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The Law School Breakthrough, by Christopher J. Yianilos

Book review by Erin Lindsay Calkins. Published July 2008, last updated March 2011.

The Law School Breakthrough, by Christopher J. Yianilos

In The Law School Breakthrough, Christopher Yianilos offers the soundest law school advice I have yet read. Overachievers beware, however: Breakthrough will not instruct you on the best techniques for outlining or how to be the best prepared for class. Nor will it give you a compact set of “insider tips” to pull out before exams to help you beat the curve.

In fact, very little of the advice Yianilos offers is novel. Rather, it is a short summary of and convincing justification for doing what your parents have always told you: sleep lots, eat healthy, and exercise.

As with other law school prep books, much of Breakthrough can be skimmed or skipped entirely. Among these sections are “A Class Act,” in which Yianilos suggests mundane methods for outlining and briefing. Skip it; you can find more detailed better reasoned outlining and briefing strategies elsewhere. Rather, take away from this section these important points:

  1. Buy a Black’s Law Dictionary and read your assignments with it; look up each word you don’t know (e.g., estoppel) and words you do know that may have more complicated meanings (e.g., negligence); an understanding of the semantic nuances will serve you in class and on the exam.
  2. In your readings, pay attention to the section and sub-section headings. Read each section with the intention of deriving meaning related to its heading, i.e., learn what your professor and the books’ authors intend you to. This will save you time and frustration later.
  3. Outline as you go. Do not wait until the last week before exams.
  4. Shortly after each class, take a minute to review your notes and absorb what you have learned; this will aid in your retention and comprehension of the material.
  5. Approach study groups with caution – you can quickly get off-topic and/or begin to doubt your own knowledge. Both are counter-productive. It may be more helpful to have a couple of friends with whom you discuss and debate issues rather than a formal study group. If you have a study group, limit the number of members and be sure that you each contribute equally. This last bit of advice is likely easier said than done.

Still, the most valuable part of Breakthrough is “Boot Camp for Lawyers.” Yianilos describes a mental and a physical boot camp for law students. The mental boot camp is comprised of:

  1. Recognize that law school will be difficult and that you will need to adjust your lifestyle to be able to adapt. Wrap your mind around it early.
  2. Have confidence and do not doubt yourself.
  3. Recognize that it is ok to make mistakes in class. Everyone will. It will not affect your grade; it will not diminish your understanding of the law. In fact, it may improve it.
  4. Keep things in perspective. Again, easier said than done. But it is good to keep in mind that you may be in law school to learn, rather than to rank well, get the perfect firm job and retire early. Question your motives for going to law school in the first place and proceed from there.

These are wise suggestions. Equally wise are Yianilos’ suggestions for “Physical Boot Camp,” including:

  1. Set your routine and stick to it; be wary of being distracted into six-hour “study” sessions in which you mostly surf the net or chat with friends. Use your time efficiently
  2. Work out. This will combat the law of diminishing returns and also give you energy and endorphins. This will help you learn. Which, in turn, will help you perform on exam day.
  3. Meditate. Or, find an outlet to calm yourself. Something outside of the law and the law school. Do it every day. It can be actual meditation, or a fiction book you read a bit of each night before bed.
  4. Get away on weekends when you can. However, do not “get away” by partying so hard that you are worthless to study all weekend. Enough said.
  5. Sleep well. Figure out the right amount of sleep for you and get that amount every night. Sleep deprivation is counterproductive. If you did not learn this lesson in college, learn it now. If you cannot sleep, exercise more. It will wear you out and help you sleep.

While this may not seem like ground-breaking advice, take it. Even, and especially, during the stressful months of 1L. Yianilos is right on target in his recommendations. I heartily recommend the book – I’ll keep it close by to serve as a reminder during my first year.

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