Dispatches from Law School: Preparing for Finals

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As a first-year law student, it would be premature for me to give advice on the best ways to study for law school exams, but heading into December of 1L, what I do have is a fresh experience with law school during prime exam-prep season and about as much second-hand advice for finals as one person can hold in their brain. If law school is in your future, *this* is the period in law school you’ll hear horror stories about (you’ll have to camp out in the library just to keep up with your classes, you’ll become the worst possible version of yourself, etc., etc.) Here’s the reality (from the perspective of one law student):

Although law school is hard work, I think that the agony of end-of-semester law school life is overhyped. If you think about the daily activities of law school as mostly preparing for class, going to class, and studying the material from class, it doesn’t sound very scary or even dissimilar from undergrad work. And from what I can tell, the students who seemed happy and well-adjusted several months ago are doing just about as well now.

The main things which make law school life more stressful toward the end of the semester are (1) the impossible number of activities you feel pressure to take on, and (2) the sense that a strong grasp of your course material and well-organized notes for your open-book exams will earn you…maybe an average grade? These are difficult issues to contend with, but they have a lot to do with your perspective.

(1) There’s no denying that most law students are busy people. At this point, I’d rather not calculate the number of hours I’m “working” on law school per week (but if you’re dying to know, Thanksgiving week last week was something like 60 hours). And yet, I know law students with part-time jobs, I know law students with kids, and I know many students committed to activities separate from their law school courses. No matter how many hours law students put in, there are always other court cases to read, career-related events to attend, or some other, “better” way to study. Life is a series of choices, and then law school saddles you with an unlimited number of opportunities that are all allegedly essential to your success. All you can do is laugh at the absurd expectations that literally no one is actually living up to.

(2) There’s also no question that the law school curve (the bell curve on which law classes are graded) also adds to end-of-semester stress. The curve puts students in direct competition for top grades, with the understanding that the majority of the bright, driven people in your law school section will end up with grades more mediocre than they’re used to receiving. Since the importance of grades varies greatly depending on your career path and the level of competition at your law school, there’s huge variation in how concerned my fellow law students feel over final exam grades. Oddly, the one thing that’s helped me to feel better about exam grades is the absolutely contradictory advice I’ve received about exam preparation. Some upperclassmen tell me to start outlining (law school studying) as early as possible. Some tell me to start studying late because you can’t possibly retain all of the knowledge of a law school class for more than a few days. Some people tell me that exams are about quality over quantity, and others say exactly the opposite. Since all of these people have performed reasonably well in law school, I can only assume that different students are suited to vastly different strategies, and therefore, I’ve been able to stay true to my own approach without obsessing about competing for final grades.

Overall, I want to assure future law students that even the most intense weeks of law school are manageable and even enjoyable (assuming you like reading court decisions form the 19th century). To get a little meta, I’m writing this post with just one more week of law school classes before finals, proving that, at least at this moment, I’m not utterly consumed by the burden of law school. I can assure you that it can be the same for you.

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