Advice for Entering Law Students:

Master Conspirator Eugene Volokh has suggested that we might do some posts giving advice to entering law students. I don't have much to add to what I said in this 2006 post on the subject.

However, I will give one new piece of advice: don't automatically believe everything you hear about the "right" study methods for learning the law. From the first day of law school, many people will tell you that studying law is radically different from studying anything else and that you need to use all sorts of time-consuming new methods just to keep up. For example, some will tell you need that you need to outline every case you read in great detail or that you have to buy lots of commercially produced study guides.

It may be that some or all of these things really will help you get through law school. But you may want to consider the possibility that you can study law more or less the same way you studied other liberal arts and social science subjects as an undergrad or graduate student. With relatively minor modifications, I got through law school using the same study skills as I had used before. Lots of others have done the same thing. Many people achieve excellent records in law school without tedious new study methods, and without ever so much as glancing in a study guide other than the assigned readings. It can work, and if it does, it'll be a lot less aggravating than the alternatives.

Different people learn in different ways. My approach to studying may not work for you. So I'm not saying that you should necessarily do what I did or that you should reject study guides, detailed outlines, and the rest out of hand. Just approach the task with an open mind, and don't assume that the only way to survive law school is to adopt the time-consuming study methods many people will try to foist on you during your first year.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Advice for Entering Law Students:
  2. Advice for 1Ls: What If You Don't Know the Answer?:
Harvey Mosley (mail):
First, let me stress that I know my undergraduate criminal justice classes aren't the same as first year law classes.

However, when I finally started my college career last semester, I found the posts here (especially by Prof. Kerr) almost as helpful as my textbooks. With that in mind, don't overlook non traditional sources while studying.
8.27.2008 7:25pm
I recall that when I was in law school several centuries ago, a psych grad student did some survey research on the correlation between the amount of time spent studying and law students' GPAs (I don't remember if it was for a masters' or PhD and I have no idea if it was published anywhere).

According to the rumors floating around after the survey, the results royally messed up whatever thesis about the benefit of long hours of study that the grad student was hoping to prove: He ended up with a graph with the GPA on the X axis and hours spent studying on the Y axis, that plotted a nearly perfect bell curve. Or in other words, the law students who spent the least time studying were at the very top and bottom ends of the class rank, with study-heavy "grinds" disproportionately ending up with only middling grades.
8.27.2008 7:28pm
I graduated a long time ago, but this is good advice in my view. A corollary is to ignore your fellow first-year law students as much as possible -- particularly around exam time. Panic is contagious. Ignore the guy asking how everyone is doing and can he help because all of his outlines are done. Ignore the girl practically curled up in the fetal position in the library hyperventilating. Concentrate on your stuff and what you are doing. You will be fine.
8.27.2008 7:31pm
Mike Madison (University of Pittsburgh) has a pretty good series of posts on the subject:

8.27.2008 7:33pm
phil nomophulax:
Some more advice for U.Tex.Austin 1L's (through 3L's). Go organize a field hockey team for the graduate-student intramural league. Please stay off the Legal Eagles football team. They're already semi-pro, with a few pros thrown in. If you're already playing, resign and go back to the library, Tavern, etc., and let some History, Classics, or German geeks win a game for a change. You can bash all the heads you want after the bar exam. It's not your opponents' fault you weren't recruited to play for the Longhorns.
8.27.2008 7:38pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
I think you are exactly right. People learn in different ways. And there are many ways up the mountain. A person should stick with what works for them. Or, given he or she might need to take it to the next level, learn what truly works best. But ultimately, it about learning the material, however one goes about it.
8.27.2008 7:50pm
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8.27.2008 7:55pm
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8.27.2008 7:55pm
Here's the humble advice of a recent law school grad. First, make friends with the research librarians. They know where the information is. Of course these individuals will help you even if you don't know them personally. But you get the idea. Second, decide the purpose for your studying. And expect to study a lot. My personal goal was pretty simple - I did not want to look stupid in class. Can you relate? Finally, as for grades, get used to working hard and getting B's.
8.27.2008 8:02pm
Robert West (mail) (www):
I was an awful - flaky - undergrad, so I figured I needed to upgrade my study skills for law school.

