3 Important Things to Do to Survive Your First Year of Law School

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The chance of pursuing a career in law might seem like the opportunity of a life time for many would-be law students, with the promise of enthralling adventure. But as with starting any new endeavor in life, and given their relative inexperience, beginners can look forward having a really trying experience from the get go, with an equal likelihood of being overwhelmed by an increasingly intimidating academic workload. Law as a discipline is quite challenging and even lawyers in the legal field with years of practice experience under their belts do sometimes find it hard to keep up with the pace of development and innovation in the profession. In comparison, the study of law, difficult as it is, is only a microcosm of the vicissitudes of legal practice in the real world. And if lawyers could still face it and yet find their footing amidst these flurry of day-to-day upheavals, you sure can as a law student.

No need to worry about how you’d cope with the work load now. We’ve all been through it and emerged in one piece – every single one of us now donning the wig and black gown. And you’ll too!

With that out of the way, let’s talk about what you could do to survive those manic first years in the life of any law student. Read on then, as Matthew Goodman, a recent graduate of Santa Clara Law School and who’s currently practicing in Los Angeles, shares with you how to get a hang of your school work and make it through law school. As a former law student, Matt has been there, done it and got the t-shirt. So if I were you, I’d pay attention to his every word.

Here are the 3 most important things Matthew says you should focus law students should focus on to survive your first year of law school

(1) Read and Brief Cases

Now, let me preface this section with the qualification that I am not the biggest case briefing fan.  I actually stopped the activity in its entirety mid-way through my third semester of law school.  However, during the infancy of your legal career, I think it is imperative that you read the cases and brief them in an exacting and demanding way.

Briefing essentially consists of reading each case and then summarizing in your own words the facts, procedural history, question presented to the court or “issue”, holding of each case, rule of law, rationale, and policy behind each decision.  This process helps you understand these cases intimately and gives way to classroom engagement—wherein much of the fodder for potential exam questions arise.

Moreover, it is important to recognize that each case is in your casebook for a specific purpose and has a role in tying the class together as a coherent whole.  Case briefing is the best method for understanding the case in this broader, holistic context as taught by your professor.  This understanding pays dividends when exam time rolls around, as your review will seem almost effortless.  There will be no last-minute untangling of concepts that you didn’t fully comprehend due to lack of briefing when you covered it in class.  Everything will fall into place, not unlike a fully-formed tapestry of interrelated ideas, concepts, and theories.

Briefing is also essential to having an incisive discussion with your professor should they “cold call” you.  And while this excellent “cold call” might not influence your grade directly—as grading is anonymous—it will help you build a relationship with the professor—the benefits of which are innumerable.  In particular, starting off on the right foot with a professor through excellent class participation or dialogue could result in becoming a paid research assistant for that professor, a letter of recommendation, or even function as a springboard for an employment opportunity.  Briefing is the starting point for obtaining all these potential benefits, none of which is as important as understanding the cases as ends in themselves.

In his fantastic book, Logic For Lawyers, Judge Ruggero Aldisert provides a reading check-list for briefing and reading cases.  He suggests you ponder the following when briefing:

  • What did the plaintiff ask for at trial and on what grounds?
  • What position did the defendant take?
  • How did the trial judge decide the case?
  • Who took the appeal and on what grounds?
  • What is the question or issue in the case?
  • What are the relevant facts?
  • What is the court’s decision?
  • What are the stated grounds for the decision?
  • What is the rule of law of the case?
  • Does the case follow or depart from precedent?
  • What practical consequences are likely to result if the case is followed?
  • Do you think that the decision is reasonable?
  • Could the decision have gone the other way if the lawyer had emphasized different facts or relied on different precepts or cases?

Constructing potential answers to some of these questions will arm you with ample ammunition to participate in class should a related question arise.  And I also think asking these questions is a tremendous way to instill a high-level of engagement, and, dare I say, excitement when preparing for class.  I certainly didn’t ask these questions when I was a 1L, but if I had, it would have sparked my creativity and allowed for a more eclectic, fuller understanding of the cases—and likely resulted in better grade in some classes as well.

To that point, I’d like to note that I wasn’t able to receive a high-degree of engagement in class until I started reading supplementary materials prior to each lecture.  Supplements are secondary sources that read more like a textbook and are designed to explain the law.  This is in contrast to your casebook, which is filled with cases first and then only surrounded by accompanying explanatory text.  Supplements simply make explicit much of what is buried beneath a judicial opinion in the casebook, alleviating the need to search painfully for the principle the case stands for.

While there are probably benefits to jumping into the case blind, without any introductory material, I found it incredibly beneficial and enjoyable to read the relevant section in a supplement first.  As an example, imagine I am in my torts class and we are studying intentional torts—there is a case on assault, battery, and false imprisonment assigned for the upcoming class.  I would open up a supplement, Understanding Torts in this case, and read the section on each of the relevant causes of action prior to reading the casebook.  I found this incredibly valuable, and I’ll discuss my incorporation of supplementary material into my outlining process to give you a better idea of how I used them.

