I remember the long train ride as I went to my first law school class. Property, with Professor Rose. I brought my laptop because even though I had never used a laptop to take notes in undergrad, I just knew that in law school note-taking on a computer was a must.
Twenty minutes into the class, my computer’s battery ran out. Then I realized I had forgotten to bring my power cord…
It was a whimper of a start for my legal career. Do you remember your first law course? I hope it was better than mine.
Now, obviously that didn’t really predict what school would be like, and I didn’t fail the property just because I had to handwrite the rest of my notes on the first day. But I did feel ditzy, unprepared, and just way out of my element. I felt the same way when it came to studying. I had no idea how to approach studying for my courses so that I could feel capable of learning and participating in class. Frankly, I had no idea where to start. Please don’t tell me I was the only one to feel this way?
It took a lot of false starts before I finally got the rhythm of things. Unfortunately, the time it took for me to get it, was time that could have been better invested. What I know now, is that I should have mapped out a study plan for the first few weeks. This would have given me structure and some feeling of control.
Because I felt so lost at sea, I want everyone to do better. These are my tips for the first real week of your 1L year. If you’re upperclassman, but need a new approach on tackling the year, maybe give these tips a try!
This is what you need to determine:
- What Will You Study? Obviously, your cases–but really you need to review all the syllabi and determine what you need to read for each class. Hopefully, your professor is cool and listed out what cases need to be read by certain dates (my torts professor, for example, never broke it down and we just had to guess how many cases she would cover in the next class). If it is listed out, look through your textbook and determine what needs to be read by certain dates. Make sure to give yourself extra reading time! Right now, even short cases will take you a long time to understand, so realize that longer cases will be even more arduous at first (and don’t worry that it takes you hours to get through a few pages–it will get better!). I like to break things up by weeks, so try to figure out how many cases you need to read this week, next week, etc. so that you’re caught up in all your classes. I’d recommend doing this only for the first three months, at most so you can readjust mid-semester.
When Will You Study? Now that you know what your caseload will be, try to map it out on your calendar to make a study schedule. When are you going to study: every night? during the weekends? What commitments do you have (work and family)? Are there some evenings/weekends where you can read ahead? This won’t be a perfect plan because inevitably things will come up, and you may not be able to read everything within the day/hour you planned it. But having it on a calendar heightens your awareness and the need to get it done. Again, do this for the first three months.
How Will You Study? Most every school discusses and encourages case outlining. That is where you outline the facts, the history of the legal case, the legal arguments, and the court’s opinion. This is an important skill to learn if only because it helps you discern the important facts about the cases. It also trains you to think in IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion), which you need to ace your exams. But, most people don’t study this way effectively. It’s likely the best method for you will be whatever method has worked for you in the past. Regardless, at the beginning, you should attempt to do outlining because right now it’s less about learning the law, and more about you being able to answer the professor’s questions about a specific case.
Where Will You Study? Finally, you have to determine where you will study. At home? At the library? At the coffee shop? Everyone likes different atmospheres. I studied at the library–many find that too stifling. I find coffee shops too distracting and disastrous to my wallet and waistline. But you have to do what’s comfortable. And it’s possible your inclination to do one or the other will change.
This may seem like a silly thing–who cares where you study?! Realize that law school is a weird mental game–especially when you’re new. Just knowing where you’ll study will give you a boost of confidence in your own abilities and how others may perceive you. What I mean is that if you know that you study in the library, and you know the library’s procedure for checking out study rooms then you’re going to send a message to your fellow students that this person knows something. And knowing something (anything) those hectic first weeks can set a tone of whether or not you feel like, and are treated as if, you belong. Even if it’s just your own personal mental game. I mean, look at me, I remember how stupid I felt when I realized I had forgotten my cord for my laptop. Stupid. “Typical me,” I thought, “never prepared.” What kind of attitude is that?! That’s not how you want to start your 1L year.
Be prepared and think ahead. And then reassess after a few months to determine what should change to enhance your ability to learn.