By Jay S. 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 second article in this series here.
Law School is undoubtedly an academically challenging and mentally difficult experience. My co-writers at Lemon Law have already discussed just how critical it is to have a rigorous and regimented schedule for study. This is particularly true of 1L year where grades essentially define your employment opportunities.
That being said, law school students are a notoriously noisy bunch – Type A paranoia, alarmism, and non-stop complaining are some of the common defining features of law students. I say that not as a critique, since I myself have embodied several of those behaviors, but as context for some of the online conversation 0Ls will read prior before heading to school.
First and foremost, don’t be afraid. If you can get into a good law school, you have the qualifications to succeed there.
Many potential students will be intimidated by law classes and the perceived ability of their classmates. Some will respond with a number of anxiety-coping and anti-social measures like hyper preparation and over-competitiveness in the classroom. As a notoriously relaxed (read: lazy) law student, let me try to try to provide an alternative view to the process of studying and preparing for 1L exams.
If you have read my “Why You Should Transfer Law Schools” article, you will know how well I did in law school. After getting burned out from working in a corporate job, I matriculated at a T30 law school. I performed well enough in class to transfer to a T13 school. Following graduation, I went to BigLaw in my home city. Objectively speaking, I am not academically gifted. I went to a T50 undergraduate and graduated with a 3.5 GPA in English. I scored in the 80%th percentile of the LSAT. If I can do this – you can do this.
My Secret Sauce
Recognize that law school is not that hard. Mining coal is hard. Working a 12-hour shift is hard. Raising kids is hard. Law school is merely mentally challenging. There are a lot of new things you need to learn, skills to develop, and papers to write.
All this is tough enough on its own, but then you are put into a pressure cooker because how well you do in this 9-month period matters quite a lot for your future prospects. How do you deal with that? By recognizing early on exactly what you need to do to get results and discard the rest. That’s the secret recipe to doing well in law school. Executing it is a different story.
In law school, anxiety-ridden chatter comes with the experience. When you spend the majority of your hours with the same 40-70 people, in the same place, doing the same thing, herd mentality starts to develop. Resist the temptation. Avoid toxic panicking. Don’t listen to your classmates who seem to “get it” – they don’t know any better than you do. Don’t worry about shit that doesn’t matter like how cool you sound during a cold call or participating in class to impress your professor.
Instead, find friends who have an optimistic outlook and who exude positivity and curiosity. Get lunch with people you like and talk about things that are not law school-related. Look to upperclassmen who have taken your professor (and done well) and get outlines and tips from them. Develop your own method of studying and refine it through the first few months of school. Realize that the only tangible thing you really need to accomplish is acing your exams/papers – everything else you do should be in service of that goal.
OK, so what should I do?
After you get your mindset right around what really matters, the goal is to figure out what you actually need to do to prepare. As we discussed earlier, this can be a very different animal compared to what everyone else is doing. It will also take you a month or two to figure out what works best for you.
I recommend using the Motivational Matrix to organize your priorities as you figure this out. In the beginning, it should look like this:
Notice how few things are actually Urgent and Important? The reality is that spending hours reading cases and doing all that class preparation is meaningless if it doesn’t help you prepare for law school exams. Now at this point, you simply don’t know what helps and what doesn’t so the items will eventually move around. By the time I began my second semester, my matrix looked like this:
I eventually learned that the best way for me to understand how the professor was thinking about the information was to write a case brief and then focus on taking notes in class. I also understood that this would be the first step towards outlining and preparing for exams so it was important to get it done regularly. Note that reading the actual case and participating in class were still in the “ignore” category – more on that later. This may very well look different than your own matrix, but if you think that everything belongs in the “Start Now!” box then you are going to suffer unnecessarily and probably burn out.
In the next sections, I’ll talk about what was actually essential in my preparation stage.
Case Briefs and Note Taking
Case briefs are nothing more than a categorized set of reading notes. I wrote case briefs for just about every case. I am a messy, “big-picture” thinker so I knew I needed to organize the point of each case so I could create an outline for final exams. My memory is also terrible, so I knew I would need a reference during class to take good notes.
More importantly, I only read about 30% of cases, relying more frequently on supplements like Quimbee to digest long cases into short webpages. This did not negatively impact my understanding in any way. In fact, I found that reading the Quimbee summary was totally sufficient for creating decent case briefs 70% of the time.
You will see multiple different structures for taking case briefs, with varying degrees of detail. Here is a completely unedited screenshot of one of my case briefs from a contracts case:
You will see that my case brief is pretty short and hilariously messy. I used highlighting to emphasize what was important and brackets to include the professor’s comments. Details from the class discussion that I thought would be covered in the exam were included in the “Comments” section.