(2) Create Outlines  

Outlining is a critical component of your first year in law school.  These outlines are what you will use at the end of the semester when you are studying for your exam.  You will shed the casebook and use these exclusively.  I found that the most effective way to outline was through the use of a supplement.  I acknowledge that some individuals outline based on class notes and the casebook, and while class notes and the casebook sections are essential to understanding the class and should be integrated into your outline, I found that I needed a supplement for its structure and coherent placing of headings and subheadings.

There are many, many different types of supplements, or secondary sources as they are called more generally, that you can rely on in law school and choose as outlining aids.  They range from incredibly dense treatises and hornbooks to bare-bone outlines that include only brief summaries of the topics.  Pay attention to format in order to find a supplement that resonates with you.

Equally important in choosing a supplement is finding one written by an author that meshes with you.  Thus, you might like the Hornbook series for contracts, but not the Hornbook series written for torts.  Even though the two are written are in similar format, they are written by different people and this can make a substantial difference.  You might find the former author engaging and easy-to-read, and the latter dense and unhelpful in explaining concepts.

Take time and care in choosing a supplement that works well for you, as I think it will be incredibly beneficial to keep it as a companion throughout the entirety of the course.  You can read them before the assigned reading, after the reading, or exclusively while outlining.  The most important thing is that you have a source that you can consult when you have conceptual issues or hang-ups.  Note, I do not recommend having more than one supplement for each class.  I made this mistake during my second semester of 1L and I inadvertently inundated myself with too much information.  Pick one that you trust and use it exclusively throughout the course—however, it might also be useful to pick up a more comprehensive supplement during your final exam preparation period (usually three to five days) that you can consult for the most difficult problems you encounter in that twilight period.

As I mentioned above, these supplements are invaluable sources for outlining law school exams.  I chose to outline while I read the supplements before class and I thought this was useful.  I would read a portion, and list out all of the relevant sections and subsections as my headings and subheadings.  I would then incorporate the most foundational principles and rules of law within each subsection, and then weave in any class materials or casebook notes that I found relevant. Check out my outlines here for examples.

A Quick Note on Study Groups

I did not personally join a study-group in law school, and I don’t think the notion that you must participate in a study group should be dogmatically followed.  I found that I learned most effectively from reading and playing around with the ideas and concepts in my head, in isolation.  However, this is not the case for all people, and I do think that talking about the subjects does have benefits, but I say this with a caveat.  You need to be wary of study groups because by joining one you are permitting newly initiated legal minds to have an influence on your thinking and understanding of the concepts.  This might take away from following your own intuition when analyzing the theory, and this should be avoided at all costs.  It will redound to your benefit to understand the concepts independently, and then allow interaction with others to shape and refine your reasoning as you deem appropriate.

(3) Practice Exams

Simply and plainly, engaging in this activity in law school is the sine qua non (absolutely essential and indispensable) of obtaining a good grade in your class.  The activity is self-explanatory: find the past exams of your professor, take them under timed conditions, review them with model answers, and then take them to your professor for review.  Yes, this is a lengthy process and it takes a large portion of your time.  But it is well worth it.

Many students are hesitant to approach their professors for feedback.  Probably out of fear of making a bad impression, out of laziness, or out of avoidance, lest your exam be mercilessly critiqued in such a way that damages your self-esteem and self-efficacy.  But this is nonsense.  I found that many professors are more than willing to go over a practice exam you wrote and provide instructive feedback in a professional manner—and, let me tell you, some of my first practice exams were horrendous.

Once you engage in this process with a professor, it will inspire shock and awe as to why other students neglect doing the same.  The procedure lets you into the mind of the person who will be giving you that all-important final grade at the end of the year.  You will thereafter understand what they want you to write about and what you should stay away from.  For example, perhaps your Torts professor believes policy discussion is the most reliable indicator of mastery, and thus deserving of an A, while your Civil Procedure instructor desires a bare-bones law to facts analysis with minimal policy and theoretical discussion.  But without having your professor grade one of your practice exams, you will not figure out what to set your sights on.  You will be shooting in the dark, trying to hit an elusive target that keeps moving. Flick on the lights by going into office hours to discuss a practice exam; it will only benefit you.

Conclusion

These are the three most important activities to engage in, in my experience, when you are in your first year of law school.  While the method for accomplishing these activities may change, completing them will take up a substantial portion of time and effort.  In doing these activities, I stress the importance of following your intuition and cultivating a level of self-reliance.  It will be extremely easy to be swept away by the will of other law students in such a way that works a detriment and hinders your progress.  Take care in determining what type of practice works for you, and how you can engage in that practice in the most beneficial way before you start executing.

Matthew runs a blog where he provides useful resources such as this to lawyers and law students. There’s a lot you stand to gain reading his blog as often as you can. You can access it here.

Patrick Herbert is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Law Student Hub. He is an LL.B. Law graduate from the University of Benin, Nigeria. He’s a life enthusiast, a budding writer and internet entrepreneur. Patrick is deeply passionate about law and research and has inspired many with his thought-provoking articles. To get in touch, follow him on social media.

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