysis is brilliant.

One piece of advice that a friend gave me before law school was to not worry about your performance in class. It has no impact on your grade. In my law school the Socratic method was alive and well, and there were professors who would grill you until you blushed. You aren't always going to have time to get all of your reading done, and if you have to choose between working on a memo for your legal writing class and finishing those last few cases for tomorrow's Property lecture, I'd say work on that memo (if legal writing classes are graded at your school). We've all had embarrassing moments, and no one cares at the end of the day.

I agree with the previous posters who advise you to start really studying for exams about a month ahead of time. A lot can ride on first year grades (law review membership, certain interview opportunities during your 2L fall), so if that kind of stuff interests you, use it as motivation.

Best of luck!
posted by eliina at 5:17 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Examples and Explanations series of hornbooks. I'm reading one now.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 5:21 PM on July 4, 2008

Check out the law library when you arrive: they probably have a reserve section with copies of all the supplemental study aids you're going to be recommended, as well as some of your textbooks. If nothing else, you can save yourself a few bucks at the bookstore by only buying what the library doesn't offer, or try out the Gilbert's and Emanuel outlines, Examples & Explanations, CrunchTime, and Law Stories series before you buy them. The library will also have entire sections devoted to books on what expect your 1L year, how to prepare for and take law school exams, and help with basic legal writing. Just ask at the circulation or reference desks.

And if you're going to try and save a few bucks by ordering your required textbooks online, be sure and do so early, and leave plenty of time for shipping!
posted by steef at 7:02 PM on July 4, 2008

I've always done well in school, mostly through a combination of natural talent and being able to turn it on when it counts.

You are well suited for law school. Attend every lecture, no skipping. Success on this type of exam requires knowing what the prof wants you to learn, and the only way to do that is attend the lectures. Obviously, take good notes so that you remember the lectures and make sure to highlight in your notes those things that the prof seems to stress or to be excited about etc. If he or she has a unique take on any course (not as likely first year) you might check out what they have written in the law journals about the subject for an extra edge. Read your cases well enough to not be embarrassed in class. Did you see the movie "One L?" It might be a bit over the top, but that stuff essentially occurs at all law schools I have heard of. Outlining and study groups? That is up to you. They work for some people, not for others. Treatises and hornbooks are fine if you don't get the material, or for a decent overall perspective. It is more important to understand what the prof is teaching though, especially if you are at a better school where theory takes on higher importance rather than just the black letter of the law. Take advantage of legal writing and research workshops. Your first semester grades are the most important of all. They determine what kind of job you get your first summer and then that plays into what kind of job you get your second summer. Recruiting for jobs starts absurdly early for lawyers. Visit your career counseling office at the school your first few weeks on campus to get the scoop.

I am no expert here. I think your best bet is to take advantage of any guidance counseling offered, and ask each of the profs for their advice on how to succeed in their class and in law school in general.
posted by caddis at 7:27 PM on July 4, 2008

I just finished my first year, and I have to say, most of the "sage" advice I got from people turned out to be dead wrong.

The key is to find what works for you. This can be tough, since you won't find out if your methods worked until you've got a few grades in the book, but ultimately, I think it'll work out better for you than if you try to stick to some plan that just isn't a good fit for you.

For instance, the 9-5 job method. I tried this for a while. Couldn't stand it. Law school is definitely more like a job than college, but it's still school. Work when you want to work; don't work when you don't (within reason, of course). If sticking to a schedule helps you stay focused and current on your studying, then go for it. If you find yourself unable to concentrate and wishing you were elsewhere, come up with a different schedule.

Studying for exams is another great example. Many of my friends completely disappeared about a month before exams started. I didn't start studying until (much) later. That's just the way I work. We all did fine. Getting an early start is great, but not if you just end up forgetting everything you studied for the first three weeks.

That said, there are some pretty sure-fire tips, some of which have been mentioned above:

- Keep up with your reading. Yes, there's a lot of it, but you won't get very much out of class if you haven't done the reading.

