Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Helpful study tips for new law students

The advice below comes from the Lawyerist blog. To me, the single, most important tip is to pay attention in class and take good notes. As a legal writing professor who often has to spend class time on rote tasks like how to format a memo or how to draft a "question presented," I always provide students with concrete examples to follow. No need for students to waste time re-inventing the wheel when generations of lawyers have already done that work. All students need to do is copy down the examples.  Yet I'm always surprised how many don't.  The students who get the better grades aren't necessarily "better" or brighter but they are certainly the ones who take better notes.  So, if you, too, want a better grade, take good notes.  Your teachers want you to succeed and you may be surprised to find out just how many helpful tips we put right under the noses of those who are paying attention.

Follow a Consistent Schedule

New law students should treat law school like a full time job, or more. People often remark how different law school is from undergraduate studying. One notable difference is the dramatic increase in the hours required outside of class to master the material. Manage your time by creating a study schedule that includes attending class, pre-class reading, reviewing material after class, and grappling with the big picture (a.k.a. outlining).

Scheduling your time in law school is important, so you know what to expect from day to day. A helpful way to stay on top of short-term assignments and deadlines is to use a weekly work planning template. As you fall into your study routine, revaluate it from time to time, being sure to make the most of your most productive days and times of day: using your maximum focus and brain power on the toughest law school tasks.

Build in time to rest and relax every now and then, and you’ll help stave off depression while motivating yourself to study harder in anticipation of the break. You can also consider using stricter timekeeping tools to monitor how you use your time and adjust accordingly.

Don’t Get Behind

Despite your best attempts to stick to a realistic study schedule, you’ll find there is a heck of a lot of reading in law school. Very dense, often boring, confusing reading that buries the lede like you wouldn’t believe. It is so easy to get behind, only to be overwhelmed when you realize there aren’t enough hours in the day to catch up. If that happens, don’t catch up. Move on to stay on top of where you need to be today. Don’t ignore that material you missed, just give yourself the leeway to skip an assignment that’s already passed, make note of it, and beg some solid class and reading notes on the topic off of your friends.

Even better than letting go of missed assigments is to not get behind in the first place. Use the first week of classes to feel out your pace and preferences for good study habits. Realize that it’s ok to take five, six, or even ten minutes per page on really tough material, as long as you’ve given yourself the time to complete the reading. When you find yourself facing days when there’s more than can be done in the hours remaining, selectively try out studying shortcuts, like reading a few online case briefs before skimming the edited cases in your book. New law students will likely all face this problem at least a few times in a course, so be willing to lean on other law students for support, too.

Pay Attention in Class

Class time in most law school classes is not when you learn rules of law. You will pick up some so-called blackletter law along the way, but mostly that will come when you study on your own or in your study group. Class time is when the professor tells you how to excel on her exams. Not directly, perhaps, but listen carefully and you’ll begin to hear patterns in what she finds important, or perspectives she favors on particular topics. At first, you’ll be drowning in how to brief, scrambling to concisely state the facts of the day’s case, or just trembling in fear of being called on. But acute observation will tip you off to important clues of what will and won’t be tested and how to approach various issues that will arise in your final exam

Create a system for indicating in your notes when the prof harps on or is dismissive of a topic or opinion. It can be as simple as a star, asterisk, or typing: “She spent a lot of time on defining bilateral contracts!” When you’re reviewing to study, this will help you focus on areas the professor likes, which, inevitably, are more likely to appear on a test.

Paying attention in class sounds like common sense for new law students. However, many law students succumb quickly to the peer pressure of in-class distractions of the technological variety. I remember distinctly the first time I logged onto Facebook during class. I was sure I’d be struck by lightning, or at least the professor would sense it and call me out. In fact, the world didn’t end, when I stopped paying attention, and that was a very dangerous lesson. Do what you can to resist the temptation to chat up your peers during class. Turn off your wireless, take paper notes, or just keep your browser or gchat closed, and you’re much more likely to catch vital tidbits that will improve your study habits and thereby your grades.


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