By Jane E. 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 first article in this series here.
You may often hear people say that attending law school is like running a marathon. That metaphor applies to both the three-year long degree program and to each law school class. The process demands mental perseverance, physical stamina, and some lightheartedness to make a fool of oneself occasionally.
Indeed, if you ask 100 different law school students what they think is the best approach for law school study, you will likely get 100 different answers. The differing responses partially stem from the fact that students are in different stages of discovering the study technique best suited for them.
You will frequently be reminded of the competitive nature of 1L classes and may see your fellow classmates as competitors. However, remember that studying and developing legal intelligence are distinct processes where you have total control. Against the competitive backdrop of law school, you are constantly on your own path of discovering what you want out of your legal career and right now, how you can get the most out of law school classes.
To do just that, I started my legal education at a top 6 law school by seeking various mentorship programs to get advice from 2Ls and 3Ls. I also spent three years testing and developing my own strategies, which allowed me to grade at the top of my 1L class.
In this article, I’ll discuss how I approached my legal curriculum at a top 13 law school.
Preparing Case Briefs
First-year law school courses are mostly taught using casebooks. A casebook is a collection of judicial decisions organized around various topics such as criminal law and labor law.
If you have done any research in preparing for your 1L studies, you have probably heard of briefing, which is the most common technique students apply to study the casebook before lecture. A brief is essentially a checklist of information that you want to extract from a case (including main issue of the case, procedural history, specific facts, holding, the rule, etc.).
Briefing is not the only way to prepare before law school class. The point of briefing is to make sure that as you read through the cases and other assigned materials, you can dissect and mentally process the critical information in the reading.
When a law student is beginning their legal education, following a formulaic method for organizing your reading notes is the best way to actively internalize relevant takeaways from a case. When I began to better understand the process of dissecting and understanding a legal case, I began leaving out certain sections of the brief that I understood well enough without recording them in my reading notes, but that comes after months of practice.
Don’t ever underestimate the importance of taking reading notes, either as brief or other formats. Cases can be long and dense. Normally a two-hour doctrinal lecture can cover 4-6 cases. Sometimes the fact patterns of these cases are similar, making it harder to distill each case into separate compartments of the brain. Thus, unless you have infallible memory, you should jot down some reading notes while preparing for your next class.
A good metaphor would be seeing each case as a bead and the syllabus of the class as the string that threads them all. At the end of the semester, after outlining for the class by consolidating your reading notes, class notes, and study notes, the content of the entire class should present itself in an interconnected way such that whichever bead you randomly choose from the thread, the entire chain follows.
I took thorough notes before class. After finishing reading each assignment, I would try to close my laptop and think over to myself the gist of what I just wrote down.
I felt that this process was not much different from studying for the LSAT. I found it to be more effective than reading through my notes before going to class. Using this method, my ability to recollect from the reading became better over time. I became much more confident in handling cold calls and had a better understanding of the legal substance.
Taking Effective Class Notes
When you are in class, you should strive to take the best notes you can. If you don’t know what good notes look like, ask around to compare others’ notes with yours.
I did not realize that my under-inclusive notes were part of the reason why I was not doing well enough in some classes. Law school exams sometimes focus on the nitty-gritty details that you may not focus upon during your note-taking.
My suggestion is to take down what your professor says as much as you can during class time. If you type fast enough and have done sufficient preparation before class, you should even be able to consolidate notes from reading during class. I always strived to create well-organized lecture notes consolidated with subsections and bullet points. For me, this helped me create a mental map of the case law.
Practical tip: I use Microsoft OneNote for all my law school notes. It’s an incredibly easy way to consolidate and organize your class notes. I would create an individual notebook in OneNote for each class and have at least two sections in each notebook – reading notes and lecture notes. I didn’t have to worry about losing my notes because the software was constantly syncing with Microsoft cloud.
