How I Studied for 1L: Optimization Guide (Perspective II)

By Alexa T. Edited by Lemon Law School

This article is part of a “How I Studied for Law School” series. Each article presents a set of different perspectives and experiences on how different Lemon Law School authors studied for law school. You can read the third article in this series here.

Be prepared. The first year of law school is the most stressful time of your legal education. As a lazy person myself, I spent the majority of my waking moments reading and writing for law school and had to cut down my leisure time during 1L. By the time the last two months of the semester rolled around, I barely went out, but my hard work was rewarded in the form of many As on my transcript at a top 6 law school. 

1L helps build a concrete legal foundation. You will learn to read legal cases, conduct legal analysis, write briefs and memos, and most importantly think like a lawyer.

I am a strong believer in optimization (mostly because I am lazy). I always try to be as efficient as I can – I cut down on things that produce smaller outcomes and spend more time on things that create a bigger return. If you are a lazy prospective law student like me, you are in the right place. 

Understanding Your Professor

After talking to a few 2Ls and 3Ls, I realized that different professors had different philosophical and structural understandings of the same legal topics. Therefore, each professor may emphasize different aspects of the same case and teach the same curriculum from greatly different angles. 

Essentially, to do well on law school exams, having a general understanding is not enough. You need to understand how to think like the professor rather than merely following the general study guides. 1L Supplements could be helpful. However, I advise against relying on them exclusively. 

Having this fundamental principle in mind, I spent less time preparing before the class and more time after the class.

Preparation Before Each Lecture

I tried to minimize the amount of time that I put into class preparation. I only read the old outlines, read the casebook, and took light notes. I’ll talk about my reading notes below.

Did I read any 1L supplements?

I only read what was assigned by the professor. During the beginning of 1L fall, I scrambled to buy supplements from the 2Ls and 3Ls, hoping that they might throw in some good old outlines or charts for the same professor. 

The usefulness of supplements has been up to much debate. You can read our FAQs about the usefulness of supplements here. My colleague here at Lemon Law School, Andy A., found supplements to be very useful for his style of learning.

However, I personally did not find supplements very useful. Apart from the casebook readings that were assigned by the professor, the supplements I ended up purchasing were left on my bookshelf accumulating dust. 

The reasons are multifold. Sometimes, my professor did not cover the subject in the same order as the supplement. Oftentimes the supplement covers way more than necessary. Reading extra materials just confused me even more.

Another reason is that the subjects my professor emphasized were not in my supplement at all. Gradually, the supplements became less used. I may have opened it once or twice to figure out something that I did not understand (but efficiency-wise, it was much faster to just go to office hours and directly ask the professor than trying to figure out myself through a supplement that was not 100% compatible with the course.)

Did I Fully Brief Cases?

Rarely. When you first start law school, you will learn how to brief a case. Basically, you write out the case name, facts, procedural history, issue, holding and rationale.

In the beginning of 1L, I did brief cases like everyone else. But later on, I realized that my investment in setting aside time to fully brief the assigned cases did not produce much return. 

Sometimes, my professor skipped through what I thought to be the heart of the case, and went off on a tangent with maybe two sentences that covered the rationale of the judge’s holding. I slowly realized that I basically spent hours on things that were not important to my professor and on issues that might not show up on the exam. 

Don’t get me wrong, fully briefing cases was still helpful to my understanding of the case. But since the key to 1L exam success is to “think like your professor,” I stopped briefing the assigned cases. I also stopped briefing because I discovered another tool that was extremely useful to preparing before class: old outlines.

Use Old Outlines Early

Many people use old outlines only when they start outlining toward the end of the semester, but I find it useful to start using the old outlines earlier: when preparing for each class lecture. With the knowledge and wisdom of students who have taken the same class with the same professor, I no longer missed the important points of the cases and my professor’s lectures. 

If you are lucky and receive a really good outline from your 2L/3L/alumni friends, you basically have the essence of the class and the precise answers to your professors’ questions in class. This really takes the pressure off of the Socratic method. You can easily predict the organization of the class and you won’t dwell on unimportant points. You will also never be caught off guard when you get cold-called.

What To Do During Class

During class, I focused on taking good notes. I recommend taking down the professor’s words verbatim for the first few lectures because it might be hard to organize your notes while listening to the professor at the same time in the beginning. It takes a while for you to adjust to the professor’s teaching style. Once you are well-adjusted, you can take more structured notes.

If your professor creates a few hypothetical questions during your class, don’t just think about them in class. Write them down! When you review your class notes later, think about why the professor asked that hypo and think about how the hypos pushed the boundaries of the holding. Chances are, you may see a similar hypothetical on your final exam.

Is Cold-Calling Important?

Cold-calling, otherwise known as the Socratic method, is where the professor calls on students during class to answer specific questions about the casebook readings or to answer a hypothetical question based on the class material.

Many students say their biggest fear in class is messing up while answering a law professor’s questions. Yes, cold calls can be intimidating. I still remember the first time I was called on in a law school class. My heart was beating fast and my brain went completely blank. I was so nervous and embarrassed when I blanked on the question. A few seconds felt like a century. 

