Wednesday, October 30, 2019
At my law school, it is 40 total days, and 23 class days, until the first final exam. For some students, now is the time of reckoning.
There are always a few students who get a late-semester wake-up call: the 3Ls affecting insouciance who heretofore mouthed "C=J.D." but now want to demonstrate their mettle to a mentor; the 2Ls who did so well during the first year they initially assumed they could cruise through 2L year without effort; the 1Ls so impressed with their above-median LSAT they can't acknowledge their work product falls short of the mark; the students in any year who have spent the first months of the semester struggling with illness or family emergencies or pure bad luck. Ten weeks into the semester, they wonder if there is time to turn things around.
If the answer to every legal question is "It depends," the answer to "Is there time to turn things around? Can I pull this off?" is "Maybe. Are you willing to do what it takes?" Can you accomplish a lot in the last 40 days? Yes. Will you be as successful as you would have been if you spent all semester working on it? Probably not. Will it be good enough? That depends on your own hard and strategic work.
Strategies must necessarily differ for different kinds of courses, but here is an approach that can be helpful for law school courses with a comprehensive final exams:
- Read the syllabus. "What? I don't have time for that -- I have to catch up!" I repeat -- read the syllabus. Knowledge is power, and the syllabus lays out the expectations of your professor, including topics covered, the grading scheme, and penalties for missed classes. Pay attention to what you are supposed to know and how you are evaluated.
- Move forward, never backwards. You will just fall further behind if you decide to go back to read and brief the cases from day 1. Instead, do the current work to the best of your ability.
Does that mean blowing off all you have missed? By no means. Rather, for material you have missed:
- Ask for help. Ask friends if they are willing to share class notes. Buy lunch for a classmate who offers to walk you through how to analyze key issues. Ask to borrow outlines not to copy, but to give you a start on creating your own. Check for any materials your professor has posted on learning platforms or made available through the law library.
- Work through simple problems. You will learn much more by problem-solving than by reading casebooks or even excellent study supplements. Look for supplements that offer problems or exercises, and go straight to the problems without reading the background text. Think deeply as you work your way through the problems, and do your best. And whether you get the problems right or wrong (as with true/false or multiple choice questions), read the explanatory answers until you understand why your answer or reasoning was right or wrong.
- Utilize spaced repetition. You can use spaced repetition with your own flashcards or by using software resources available commercially or through your law library.
- Work your way through complex practice exams. If you have access to former midterms or finals, work your way through the complex problems. Pay special attention to the analytical steps you must take, and the order of reasoning. Gain an understanding of the big picture as well as the specific rules.
- Communicate with your professor. If you are demonstrating your willingness to do the hard work, your professors will usually be happy to help.
- Decide the hard work is worth it. When you are seriously behind, the work needed to turn things around will be considerable. Marshall your inner resources to help you stay motivated, work effectively, and devote the time and energy needed to complete the work.