- Don't bring a laptop to class. This is especially true if you have internet access in the classrooms. It is far too easy to get so distracted that, come the end of class, you can't recall a single thing that was discussed, and your Word document is blank. I found that when I left the laptop at home and brought just paper and pen, class became much more interesting.

- Don't pay attention to other people talking about studying/grades/firms/etc. A lot of people at law school love nothing more than to be at law school and talk about how hard they work and all the things they read on Above the Law that day (during class, no doubt). Listening to these people will drive you crazy and make you question your decision to go to law school.

Let me finish up with the best advice I've gotten thus far. My Civil Procedure professor, by way of a humorous anecdote, concluded our last class by telling us that some people would study very hard and do very badly on the exam, and some people would study not at all and do very well, and vice versa. That's just the way things are, and it does you no good to trouble yourself about it either way. If you're at one of the top law schools, as long as your grades aren't completely awful, you won't have much trouble finding a good job at the end of law school.

If there's anything more you'd like to know, feel free to PM me (MeFiMail, whatever it's called).
posted by sinfony at 11:31 PM on July 4, 2008

2007 graduate from a T10 law school here. My bugbear in law school was staying motivated. From reading your post, it sounds like we have similar educational profiles (natural talent mixed with being able to turn it on under pressure, good student in high school, but lack of discipline leading to shitty student at a top undergrad, followed a very good and therefore competitive law school by grace of the LSAT gods), so it might be yours, too. And as others have mentioned, it's a long semester. The material is sometimes dry as hell, and there's usually very little in the way of midterms or quizzes or projects to keep

Things that helped me keep it together enough to be very, very employable at the end:

- Having a concrete goal. Not, like. "Study like it's a 9-5 job!" But more like. "I will do thirty pages of Conlaw reading each day without fail." Or. "Damn that so-and-so in Civ Pro. I will make law review. I will. Make. Law. Review."

- Making myself go to office hours. Every single week. Even when your questions were retarded and it was the beginning of the semester. Make yourself prepare a question, and then go and ask your professor. Even scrabbling around desperately for a question will help you keep on top of stuff, and it's always good for them to start learning your face.

- Keep a countdown to when finals started. You might use the little computer program that shows a number in the corner of your screen, but another way, popular among some students, is to write out the days of the semester on Post-it notes and stick 'em all on a wall. Take one down with each day. It might freak those out who are inclined to such, but the bigger problem for slackers like me was that I'd see HEY, 90 DAYS LEFT. PLENTY OF TIME. So I'd usually do it around 45 days out.

And Sinfony is right. I know your goal is to be a good student, but if you're really going to one of the top law schools, as long as you don't completely fail out, there will be a job at the end of the tunnel.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:07 AM on July 5, 2008

Lots of good advice here. I'm a rising 3L at a T25, and here's what worked for me:

9-5 schedule. I don't work well in the evenings; I tend to get spacy and think of other things. So I generally worked from 9-5 and took the evenings off. Probably worked 2/3 of a day on the weekends. YMMV.

A study group worked for me. Some people work well with study groups, others don't, but I knew at the outset that I was one of those people that did work well with 'em. I lean better if I can explain things to others, or if I can kick around hypothetical with other people.

Look up old exams, both from your prof and from others. If the prof will let you, do an practice exam and run it by them and see what they think. This will teach you to write law school exams, which is one of the best indicators (if not the best) of your expected law school success.

Don't slack off, as mentioned above. Read everything, go to class, and do your best to pay attention in class.

Do things that aren't law school. I whitewater kayak, and that managed to keep me pretty sane. Others ran or biked or did whatever, but you need something that you can do to blow off steam.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:24 AM on July 6, 2008

9-5 schedule

Nice, if you have no outside job, no law review etc. However, you might as well prepare yourself for firm life and a 9-10 schedule, 9 AM to 10 PM, plus weekends.
posted by caddis at 6:42 AM on July 7, 2008

I could swing 9-5 w/ a journal, no job. YMMV.

In the same vein, I don't think firm life always = 11 hour days + weekends.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:58 PM on July 9, 2008

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