OneNote is also versatile in several ways. I sometimes drew diagrams or flowcharts to help me to understand a particularly complicated fact pattern or the mechanics of a regulation. This tool allowed me to access my notes anywhere from any device. Importantly, I could compare and consolidate my notes easily
Here is a screenshot of my lecture notes from a Constitutional Law lecture during my 3L year.
Periodically Reviewing Class Material
This part of law school demands the most discipline. No one has perfect memory. Even my classmates with immaculate memory needed to resort to periodic review to refresh their memories and improve their retention of the material.
The review process is two-fold. First, you should unify your reading notes with lecture notes at the earliest possible time after class while memory is still fresh. Second, revisiting your consolidated notes on a periodic basis is a great way to prepare yourself for the final exams.
Reviewing should also be a process of checking and rediscovering your understanding of the material. As you progress through the semester, you’ll build a library of black letter law and policy arguments pulled from case law.
Many law school students dislike going over the materials repetitively, which seems to be a waste of effort if you are a confident learner who tends to master new materials well on the first try. However, the distinct nature of law requires repetition and active memorization. Even the most niche area of law has an ocean of knowledge to offer to anyone of any level of legal experience.
How often should you review previous lectures? At least once a month. Of course, the more frequently you review, the more likely your grades will reflect the effort. So, for the stuff you learned in the beginning of the semester, you should have at least reviewed them twice or three times. Constant reinforcement of the course material will make your life so much easier as you begin to outline for the final exam.
Attending Office Hours
Professors will set aside time in their office outside of class for students to come by and ask questions. During that time, you may find yourself joining a group of classmates already in office hours.
I feel that there are few discussions about the law school experience that touches on how to best use office hours, so I will try to say a few words based on my experience.
I mentioned that I ranked at the top of one of my 1L courses. I largely attributed the success to my weekly visits to my professor’s office hours.
Before diving into the specific experiences, I want to mention that I’m the type of learner who best absorbs knowledge when following deductive reasoning that begins with an overall, big-picture view of the subject.
Luckily, I connected instantly with my 1L professor whose teaching style accommodated my learning style. I was so intellectually intrigued by his philosophical approach to legal doctrines that I simply wanted to learn more from this person by attending his office hours.
The time I spent in the office was useful in several ways. First, the less intimidating environment in office hours freed me from anxieties of asking questions. I took advantage of the time to fill as many knowledge gaps as I could. I did not shy away from asking about questions covered in the class, so long the repetition could help with my understanding.
In fact, law school professors are usually very sympathetic to 1L students who put in the effort to show up to office hours with a genuine interest in learning the material. All of my professors generously entertained my questions and even sometimes went one step further to answer my question in several different ways. Naturally, I gained a better understanding of the law through office hours.
Second, questions asked by other students and the resulting discussion among my classmates and me during office hours benefited my thinking as well as my grades. I found a diverse approach to legal studies while listening to my fellow students’ questions and borrowed from their study techniques.
Third, I was able to formulate a much deeper connection with my professor than someone who merely attended the lectures. Individual connection with the professor can be a rare commodity for 1Ls when all lectures consist of 100+ students filling massive lecture halls.
Attending office hours allowed me to build a higher level of understanding with course material. On top of that, the connection formed in the offices later led to the professor asking me to work as their teaching assistant during 2L.
Law school exams are unlike any other exam you have taken during college. I feel this most critical defining factor of your 1L grades almost deserves a whole separate article dedicated to it. My colleague at Lemon Law School included a great, detailed guide on how law exams work in his article here (under the first section).
Nonetheless, succeeding in law school exams is not even remotely possible without a solid comprehension of the substantive law which from my experience takes diligent case-reading and methodical note-taking. Yet, some other successful law students may find it unnecessary to do any of these. You should not feel restrained to follow any single piece of advice, the most important thing is to discover the study method that best suits your goals.
Indisputably, your law school grades will play a role in defining the inception of your BigLaw legal career. However, don’t be discouraged by a below-average-grade, and don’t be dissuaded from pursuing the goals you had when you started 1L. Law school was a transformative place where my views in the law took shape. Good luck with your first year at law school.