How to Grade into the Top 10% of Your Law School Class: My Definitive Guide

By Andy A. Edited by Lemon Law School

Grades are so important in law school. Your GPA will directly affect your job prospects. So how do you get A’s in law school to beat the law school curve? 

The best way to get A’s in law school is to go into law school with a solid game plan in mind. I looked all over the internet for the 1L guides listed in this article to craft my game plan before law school started. Here is exactly what I did to grade into the top 10% of my first-year law school class. I subsequently transferred to NYU Law with these grades. At no point did I ever study more than the average classmate. Work smarter, not harder. 

1. Learn how to take a law school exam and create a game plan during the summer before law school (0L).

This doesn’t take as much work as you’d think. I was able to learn how to take a law school exam and create a game plan during my summer vacation. I wrote another article detailing exactly what I did to prepare for law school during my summer vacation before 1L here

Restrain yourself from studying any actual legal material as that should be done under the guidance of your professors, but texts like the LEEWS exam-taking system and Getting to Maybe by Paul and Fischl are valuable for framing how you think about the law and, more importantly, law exams.

2. Focus on the final exam from day 1 of class and analyze your professors.

You must realize that in most cases your final exam constitutes 100% of your final grade. Your professor may increase or decrease your grade based on class participation if your grade is on the borderline between a B+/A- or B/B+, but don’t rely on this. 

My exam submissions were flawless, but I did terribly during cold-calls. I still got an A in most of my courses (in fact, in one class I never participated, but I got the 3rd highest exam score in the class and nabbed an A anyways). That should tell you how little “participation” will influence your grade most of the time. 

Law school weaponizes embarrassment to incentivize preparation for cold-calls and participation, but bungling a cold-call has no impact on your grade. Ignore the short-term pressure to participate and focus on what you need to do to run the marathon. However, if participation and public speaking helps your ability to digest the information, feel free to do that as well. 

As you complete reading assignments, attend classes, and take your class notes, think about exactly what kind of information will show up on your final exam. Don’t stress out about doing well during cold-calls in class. Just make sure you’re getting the right notes down. 

If you’ve followed my advice in Step 1 and completed LEEWS before stepping foot in law school, then you should know what a law school exam looks like. You should also know that getting down the black letter law and understanding how to apply it to a set of facts is the most important. 

Keep in mind that different professors state the same black letter law in slightly different ways. For instance, one torts professor may declare that “battery is the intentional infliction of physical contact without consent.” Another torts professor may declare that “battery is the intent to make contact onto another person. Consent is a defense.” 

You need to state the black letter law using your specific professor’s word choice. This may seem trivial, but some professors care because it shows that you were actually doing the readings in your casebook and paying attention in class rather than doing last-minute Google searches for the definition or reading a course supplement. 

Also, each professor approaches their exam questions slightly differently. Some professors like discussing the rationale or policy behind the black letter law and others will directly ask you a policy question on your exam (which should be covered in LEEWS). Sometimes professors will have multiple choice questions on your final exam. You need to know what to expect so you can prepare accordingly. 

To find out exactly what your professor’s exam will look like, find their past exams (if your professor has made them available) or ask the Teaching Assistant about it. 

3. Use this much more efficient method of briefing your cases and taking class notes.

When you first enter law school, the first thing the school usually teaches you to do during orientation is how to brief a case. While this may be helpful for some, I think this method of taking reading notes and class notes is very inefficient and unnecessarily time-consuming. 

Instead, I would create these mini case briefs where the only information I recorded in my reading notes was the name of the case, a fact summary, the black letter law I extracted from the case, and any policy arguments (if your professor cares about this). 

Yes, professors may cold-call students and ask them about the procedural history. But is the professor going to test you on the procedural history of a specific case? Absolutely not. Focus on what is going to be on the exam. Don’t get blindsided by cold-calling. 

I also used a specific format to efficiently record my reading notes and to take class notes. I would format my word document for my reading notes so that they only occupied half of the page (vertically). I would then print the document out and fold it in half. In class, I would write my class notes on the second half of the page directly next to my reading notes. 