I upgraded them to the extent that I was spending roughly an hour to an hour and a half studying for each hour in class. This was all I could do; I work full time.

I did just fine with those study skills, leaving me convinced many of my fellow students are *seriously overworking* and stressing themselves out to the point where it makes things harder for them.
8.27.2008 8:06pm
I think an hour and half per classroom hour is about right, although that ebbs and flows throughout the semester.

The one thing I learned quickly was not to write up the cases on separate pieces of paper at first. I annotated the casebook to death instead, and not just with highlighter. Fine-tip pens in different colors are the way to go. Holdings are one color, rules are another, things you have questions about still another. You can write notes to yourself in the margin with the same pen.

This works well if you are fairly visual and use color to organize your paperwork in general. An added benefit is that you can often find things just by glancing down if a professor catches you on something you can't quite recall. If the holding of a case is always green, and nothing else on the page is...
8.27.2008 8:20pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
There is a listserv for law students and those interested in legal education. It needs more participants.

If you wish to subscribe to LAWSCH-L, please issue the following command to LISTSERV@LISTSERV.AMERICAN.EDU with the following on the first line:

8.27.2008 8:21pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
"I think an hour and half per classroom hour is about right, although that ebbs and flows throughout the semester."

Does this include only your prep time, or all of the other time including writing up your outlines and reviewing past material and studying for the final?

Some teachers advised to spend this much time as prep time. I'll note. I certainly didn't. For the first semester of the first year, I tried to do as much class prep as possible. After that, as little as I could get away with. I spent a lot of time with commercial outlines, past student outlines of students I could trust (those who got good grades in the class) and writing, typing up my class notes and creating my own outline. For me, preparing for class was the least important thing in terms of learning the material. And I did as little as I could get away with because I was expected to be prepared for class and didn't want to be caught with my pants down which happened on more than one occasion. "Pass!"
8.27.2008 8:37pm
Im my long ago law school experience, it was the contagious panic that drove a lot of people.

Even if you want to trust the study skills and techniques that got you there, you start to worry that seemingly everyone else is putting in 12 hour days, 7 days a week. You figure they must know something you don't, and with so much riding on first year grades, you find yourself driven to put in the hours, even if you don't quite know why. It's almost unavoidable first year. All the advice in the world usually can't overcome that contagin.

Then by second year, you hopefully realize that some classmates are just overworking it. You focus on the classes you find interesting, and slide through those you find boring. Hopefully pick your schedule to maximize the former and minimize the latter. Have a pretty nice two years comfortably studying topics you find interesting with professors and fellow students from which you can learn...and understand that it sure beats working at big firm by a long shot.
8.27.2008 8:37pm
The smartest advice I ever got about how to succeed as a 1L: The classroom process is key. Go to every class. Listen actively. Even if you're not on the hot seat, think about the answers to every question the professor asks. And take good notes (which will be of immense value when you study for the final). Before you know it, you'll be learning how to "think like a lawyer" -- which is 95% of the battle.

And as for studying during the semester, read the cases just well enough so you understand what's going on in class, but don't go OCD over them. Doubling the amount of time you spend plowing the cases and notes won't give you very much additional payback. Instead use your free time to stay sane -- go for a run, watch the Big Game (if you're at a Division 1 school, at least), pay attention to your significant [or insignificant] other, and get to know your fellow students outside of class - in the lounge, the pub, at law-related extracurriculars, or wherever they hang out at your school that isn't the library (which is the epicenter of 1L paranoia and to be avoided as much as possible when you're not actually using it for legal research).
8.27.2008 8:48pm
I have some advice for new law students. Keep your perspective. Law School is not difficult. If you have decent analytical abilities and can write reasonably well, you will do fine. Be sure to take Remedies. And avoid thinking about the Bar Exam until it's time to take it, which won't be until after you've wasted countless hours cramming stuff into your head that (a) won't be tested on the Bar Exam and (b) won't ever be useful once you start practicing.
8.27.2008 8:53pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I think that Sally has a good point about the bar exam. My property prof had a list of highly suggested electives, including family law, and a bunch of other stuff that I would never use. Half the class listened to her and took those classes. Outside the core courses, you get all you need of the rest of the subjects on the bar exam in BAR/BRI (or other prep course). And by that time, you are on autopilot, inhaling what you need of a semester's work in a half a day or so of prep class. You only go to law school once (hopefully), and so should spend it taking the classes you are interested in.

