How to be a Successful Law Student
Keep up with your assignments! First-year classes move at a brisk pace, with assignments on a nightly basis. Keeping up with those assignments may seem like an overwhelming task at first, but it can be accomplished with some careful planning, hard work, and determination. Remember, trying to play catch-up is worse than steadily putting in the hard work.
Attendance is crucial to your success in law school. You must be in class to learn and you must be on time. Give your professors and classmates the respect and courtesy they deserve by showing up on time and avoiding the disturbance of a late entrance.
Your participation in class is a key component of the learning process in law school and may be a factor come grading time. When you are prepared and actively participate in class, you enhance the learning experience for yourself and your classmates. Ask questions and pay attention to the questions asked by others. Volunteer an answer or response when a question is put to the entire class.
We realize that there may be times when class gets boring and you lose perspective; however, keep in mind that you are in law school to learn the process of how to think like a lawyer as well as the law itself. Don't lose heart, your professor has a plan. Head down, chin up!
STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: For the first week of classes this is what upper-class students advised:
- Meet everyone and pay attention in legal writing;
- don't get behind on the reading... set for yourself the habits you will maintain all semester;
- don't stress, it seems so overwhelming but by the time finals come along things will fall into place;
- Even if you get embarrassed in class, don't let it make you stop participating... don't be cocky enough to think you know the answer if you haven't done the reading;
- and last, be more excited than afraid!
Studying and Study Groups
Creating a study schedule for yourself is highly recommended! This study schedule should designate nightly and weekly study sessions. Timing the sessions to occur at the same times each week will help to reinforce positive study habits through repetition. Plan ahead to cover times when you know you will be busy with outside activities and distractions. Also, remember to take breaks during your sessions to avoid study burnout.
Study groups can be extremely rewarding. However, involvement in a study group is a matter of personal preference. These groups are usually composed of four to five students who meet on a regular basis throughout the semester. Other study groups may meet only around exam time.
Generally, members work together to construct or review course outlines and to discuss topics covered in class. Seeing how others attack and analyze legal issues can be very enlightening.
Some students may discover that they prefer to work alone, finding the group atmosphere distracting. Study groups are not for everyone; all students have their idiosyncrasies and may work at a different pace than others in the group. Certainly, do not feel obligated to join a group, and do not feel odd if you are not interested in group study.
The Socratic Method
The Socratic Method is the teaching and discussion method most often used by professors during the first year of law school. This teaching method involves the solicitation of case facts and legal analysis from one student in the class at a time. The student is essentially in the "hot seat" for a portion of the class. The purpose of the Socratic dialogue is for students to learn from one another and to facilitate your development as a counselor and an advocate.
A professor using the Socratic Method will expect a solid recitation of the facts, holding, and analysis of the case from the student. The professor will lead you through the experience with a battery of questions. As the semester progresses, and your class has been exposed to more areas of the law, a more in-depth analysis will be expected from students who are called upon.
Most of your professors will distribute a seating chart on the first or second day of class. You will be required to sit in the seat you select for the duration of the semester. Keep this in mind when you arrive and choose accordingly. Should a problem with the seating arrangement arise during the semester, contact your professor right away. Do not change seats without first notifying your professor.
In your legal writing class you will be taught how to "brief" a case. Briefing lays out the fact pattern and holding of a case and helps you to pinpoint the principle of law that's at issue.
Writing a brief for each case will help prepare you for class discussion and will enable you to see how a significant holding fits into the "big picture."
You should try to brief every case you are assigned for reading. Having each case broken down into manageable parts, on paper, directly in front of you is a great tool for understanding. Briefing your own cases will also empower you to discern issues from complicated fact patterns; a skill that you will need to have to succeed, both on your exams and as a lawyer. As times goes on and you become more proficient at briefing, you may want to move to the "book brief" method, where you make notes in the margins of the case text and highlight important text. "Book briefs" should highlight the same information as a formal brief would and should enable you to participate in class discussions. At the start, though, you should stick with formal briefing on a separate sheet of paper.
Remember that each and every case you read helps you prepare for the final examination. Your professors assign the cases and explanatory material in a manner intended to help you gradually synthesize the legal structure of a particular area of substantive law.
STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: Upper-class students highly recommend briefing cases, especially as a new law student because:
- although it is very time consuming, briefing will give you clarity about a case;
- it makes studying for finals 100 times easier;
- it helps you be prepared in case the professor calls upon you; and
- because it is helpful to learn the skill of extracting relevant information (especially the rule) and synthesizing it into a brief format.
Finally, while study guides may be helpful, don't rely on them and neglect briefing your cases!