Using this method, I could quickly see what notes I already have down and only record pertinent things my professor says in my “class notes” half of the page. While my classmates were busy scribbling down every word my professor was saying, I spent most of my time actively listening in class and jotting down a few words every now and then. Thus, I retained the information much more effectively than my classmates. 

Quick note on using laptops during class: University of Central Florida published a study here that showed that handwriting your class notes resulted in better memory retention and learning outcomes than typing your class notes. Some of my 1L professors even prohibited the use of laptops in class based on studies like this. 

I’m also a visual learner, so I found typing on a laptop too restrictive and slow for creating diagrams or marking up my reading notes. Thus, I always typed out my mini case briefs and printed them before class, so that I could take handwritten notes on the side. 

Here is an example of how I structured my class notes: 

Unfortunately, I no longer have my written notes, so just imagine there are handwritten notes in the left column. “FS” means fact summary, and “Tools” means the rule I extracted from the case.

4. Read every page assigned, including the footnotes. 

Don’t skim. Make sure you understand every single word on each page. Sometimes judges (especially pre-1960s judges) phrase things in abstract or convoluted ways. If you’re stuck, slow down and dissect the sentence carefully.

Most students also ignore the footnotes in a case, but the footnotes often carry very important information.

For instance, they may elaborate on the black letter law and give you an insight into the judge’s thought process. I’ve definitely impressed professors before with an exam response that included information from a footnote.

5. Learn how to create an effective outline under 20 pages and an exam checklist (sample outline included). 

Creating your outline

You absolutely must create and use your own outlines. However, you can use an old outline created by an upperclassmen as a mini-guide. Take these outlines with a grain of salt as you would with any supplement. I used a 3L’s contracts outline to pick out certain notes I may have missed and to get a general sense of how I should organize an outline. 

You should also start working on your outline as early as possible. I started as soon as we finished our discussion in class about one particular section of the course (e.g., justifications for crimes in criminal law), which was about one month into classes. I would just add the outline incrementally as we progressed along in class. Throughout the year, I would also go back and improve my outline based on supplements and outlines from upperclassmen. I’ll discuss my view on supplements in a section below. 

The majority of your classmates will be starting their outlines as close as 3-4 weeks before their final exams. During that time, I had already completed and polished the majority of my outline. I spent that time learning to apply my outline to practice exams rather than learning the black letter law. Thus, I got a huge head start on beating the law school curve. 

Your outline should be under 20 pages (or 25 if you really can’t manage 20 pages). This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. I used my outline to prepare for the exam rather than to use during the exam. Some of my classes were closed-book anyway, so we couldn’t bring our outlines to the exam. 

Your classmates will write these insane 80-100 page outlines for each course. This is the most ineffective way to review and learn the information. Many of my classmates burned out as a result.  Your outline is your toolbox for an exam. Keep it manageable and organized. You should be able to have your entire toolbox memorized by the time you take your exam. How do you expect to memorize 100 pages worth of material? 

When I’m writing my outline, I include as little as possible while covering as much as possible. Here’s exactly how you can emulate my process:

  • Include the black letter law and any relevant case names with a 1-2 sentence summary about how the court applied the rule to a set of facts. 
  • Abbreviate whenever possible. 
    • For instance, write “ct” instead of “court” and “IIED” instead of “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Use “P” instead of “plaintiff” and “D” instead of “defendant.” I’m sure you can come up with your own abbreviations. 
  • Include policy arguments only when necessary (analyze your professor to see whether this is required).
  • Make your document margins as small as possible. There’s no reason to have all that white space go to waste. 
  • Use 11-12 point font with Times New Roman.

With an outline under 20 pages, you won’t need a table of contents. For your reference, here was the first page of my torts outline.

I used a lot of abbreviations to keep the outline short (e.g., “IIED” means intentional infliction of emotional distress).

Creating an exam checklist (sometimes called an attack outline)

An exam checklist is just a list of black letter law (without definitions) and common legal issues that serves as a reminder to mention them when relevant during your exam. 

This is helpful when your professor has an open book exam (as opposed to a closed book exam where you can’t bring an outline, your casebook, or any other material to the exam). By the time you take your exam, you should already know the course material cold. But sometimes things slip through the cracks in a high-stress environment. 