And don't panic at finals time. I loved the scene in Paper Chase where all the students went berserk then, and the protagonist had to isolate himself from them to get his studying done. I would suggest that there is nothing more self-destructive than panic at this time.
8.27.2008 9:22pm
theobromophile (www):
Thanks to the Conspirators for putting this together. (The "Related posts" function is wonderful - makes it easy to email all of these to those 1Ls in our lives. :) )

I used highlighters to do the same thing that A.C. did - six colours in all, for judge/procedural posture/holding, dissenting opinion, arguments made by each side, precedent cited, facts, and reasoning.

Could not agree more to use whatever study habits have worked in the past. It's kind of weird how law school turns seemingly rational people into witch doctors. If you dance in a half-circle in the morning, make a ritualistic sacrifice at the hands of the god Emanual, sweat and toil in the library until dawn has broken, and take essence of Glannon before finals time, and thou shalt please the gods of the law. Omit the essence of Glannon, and condemn thyself to a lifetime of document review.
8.27.2008 9:57pm
The hour and a half is total time, not just prep before class. Reviewing yesterday's class and preparing for tomorrow's are activities that blend into each other, especially when professors don't break for the day at the end of a chapter. But that time estimate only applies after the first term. Everyone's inefficient the first term. I might have spent more like three hours per hour of class time until I went through the whole thing once and figured out what worked for me.

By the final year, I may have had it down close to one for one. My grades didn't drop, but I could get through more in less time.

It's like anything else. First figure out how to do it at all. Then figure out how to do it efficiently so you have time left for other areas of life.

If you are taking 15 credits, the total comes to 45 hours a week -- more when papers are due, but less when the reading assignments are shorter or less complex. That's a pretty reasonable work week if you get up at a normal hour and work without too many long interruptions.

Oh, and don't wait till the very end of the term to start outlining. Not much point in starting until you have accumulated a few weeks' material to work with, but start by the middle of the semester at the latest.
8.27.2008 10:07pm
matt b (mail):
drop out; go get a business degree.
8.27.2008 10:21pm
Robert West (mail) (www):
AC: I'm working full time, and was taking 10 units last year; 25 hrs/wk plus working was ... tough, in patches.

I'm not sure that it's bad to wait until the end of the term to start outlining, though. This is probably one of those "different strategies will work for different people" things.
8.27.2008 10:57pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
AC. That sounds right. Including the 15 hours of class time I worked between 40-50 hours a week and spend more time typing up my class notes and preparing the final outline and studying for the final than I did preparing for class. It served me well. I graduate in the top 1/3 of my class at Temple Law (JD '99, LL.M. '01) and had no trouble passing the bar with the same level of prep/work. But, I didn't graduate with honors. If I wanted to make honors, I'd have to put in more hours.
8.27.2008 11:16pm
George Weiss (mail) (www):
being on your game is worth as much or more than knowing the material your exam day.

don't cram-you probably already knwo the stuff (most people do) cramming will just wear you out and ruin your one chance to show you know the stuff.
8.27.2008 11:36pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Cramming ain't wise, unless you are really brilliant. However, learning the material AFTER class without being prepared for class (as they tell you to) is just fine in terms of the final outcome.
8.28.2008 12:27am
LM (mail):
Avoid the law library during study and exam periods. There are dark forces there that thrive on fear.
8.28.2008 1:03am
Advice from a recent graduate:
* Review commercial outlines to gain familiarity with the subject. Cases only is not the most efficient way to determine what the cases at teaching.
* Read as many cases as you can.
* Do not brief cases - it is waste of time. It may help you when called on, but the time saved is well worth the embarrassment when stumped in class.
8.28.2008 1:13am
Curt Fischer:

[A researcher] ended up with a graph with the GPA on the X axis and hours spent studying on the Y axis, that plotted a nearly perfect bell curve. Or in other words, the law students who spent the least time studying were at the very top and bottom ends of the class rank, with study-heavy "grinds" disproportionately ending up with only middling grades.