In retrospect, my highlighting/bracketing/comments structure doesn’t even make much sense but despite all this I still managed to get an A in contracts. Why? Because despite how messy and short this brief is, it is totally sufficient to understand the concept and the rules at play. More importantly, my case briefs aren’t graded so it’s just not worth the time to make it look perfect. I did enough to understand what needed to be carried into the exam and that was sufficient.
Outlines are just that – outlines of the entire course. My outlines consisted of a table of contents with page numbers and a max of 1 double-sided page for every major theme in the course. I borrowed heavily from existing outlines of former students and combined them with my own notes to create a comprehensive outline.
I find that good outlines hover between 10-25 pages, depending on the course. Some people will do more than that, but I find that approach unhelpful for me since I want to focus more on writing than reading my outline on a test. Almost all professors will allow you to use a non-commercial outline on the test, so this is critically important for your performance on the test.
The reality is that the value of the outline is in creating it. Digesting all the information will help you remember the different aspects of the law and how it interacts. When you actually sit down to write your exam, you probably won’t spend more than a few minutes reading your outline before jumping into writing a response.
Here is a snapshot of my contracts outline. You can see that the majority of the space is taken by contract rules and elements, while the rest consists of cases to illustrate how they are applied. You’ll also see where my bracket/highlighting/comments system from my case briefs fed into my outlining.
As I mentioned before, reading cases is optional. In my experience, your time is better spent understanding the law and how your professor thinks about it rather than trying to document minute details of a century-old case. This approach comes with the understanding that you are eschewing the traditional mode of legal education and relying instead on supplements to bolster your understanding of the law.
My suggestion is that you flip the methodology and use supplements first like Examples and Explanations, Quimbee, and your professor’s materials as the primary source of your education, with the casebook illustration as a back-up to provide detailed illustrations. Using this method, you can build a mental framework for what the law looks like and what the major rules and issues are rather than learning about the historical development of law through the line of cases. Coincidentally, this model emulates the way most briefs are written. In other words, it establishes a question, explores the rules and legal standard, and then goes into details of legal precedent.
For a discussion of supplements, see Lemon Law’s Supplement guide.
Preparing for your final exams is the meat and potatoes of law school. It is the raison d’etre of your 1L year. How well you do on your law school exams reflects how well you have understood the material you have been learning across the semester. It is perhaps a great tragedy, then, that your legal writing brief, case briefs, case analysis skills, and overall understanding of how the line of cases leads to the present day is only maybe 50% relevant to your exam.
Like everything else, law school exams require practice and experience to get good at them. No amount of case briefing will make you good at writing a law school exam. Writing, re-writing, and analyzing exam questions are the only way to get good at it. Your school or professor will likely provide you with previous years’ exams and answers. When you receive those materials, drop everything else. Resist the temptation to perfect your outline or draw up more case briefs. Those prior exams are by far the most important thing that you will have received all semester.
I recommend taking those exams blind first (without looking at the answer), comparing your answer to the model answer, and then doing it all over again. You should be able to spot the same issues, recite the same rules, and largely identify the same relevant cases. Train yourself to write in the same way as the model answer.
When you have mastered that, look at your outline and see whether it helps you answer the question. Build out your outline and fill the gaps. When you have exhausted your professor’s practice materials, think about which areas of the law he is likely to test you on (it’s likely similar every year) and seek out yet more questions from other supplements – Examples and Explanations are particularly good for this.
You’ll see that this approach trains your ability to actually spot issues and work within multiple different fact patterns. Most importantly, it trains your mental ability to actually write solutions to problems, something that case briefing/note-taking fails to assist in. This is the singular thing that differentiates law students – those who figure out that your ability to write a thorough response that identifies the issues, weighs different arguments, and clearly identifies the implicated rule will perform better than the person who has textbook understanding of the case law.
The ugly truth of law school is that it really boils down to a writing test that assesses how well you are able to ping-pong different arguments within a legal doctrine. A 1L exam in particular doesn’t even test much law – understanding a breadth of topics at a superficial level (knowing the rules and a few illustrations) is enough to do very well. The key is that you should work on building your writing and issue spotting muscles as much as you can once you have established enough knowledge of the law.
In sum, don’t get caught up in the nervous energy of law school. Focus on figuring out a learning style that works for you and pivot to practicing answering legal questions early rather than getting caught up in outlining. Best of luck!