After I finish my exam, I’ll go through my exam checklist to see if I missed anything that I should’ve included in my exam answer. This ensures that you leave no points on the table. For your reference, here was my exam checklist for torts. 

Creating exam spiels to help you memorize your outline

An exam spiel is the exact wording and explanation of the black letter law you will recite on an exam. Writing exam spiels are a great way to help you memorize the black letter law (and any policy or related cases) easily. 

For instance, I have on my criminal law outline a section for the black letter law of “Necessity”. Looking to my criminal law outline, I weaved together each element of the black letter law and the exception into sentence form. This is what resulted:

“Under the Model Penal Code, one may assert necessity if they had to perform the criminal act to prevent something worse (choice of lesser evils). If you negligently or recklessly put yourself in the situation, you can be liable for reckless or negligence offenses.”

I did this for every black letter law on my outline. I then retyped every single exam spiel over and over again until I could type or recite the exam spiel in my sleep. 

This gave me a huge advantage over my classmates during my exam because I never had to flip through my outline to find what I needed. The entire black letter law of the course was between my two ears. While my classmates were frantically flipping through their 100-page outlines, I was spewing off black letter law and applying them effectively with little effort. Not once did I ever look at my outline during my exams.

6. Take practice exams early in the semester. 

I started looking at my professor’s past exams about 2 months into the semester. Some had sample answers attached, and I would carefully study them to see what an A+ exam response looked like. 

Sometimes your professor won’t have any past exams posted anywhere. As an alternative, you should search online for past exams at other law schools. For example, Berkeley Law has a depository of past exams. You can also turn to supplements for practice questions. I’ll discuss supplements in another section below. 

If you’re lucky, your professor will have their Teaching Assistant (TA) administer an ungraded, practice midterm exam. The TA will grade the exams, give you a score, and release the score distribution to the class. This is a great way to check in on how well you’re doing at that point in the semester. When I received my midterm score back, I found out I had received the second-highest score (24 points) and that the average score was much lower (6 points was the class average). This confirmed to me that my game plan was working. Thus, I doubled down on my game plan and ended up getting As (and one A-) in my courses. 

7. Use course supplements. 

Course supplements are basically just mini textbooks about a particular class. Famous supplements include the Examples & Explanations series (E&Es), Crunchtime outlines, Glannon’s Guides, and more. You can find my list of recommended supplements for each 1L course here.

Supplements are there when you are having trouble understanding a particular concept. If your class notes don’t make sense or you are just having trouble grasping the concept, I’ve found that supplements have provided much clarity. They often explain the black letter law in a more easily understood format and may even explain the cases in your casebook. 

Sometimes, your supplement will be directly connected to your casebook (but sold separately). Your professor may have even written a supplement for your particular course! 

Supplements are also great for when you are having trouble formatting your outline. Usually, the table of contents in a supplement should give you an idea of how you need to organize your headings and subheadings in your outline, and in what order. I used supplements to polish my outline format. 

8. Meet your professor in their office hours with questions, but only after exhausting other resources. 

This is a great way to get direct answers for any concept you are struggling with. However, I never consulted my professor until I was absolutely sure I did everything I could to figure out the answer. Here is what you need to do before going to your professor with questions:

  • Review your assigned readings and your class notes. 
  • Look for your answer in a 1L supplement.
  • Meet with the TA and ask them your questions about the course content.
  • Get your classmates’ notes or ask them if they know the answer.

If you still can’t understand or figure out the answer to your question after doing all of that work, that will signal to you have a great, professor-worthy question. 

The last thing you want to do is waste your professor’s time with trivial questions that are easily found. When you ask trivial questions (e.g., “what is the necessity defense” or “what is the takeaway in this case” or “what are the elements battery”), this signals to the professor that (1) you didn’t do your assigned readings, (2) you’re either not showing up to class or not paying attention in class, and (3) you’re just plain lazy. 

Another great reason to meet your professor is to ask questions related to your response to a practice exam question. Don’t show up with your entire response and ask them to read it. Formulate specific questions about your response like “I wasn’t sure if the insanity defense was applicable to this set of facts – does [specific fact] actually imply that the defendant was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct?” 

