The Back Nine, 1L Edition

You’re gettin’ there, li’l buddy. Just keep that chin up.

Grades are starting to roll in for 1Ls. Getting your grades from the first semester of law school can be devastating. But I have some advice that might help get you through the next two and a half years.

The first semester is by far the toughest semester of law school. Everyone is working harder than they ever will again — being as yet unbroken by the 1L curve. And because everyone is graded on a curve, everyone working hard just makes getting good grades even tougher. But most people will become B-students — thanks to the curve — for the first time in their sixteen years of schooling. That’s rough. And it’s probably gonna happen to you.

So what do you do if exams didn’t go your way? Well, a lot of people are going to essentially bag it. They’ll tell themselves grades in law school are just random. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, so why try anymore? This is all crap. Grades aren’t any more random in law school than they are anywhere else. The trick in law school is that writing a law school exam answer is a lot different than what would pass for an A-level answer in undergrad.

If you haven’t already, do yourself a huge favor and read Getting to Maybe and Open Book—both are available on Amazon. These books will teach you how to take law school exams and turn all of your study time into top-of-the-curve grades. If you’ve read these already and didn’t do so hot on your exams, read them again. You can’t really appreciate the advice they give you until you have a bit of law school under your belt. These books are especially useful once you’ve already taken an exam or five.

But to actually pull yourself up off the floor you’ll need more than just instructions on the mechanics of scoring well on law school exams. You’ll need to spend a fair bit of time on anything but law school to keep your spirits up. If you found that you didn’t have time for anything but reading last semester, you probably did it wrong. You can’t expect yourself to keep up with the unreasonable amount of reading professors assign and still either stay sane or do well in your classes.

The reason you’re actually hurting your grades by obsessively doing all the assigned reading is because on exam day you will not be tested on your reading ability, and if all you did was read during the semester you will not have prepared for actually writing your exams. Reading to prepare for law school exams is like swimming every day to get ready for the Tour de France.

So to cut your reading time down so you’ll have plenty of time to focus on what really matters — that is organizing all the information into one sentence takeaways that you can remember easily and deploy on any novel set of facts and having some time to relax and enjoy yourself — you need to rely more on the outlines from past years and on supplements.

What I like to do is learn about the specific area of law for the week from a highly recommended supplement. Basically, I match up the syllabus topics with the supplement for the week and I jot down some notes as I read through the supplement. I will then write out all the black letter law. Just the names of the rules/doctrines with a list of their elements underneath. Then I’ll take a quality outline and use it and my supplement to write out one sentence takeaways for all the cases we were supposed to read. My takeaways are informed by what I learned from Getting to Maybe—so I’m looking for all sorts of “forks” and I’m constantly thinking about how I could use a case on the exam. I will almost certainly not read any of the actual cases because they’re not edited down aggressively enough and they’re mostly poorly written, at least for a law student’s purposes.

I’ll do all this before class, so I can bring my case takeaways and black letter rules with me. Then during class, I’ll edit my takeaways and rules to match up with what the professor’s takeaways seem to be. Usually that means very little editing. Mostly I get to pay attention to what the professor is saying instead of furiously trying to write down everything, and I can look for other “forks” or ideas about how to use a case or rule in a much more focused way because I’ve anticipated his lecture from outlines and supplements.

That’s it. Doing this takes much less time, and it’ll leave you much more prepared for exams, which by now you should know, are a lot more about breadth than depth. With all the extra time you’ll save by not reading cases, you can pick up a hobby, spend more time at the gym, or just catch up on Netflix.

If last semester didn’t go so well for you, hang in there. I know plenty of people who took a semester or two to figure out law school and are now killing it. Good luck!

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