Starting law school can be thrilling, exciting, and sometimes overwhelming when you are trying to establish good study habits and learning how to make the most of every minute you have in learning the law. Ashley Heidemann, with JD Advising, a Michigan-based firm that advises law students about how to succeed in law school and pass the bar exam, shared advice based on her experience as a student and advisor.
To begin, you should know that how well you do in the first year of law school can be a good predictor of how well you will do throughout your years in law school. Do well that first year, and you will likely continue the momentum in years two and three, and beyond. Learning success skills early is the key to success in law school, passing the bar exam, and, ultimately, your law career success.
Heidemann, herself a law school graduate, noted that there are many mistakes students make in law school that can cost them; some more than others. If you’re looking for great tools to help you get ahead and stay ahead in law school, here are the three most common law school mistakes and what you can do to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Not outlining every law class from day one
Outlining is a learned skill and one that will serve you well in law school, if you do it faithfully. It is one of the core tools for success and the more you do it, the better you will become. To start, use your class syllabus and make the main sections in it your outline’s headings. As you proceed through the class, you can then add the details presented by your professor and your reading under each heading.
If there is anything you should be obsessive about, Heidemann says it should be your outlines. It’s also important to resist the temptation to borrow other’s outlines or purchase them online. It is essential that you create your outlines for yourself, getting the practice you need to become better with each class, and creating notes you can understand and memorize. As you are completing each class period, remember to include a list of all rules and all elements being addressed.
Mistake #2: Not using practice exams
The old saying “practice makes perfect” is especially relevant to this piece of advice. If your professor has practice exams or you take advantage of other practice exam resources, you will find them to be very helpful with teaching not only the material, but the application of the material as well.
One of the best things about practice exams is that even the most hypothetical exam questions can become reality in a world where truth often is stranger than fiction. Even the most bizarre scenarios your professors throw at you could conceivably become reality, so the more practice exams you take, the more you build your repertoire of knowledge and experience.
Remember, law school isn’t just about memorizing, it’s about applying the law. An answer that provides information but not a means of application to the problem, is not an answer at all when you’re in law school.
Mistake #3: Spending too much time obsessing over cases
As stated above, save your obsessive moments for outlining, not trying to memorize every case down to the last detail and then spending hours hashing it out with peers. Be thorough when reading your cases, take notes and revisit parts that are not clear or seem ambiguous. You will then be able to write case briefs that will define the laws that impact the cases, as well as similar cases and the courts’ decisions on those.
These case briefs will pile up along with all your class notes during each semester. As you collect them, be aware that your outlining skills are about to be tested, literally, come exam time. In fact preparing outlines from your case briefs and class notes will become your best means of passing the final, short of a photographic memory. Making outlining a priority will pay you back many fold in good grades while in law school.
Because law school is an investment in every way, Heidemann also recommends giving ample time and energy to answering the following questions before you choose the law school right for you.
- Location – How far are you willing and able to travel to go to law school?
- Finances – How much debt are you willing and able to incur? Some law schools may be cost-prohibitive without a scholarship.
- Environment – Do you work best in small class settings or large?
- Reason – Why do you want a law degree? There are many great reasons to get a J.D., so be sure yours is worth all the effort you will put into it.
There are no short cuts in law school, just intelligent moves. If you focus on being prepared starting day one, your success is much more likely. Good luck, and make sure to check out our YouTube Series "The Library Minute," a video series describing study aids and other secondary sources available for students in the WMU-Cooley Law School libraries.