9. Generally avoid study groups.

I feel that no one ever gets anything done in these group study sessions. Your classmates may invite you to have a group study session to work on a “joint” outline. In my experience, you end up teaching the material to them and wasting your own time. Sure, you pick up some good bits of information here and there, but these are things I can usually find out about myself in a much shorter amount of time. 

With that being said, I want to note that different study methods work for different people. I have had some classmates tell me how useful they have found study groups because it gives them an opportunity to “fill in the gaps” of their lecture notes. Some people just learn more efficiently when they talk about a subject out loud. I personally prefer to immediately find this information myself by asking my classmates for their notes, asking the professor, referring back to the casebook, or reading supplements rather than setting up a study group session and going through the hassle of getting everyone together. 

10. Manage your time effectively. Focus on quality over quantity. 

Many students think that the more hours you put into studying, the better results you see in your grade. This is true only to a certain extent. Yes, you have actually put in time to read your casebook and understand the material. But if you study too much, you’ll either burn out or experience concept fatigue. Concept fatigue occurs after studying for too long – your brain just stops retaining new information. It takes time for neural connections to form, and much of it is formed while you are sleeping. 

Focus on studying efficiently. I didn’t study more than the average law student, and I never studied at night (except for the week before finals). I also always gave myself a complete break from anything law school-related every Friday night. 

In fact, I did all of my reading assignments on the weekend, so I could have more time to myself during the week to go through supplements and to focus on learning how to use the black letter law. 

Reading your casebook during the weekend is not as difficult or grueling as it sounds. I had three classes, and each assigned reading for each class would take about two hours each. Here is my exact study schedule for the weekends: 

  • On Saturday, I would wake up around 9am, head to a coffee shop, and complete my casebook readings for one class in about 2 hours. Then I would grab lunch with a friend in town and head back to another coffee shop to complete another set of casebook readings for 2 hours. Then I would grab dinner with my friends and spend the rest of the night having fun. 
  • On Sunday, I would wake up around 9am again and finish my casebook readings for my remaining class (two hours). Then I would enjoy the rest of my weekend pursuing my hobbies.

This freed up a lot of my time during the week. While my classmates were reading their casebooks and preparing for cold-calls between classes, I was already a step ahead and reading supplements, outlining, doing practice exams, or looking for summer internships. 

I also had time after my last class to spend an hour working out at the gym and to run other errands without feeling any constraints on my time. I never felt close to burning out because I could pursue other activities like exercising, eating out with my friends, and even playing video games while staying on top of my commitments for law school. 

Last of all, I was consistent with my schedule. Not once did I ever deviate from my game plan. Create a schedule that works for you and stick to it. 

Here’s a quick, general overview of what your semester should look like:

11. Don’t get too comfortable during your second semester of 1L. 

Don’t get too comfortable after crushing your first-semester grades – your peers will figure out how to handle law school and catch up. I’ve heard that many top students decide to “coast” during their second semester, and they end up finishing 1L in the median of the class rather than the top 10%. 

Your second semester is the last stretch of your marathon. Your classmates will be right behind you – they’ll be closer than you think they are. Your classmates who did poorly during their first semester will be gunning extra hard to get your top spot. Stick to your game plan with the same intensity as your first semester. 

Final Thoughts

You can do all of these things without looking like a “gunner”. I never broadcasted my grades and class rank (unlike those who screenshot their transcripts and post them on social media #humblebraggers), and I never volunteered in class. I naturally blended into my classes unlike most stereotypical gunners. 

Most of my classmates back then would have probably thought I was in the median of my class. I heard most were very surprised to hear that I aced 1L and transferred to NYU Law to subsequently land a Big Law job in a primary legal market. 

I want to remind you that there is more than one right way to succeed during 1L. We all have different learning styles, and different things work best for different people. In fact, if you read the 1L guides written by my colleagues here, you’ll see that they approached 1L slightly differently than I did.

The methods I used were based on past 1L guides written by other successful law students. If you squint, all of those guides look similar in that past successful students have common methods and habits that led to their success (e.g., I got the mini-case briefs method from one of the guides I read). I would encourage you to read all of the 1L guides here (written by top law students on other law school forums) and craft a specific plan that works for you.