This made my brain hurt. Is it a 3D graph or what? How'd he fit GPA, hours spent studying, and the number of students, on one graph? If the number of students (in a particular window of time spent studying and gpa) wasn't a variable, how would a bell curve come out?
8.28.2008 1:17am
one of many:
Curt, you put a separate data point for each student where the GPA and hour of study intersect and calculate from there. I forget most of it but it's part of scatter plot analysis, usually you get a line but sometimes you get a curve. Not to say that it is necessarily true, as was pointed out this was only a rumor, but it is to be expected that there are some people who can maintain a perfect GPA with minimal study, those with a 150+ IQ and perfect recall for instance.
8.28.2008 4:02am
Public_Defender (mail):
Work hard. Study however it works best. Don't rely on the outlines of others. Participate in class. Exercise regularly. Eat right. Have a little fun. Don't worry about the bar exam. Get a well-rounded legal education (you have a lifetime to learn specialized practice knowledge). Take a few "fun" classes. And keep your perspective.
8.28.2008 6:20am
One of Many: Anecdotally, the concept of the best students studying less was basically borne out in my experience at that (tier-1) school. The law review's ed board didn't spend nearly as much time reading and briefing cases as a lot of other students, given the amount of work the editors had to do for the publication every day. And our class valedictorian was an older student who supported his family with a nearly-full-time job during much of law school (in a DAY program), and later went on to clerk for Justice White. Although he did quit law review as a 2L when he realized just how much time they expected him to put in doing grunt work citechecking (whereupon a well-known professor immediately picked him up as his research assistant and basically treated him like a co-author).

Although my hero was our dean emeritus, who according to legend won the "triple crown" when he was a student at that same law school many years earlier -- valedictorian, moot court competition winner, law review EIC -- PLUS was a member in VERY good standing of the law school drinking/social club. I'm guessing he didn't even bother buying all the assigned casebooks, let alone reading them.
8.28.2008 9:15am
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
"Don't rely on the outlines of others."

It depends on who wrote the outline. If it's an "A" student who wrote a really good outline for the class, I found those to be quite useful. But I would never rely on that as the ONLY thing. Rather, I'd use it as a reference when constructing my own outline.
8.28.2008 10:15am
Law school wrecked my math. Of course I meant that 15 credits translated to a 37.5-hour work week. It probably amounts to 45 hours once you throw in all the time you spend drinking caffeinated drinks and zoning out when you should be reading. But the point is that it isn't 90 hours, and it shouldn't interfere with things like sleeping and eating well.
8.28.2008 11:16am
BZ (mail):
Study group. Never used them as undergrad. Relied on them completely in law school. Also, used more highlighters. Tried recording classes and listening in the car, but that didn't work. We didn't have laptops back then, but we had copious notes.

Worked while going to law school at night, as did all of those in my study group. Kept in touch with them over the years as well; having lunch with two tomorrow, as we celebrate our 25th graduation anniversary.
8.28.2008 11:27am
Rhode Island Lawyer:
I attended law school nearly 30 years ago after working full-time for several years. The best advice I got from an attorney friend was to treat law school, to the greatest extent, as a continuation of full-time employment. Get up early, spend the normal work day hours going to class and doing the readings for the following days, and use the evenings to do whatever fun things interested you before you got to law school. Drink beer, play sports, read a novel, go to a movie, do something else.