But looking back, were cold calls important? No. Firstly, whether you answered your cold calls correctly or not does not affect your 1L grade.

Secondly, no one cares. None of your classmates will keep track of how you well you performed during cold-calling. You will probably be the only person who will remember it.

Thirdly, you will most likely improve your ability to answer these questions in class and improve your confidence as time passes. So don’t beat yourself up over messing up a cold call afterwards. Just focus on taking good notes in class.

Should I Go to Office Hours?

Yes, you should go to office hours. Going to office hours is a good way to learn about what the professor cares about for the exam. Again, in order to do well in 1L, you need to learn how to understand your professor’s teaching style.

By going to office hours and speaking with the professor, you can ask more detailed questions and get more insight about specific topics. This will help you distill the professor’s thought process and mental structure of the subject matter. 

You also learn from hearing your classmates asking thoughtful questions. Before final exams, the professors usually allow many students to sit or stand in their office and ask questions. 

Some people may think that it is a waste of time to hear other people’s questions, but I found those questions very helpful to spot check my knowledge and to see if my understanding of the topic was consistent with the professor’s answers. This was especially helpful when exams were right around the corner. Students usually come to office hours with well-thought-out questions.

Additionally, you should also try to maintain good relationships with your professors. Developing and maintaining relationships takes time and effort. Speaking to them outside the classroom environment can help you foster that relationship. You should review class materials on a timely basis and go to office hours with good questions. 

You might also need to ask them to be one of your references when you apply for 1L summer jobs. Other reasons to build and maintain relationships with professors include wanting to become a research assistant for them in the future and requesting a recommendation letter for employment opportunities or wanting to transfer law schools at the end of 1L. 

How to Study for the Exam

I see outlining as a process to synthesize the law and doing practice exams as a way to test my application and knowledge of the law. Finishing your outline is not the end, but the beginning of the process for exam preparation. My colleague included a great explanation of how to outline in his 1L guide here

Looking back, I learned 70% of the class material through taking practice exams and comparing my answers to the model answers. Writing out the exam helped me get a real sense of how much I understood the materials and how comfortable I was with applying the legal theories to facts. I also had a clearer sense of how fast I typed and how much faster I need to be. Furthermore, writing out exams helped me spotcheck my outline and attack outlines to see if I missed anything. 

After I have practiced writing out a few exams, I only did issue-spotting on the rest of the past exams and compared my issues list with the sample answer. If there were not enough past exams, I looked for other professors with similar syllabuses from my law school and used their past exams for practice. But just be reminded that professors do not always agree on everything so do not rely on other professors’ sample answers too much.

Should I Join Study Groups?

Many people find study groups helpful but I have mixed feelings about it. I did not join a study group during 1L, but did I compare practice exam answers with a few trustworthy friends. I’ll discuss why I generally avoid study groups.

There are many ways of approaching study groups. I wanted to study with classmates who were smarter than me and who knew how to do well in law school. However, at the start of 1L, it’s almost impossible to discern who will do well in the final exam, especially in a top 6 law school. Many seemed very confident and sharp. Everyone eagerly volunteered in class and answered cold calls intelligently. 

However, those who spoke up the most were usually not the ones who did the best on their final exams (it was very obvious when those gunner classmates became quieter during the second semester). 

Doing well on the final exam also depends on a bunch of factors, such as how well you perform under a high-pressure environment, how fast you type and organize your thoughts, how comfortable you are with policy questions (if there are policy questions on the exam), and some luck. Additionally, speaking intelligently about a case does not equate to being well-prepared for the exam.

Furthermore, study groups can be a time sink. This is how most study groups end up functioning: People show up late to the meeting location, and you end up chatting with your friends while waiting. After that person arrives and you all start studying, someone proposes that the group takes a short break to browse social media. Now the whole group is distracted. 

In short, people study at different speeds. You may waste your time “waiting” on the group to catch up. 

Since finding the right people for a study group took more time and I studied more efficiently alone, I decided against having a study group. But I will caveat that by saying that I did compare final exam answers with friends – I found it very helpful for classes where professors did not provide sample answers. I also studied with people outside of my section at times. I felt more comfortable comparing notes and discussing concepts, because we were not in direct competition for grades.

Extra Tips

Practice Typing

I found typing fast extremely important for law school exams, especially for exams that don’t have a word limit. If you are a slow typer, go online and find websites where you can practice improving your typing speed. 

The more issues you can spot and type down, the more points you can score. Law school exams are usually designed so that there are more issues than you can spot or type down. 

If you can type faster, you can write on more issues and provide more detailed legal analysis. I went over exams with the professors and noticed a trend where students generally received better grades when they wrote more words. If you are not a fast typer, consider practicing it before law school or during 1L!

Always Backup Your Notes

I cannot emphasize how important it is to back up all your class notes, your outlines and charts. You do not want to be in a situation where you lose all your files and have to ask your classmates for class notes at the end of the semester.

I used OneNote for taking class notes and Dropbox for backing up outlines and other documents online.

Final Thoughts

Different things work for different people. This is what worked for me. I would suggest that you check out the other 1L guides on this website and on the internet to get as many perspectives as possible so that you can figure out what methods or strategies can work for you during your first year in law school.