How does law school work? The best professors focus on engagement in class, which can often involve the Socratic method, a hard-hitting format designed to help the student find the answer, rather than the professor simply lecturing. Law school is reading intensive and usually focused on understanding court cases, but the exam is often the only grade, and exams focus on legal rules. This means that the best way to get ahead can often be knowing where to focus energy.
What Happens in the Classroom
Though the only grade in a typical first-year law class is an exam grade (with the exception of legal writing), students should not be fooled into thinking they can simply study on their own and make the grade without attending class or reading cases. Attendance is key, because though the exams are anonymous and a student’s impression on the professor doesn’t really matter, exams usually focus heavily on what was covered in class.
The best way to prepare for class is to read the entire assignment. If this means skimming somewhat, then so be it, but the student who skims should also pay attention in class and mark down what’s important, taking careful notes. Note-taking and/or outlining is essential to organize thoughts, because there will never be time to re-read the entire casebook for an exam.
To prepare for class, briefing the cases can help the student get ahead, but the good news is that a wrong answer doesn’t hurt anything. Class is like a trial run – a student who makes a few gaffes when called on, but takes careful notes and highlights what’s important, is more likely to do well than the student who always answers correctly but often zones out and doesn’t take notes.
Using Study Aids, Outlines, and Study Groups
The best way to be ready when exams come is to prepare throughout the semester. It may seem like there will be plenty of time at the end, but outlining as class progresses will eliminate headaches and undue stress during exam season. Outlining throughout the semester also helps focus thoughts and remember key points from class that might be a distant memory in December or May.
Commercial outlines, flashcards, and other study aids can be useful, but students who rely on these may not get the best scores. Case summaries are only really useful to prepare for class. Outlines can be helpful, but they don’t focus on the class as this professor teaches it. Outlines made by the student are best, or as a second-best option outlines made by a student who had the same professor, especially as a way to double-check unclear points. Flashcards and sample problems can be great for study, but it’s best to focus on the areas the professor highlighted. Previous exam questions from the same professor are the best aids.
Many law students swear by study groups, but everyone has to find what’s right for them. It’s a good idea to ask potential study partners point blank whether they want to study seriously, and also whether they have their own notes already, so that everyone is contributing. Study groups are good for doing problems together or clarifying unclear points in notes, but students should individually prepare outlines and review the material before getting together.
Finally, it’s essential to know the exam format well in advance. Good outlines are essential for open-book exams. Colored tabs for notes and casebooks, as well as statutory supplements, can make it easier to find information during the exam. For Civ Pro and other classes with a supplement, a guide to the rules or statutes most likely to come up can be invaluable. For closed book, it’s best to focus only on what was covered in class and memorize legal rules. Case names and specific fact patterns are almost never required for a closed-book exam.