Just like the real world, when something needs to get done outside of the normal hours you put in the time to get it done, but don't make it a habit. Once you get into the mindset of "if 4 hours of study is good, 8 must be better" then you have lost all perspective. There is a point of diminishing returns from that grinding effort and I think it comes much sooner than most believe.

I agree with the suggestion about staying away from the library, particularly around exam time. The odor of fear and anxiety is palpable and that is the last thing you need.
8.28.2008 11:31am
I found two other people that I could relate to well and we formed a study group that stayed more or less together all three years. I didn't "study" all that much: I would read the assigned material for class and would actively participate in class (I was one of those annoying front-row people who whose hand was permanently in the air). Then the study group would get together on Friday afternoons and spend about 6 hours working through all of the new concepts from the week. We shared each other's course outlines. All three of us graduated in the top 20%.

As for commercial study aids, I found them almost completely useless and after about half-way through the first semester I never looked at another one.
8.28.2008 12:12pm
M Go Blue:
"Although my hero was our dean emeritus, who according to legend won the "triple crown" when he was a student at that same law school many years earlier -- valedictorian, moot court competition winner, law review EIC -- PLUS was a member in VERY good standing of the law school drinking/social club."

Generations of The Saint's students recognize this description. He was unique. His reputed ability in his younger days to toss 'em down while staying the smartest and most pleasant guy in the room was the stuff of legends. But he's not to be recommended as a study habit model for new law students. Occasional bouts of intense sobriety are almost as important to law school success as multi-color highlighters.
8.28.2008 12:28pm
I found class particiation to be a great learning tool. It's an opportuntiy to engage in a discussion with the professor and did wonders to help me understand the law at issue. It also really sharpens one's ability to "think like a lawyer". I suppose that many students avoid speaking in class for fear of being wrong or looking bad in front of their peers. Huge mistake.

When pressed for time (I worked full time during law school)I frequently used the table of cases in a hornbook as a way to identify the key legal issues before reading cases. I always, always turned first to the opinion or dissent written by Justice Black, who wrote wonderfully clear prose. I never did an outline, which still strikes me as a waste of time, or joined a study group. I thought it would be much better to discuss cases with the professor than with students.
8.28.2008 12:33pm
Crackmonkeyjr (www):
The best piece of study advice I received in law school was that no one, after first year, actually outlines cases. This saved me an infinite amount of time.

With regard to how I actually studied, I managed to do respectably at a top tier law school by paying attention in class and then reviewing either commercial study guides (particularly the "Nutshell" books) or other people's outlines.
8.28.2008 1:01pm
The one study guide that saved me my first year was Glannon's Civ Pro examples and explanations book. I thought it was excellent. By exam time I was pretty much carrying it around like it was my blankie.
8.28.2008 1:54pm
Brian Mac:

Advice for Entering Law Students

Wear protection?
8.28.2008 2:17pm
Forget about learning how to study. Just study, and spend several hours before your first exam learning how to take law school exams.

In order to do well in law school, you must how to write your exams in the most efficient and professor-pleasing way possible. Keep in mind the obvious (yet seemingly overlooked) fact that you are being graded on your ability to answer questions in an exam, not your ability to study or create massively detailed outlines. If you make yourself learn how to write efficiently for your very first law school exam in torts (or contracts, or whatever), it will continue to pay dividends as you take your last final in the spring of your 3L year (though, of course, it won't be as important then).

As I learned the hard way, good exam writing is about more than just learning how to use IRAC, issue-spot, and do good analysis. You must learn how to make efficient use of your time, only spending as much time on a particular issue as is warranted by its weight in the professor's grading scheme. It cannot be emphasized enough that law school exams are extremely time-constrained, and you must budget your time wisely.

To learn from my example: I had several classes where I didn't pay much attention in class and felt like I knew and understood less than many of my colleagues, but I would do very well grade-wise, as I would run out of things to say about a particular question on the exam within a reasonable period of time and move right on to the next question. Conversely, there were a few classes where I felt I understood the subject matter thoroughly, but I would spend so much time going through legal minutiae in the first, say, two questions in a three question exam that I wouldn't have but perhaps twenty or thirty minutes on the third. The result would be extremely high marks for the first couple of questions, abysmal marks on the third, and a middling grade (or worse) in the class. I either failed to see just how much time had elapsed, or I just couldn't bring myself to stop the analysis at a reasonable point on the earlier questions, and it cost me dearly.

