Studying in law school can be terrifying. A lot of people screw it up. Here’s my take on it.
1. Study for the Exams
This might seem obvious, but I promise you it is not: you have to study for the exams. One of the things I took away from my years of LSAT prep before law school is that you have to practice and study the specific skills you will be tested on in test-like conditions. You can read thousands of pages of The Economist, but unless you actually take LSAT reading comp passages and learn the strategies for dealing with them, you won’t do so hot on the actual test.
This same sort of thing happens in law school. What’s worse is your professors will actively (though probably unintentionally) get in the way of your law school test prep. Every day in class will be an in-depth analysis of the 50 to 100 pages of reading you were assigned. The problem with this is that the exam at the end of the year, which will 100% determine your grade, will be very broad—not deep!—and it will have nothing to do with analyzing texts. Instead it will be about applying the actual law—not your professor’s musings about the law—to a hypothetical client’s story about something bad that happened to them.
So what you’ll do every day according to the syllabus at home—the reading—and what you’ll do every other day in class—the analysis of that reading—will have very little to do with the skills you’ll need on exam day. My take on this was to ignore the syllabus as much as possible and focus on practicing for the exams. This went really well for me. What’s more, by ignoring the absurd amounts of reading each day, I was always well rested, I had time to enjoy myself, and I was never stressed out by law school.
2. Buy the Supplements
During your first year, you’ll be taking very standard courses for which your professors will assign very standard cases, no matter which school you attend. One thing you have to understand is that almost all professors were hired purely for their research potential, not for their teaching skills, and they tend to be pretty poor at the latter. They’re good at researching nuanced points about the law, but often struggle teaching first-years about the black-letter law.
So the thing to do is to go on Amazon and buy yourself a supplement for each course you’re taking. A supplement is essentially a textbook that will teach you the law without making you read all the primary materials like cases and statutes yourself. Very few professors assign supplements, but the ones that care about teaching certainly do.
To find a supplement, just type in “[Course name] supplement,” like “crim supplement,” and get yourself something that looks good. You can buy several different Kindle versions and just return the ones that don’t look up to snuff. The more efficient way to track down a good supplement is to do a bit of research online. Just google something like “TLS forums best crim supplement” and you’ll get tons of discussions on what the best criminal law supplement might be.
The absolute best supplements you can get are the supplements that are “keyed” to your casebook. What this means is that the supplement will summarize all the main cases, articles, and notes covered by your casebook. So instead of having to read 1,000 pages (I’m not kidding), you’ll end up reading 200. To find a keyed supplement, search for “[Casebook’s author’s last name] keyed supplement” on Amazon. Remember, these are rare, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t find one.
3. Outline Early
One thing I never got about law students is that they all think that an outline of the course is the most important thing for their exam prep, but almost all of them will start outlining in the last month of a semester. What are they doing in the meantime?
Well, most are wasting their time following the syllabus and the massive amounts of readings you need to do to impress your professor during class discussions. If you like to do that, that’s fine, but realize that you’re trading off exam prep for feel-good points that won’t affect your grade.
Back during 1L, I would start outlining right away. Before the first class. I would use the syllabus as a guide through my supplements. I would also use an upper-year student’s outline of the course. This way, I’d try to cover all the substantive law (that’s cases, rules, statutes, and so on) before class. Usually, I’d manage to cover the whole week’s worth of material in one night, because I’m not doing the readings in the syllabus.
When I get to class, I’d have my “outline” out and I would edit it as the class progressed. For example, I’d change language or the particular formulation of a rule I got from the supplement to match the professor’s preferred language or formulation. I would also pay special attention to any ambiguities the professor brought up. These are what A-level law school exam answers are made of.
My outlines would also be very bare-bones. You have to understand that law school exams are all about breadth, so if you get bogged down in unnecessary details, you won’t do as well on the exam.
Here’s what a page in my crim outline looks like. That’s about a week’s worth of material. And here’s what a summary of all my property cases looks like. And here’s what a page filled with ambiguities in about two week’s worth of tort material looks like. Outlines are supposed to be brief summaries. Not treatises on the law.
Because I’d start outlining so early, and because I mostly ignored the syllabus reading, I’d be done outlining with about a month of classes to go. From there, I would do practice exams and then revise my outlines from what I learned by taking the practice exams.
So there you have it. Ignore the professor’s syllabus, rely on supplements to learn the black letter of the law, start outlining early, and then do some practice exams. If you can manage that, studying in law school isn’t nearly as scary as some students make it seem.