I wasn't the only one with this problem. We had a guy in our class who was an honest-to-goodness genius. He was going to a top flight law school and a top flight medical school at the same time, was the recipient of all kinds of academic scholarships, and, from what I heard from friends who knew him in undergrad, had already made a considerable sum of money while an undergraduate through a couple of businesses that he started himself. Nonetheless, he did poorly in his first semester exams, and one of my law school friends tutored him for the second semester on how to take law school exams effectively. According to my buddy, who looked at the guy's first-semester exam answers, this guy had excrutiatingly detailed (and brilliant) analysis in the early questions and would rarely get to answering the last question at all.

It sounds simple, but in the heat of exam-taking, you can forget to look at your watch.
8.28.2008 2:32pm
In response to some of the posts, a practical caution for 1Ls: Be careful about over-relying on study guides; they can be of rather irregular quality. And whatever you do, don't have them visible in class when the professor calls on you (and they have a great vantage point from the podium to see what you're looking at). True anecdote:

One of the lazier students in my torts class many years ago got called on by the prof to do a classic case recitation. He basically read from Emanuels. The prof realized what he was up to, and innocently started asking questions about facts not in the commercial outline (which suggested the prof was also intimately familiar with the outline, but that's another story). After about 3 such questions, the prof launched into a Kingsfieldian diatribe that was rather humiliating for the student, and drove home to the rest of the class that engaging in Socratic dialogue with reference sources other than the assigned casebook was potentially hazardous to one's GPA, if not one's health.

M Go Blue: You guessed right - St. Antoine. Relevant to new law students, I once heard him give a witty but fairly accurate description of what to expect on a well-written law school final exam (direct quote as best I can reconstruct it 20+ years later): "Answering law school exam hypotheticals is like peeling an onion. You pull back each layer and there's always going to be another layer underneath to deal with. And nobody can get to the middle without crying."
8.28.2008 2:56pm
If your professor supplies sample answers to exams from previous years, read them.
8.28.2008 3:16pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

That sounds like my crim law professor. he went so far as to determine whether you wrote Gilberts or Emmanuels sounding like material in your final exam and those were often the students he gave the "Ds" to. Me I got a good student outline from the year before and that helped quite a bit.
8.28.2008 4:11pm
Guest 2L:
I found all the advice in first year distracting. Yes, the first year grades are more important than any rational person would think. But all the "start outlining by Halloween" advice is pretty much worthless. Outlining and briefing are worth considering, but you can make a top grade w/o this strategy and you can make a disappointing grade w/this strategy. If you're smart enough to get into a decent law school in the first place, you can figure out what professors want. Ignore the advice from 2Ls that happened to do well. It's BS.
8.28.2008 7:45pm
newly-minted 2L (mail):
I would have to say that law school study habits are highly individualistic. I read every case twice and wrote up a simple brief, but never really started outlining until the last few weeks of class. I never used commercial outlines (whoever was writing them probably didn't have Bob Heidt for torts, so how were they going to help me?) or any other commercial study aids. This strategy led me to the top 3% at a school ranked just north of 40 overall, but others of my peers on law review didn't do this, and they got decent enough grades.

It's all about learning the material and taking the exams well. Do whatever you have to do to learn the material and take the exam the way the prof. wants it taken. So figure out what works for YOU, not for the person freaking out next to you.

And M Go Blue or whatever you call yourself, I also graduated from Appalachian State. I'm still savoring the taste of deep-fried Wolverine a year later, especially as I live in the heart of big ten kuntry.
8.28.2008 8:14pm
Cornellian (mail):
Stay away from study groups. Seriously, they're useless, probably worse than useless.
8.29.2008 12:34am