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Success in Law School - A Unique Perspective
Published August 2007, last updated February 2011
Foreword by Ken DeLeon, creator of Top-law-schools.com
This is a very candid and pragmatic guide to doing well in law school and getting excellent grades while allowing you time for other interests. As you will read, it is quite different from the typical focus and study preparation that most first-year students fall into with a herd mentality.
This guide to success in law school has a nontraditional emphasis, focusing upon success in the final exam, which is the sole determinant of your grade. Most study methods, which involve detailed briefing of cases, generally result in students getting lost in minutia and not being adequately prepared for the exam. As a result, most first-year law students generally fail to keep in sight the big picture each course seeks to present, and they do not comprehend how the parts fit and relate together, until the very end of the course, if even then.
Conversely, this system is focused on the big picture. It prioritizes legal concepts instead of cases. This study system begins with the end goal in sight: Success on law school final exams.
This primer also mentions study aids that will become familiar to you in law school, which are available at your local bookstore and online at Amazon.com. You may want to begin buying and studying some of these materials before entering law school in order to pave the way for success.
The main reason you should consider the words of advice in this primer is because the “proof is in the pudding.” This primer was written by a fellow Top-Law-Schools reader who just completed his first year at NYU Law School. He was able to party and socialize five nights a week yet get grades that placed him in the top 10% of his class. This result was simply a matter of studying efficiently and not just following the herd and landing in the middle of the pack. Through achieving these grades, he had several choices of working for top law firms and making over $2800 a week during his first summer after law school.
While this primer views law school with a slightly cynical perspective, it offers effective and practical tips for success. The tips suggested in this primer, such as doing flow charts for your outlines, were taught to me in my second year of law school when a third-year student shared some of the secrets he learned after his first two years of law school. Once I learned this secret, my grades jumped, and I received several of the top grades in my remaining classes at UC Berkeley/Boalt Hall. Thus, having been through law school myself, I immediately recognized the value of the advice in the primer below. Whatever study method you choose, I wish you great success in law school.
Success in Law School – A Unique Perspective
In Law School nobody tells you what to do to excel.
If you only do the assigned readings and participate in class, you will not distinguish yourself enough to stand out from your peers. By doing what everyone else is doing you will most likely end up where everyone else does, in the middle of the pack. Below is a description of the effective study techniques I utilized to rank in the top 10% a top-five law school. This was all done while having a great social life outside of law school. In short, this is a candid and “no bullshit” guide to succeeding in law school.
Let me describe the typical law students’ first semester. They first buy their books. Then they do the assignments the night before, as asked. They read the casebook and meticulously brief every case. They take detailed notes in class and feel they understand everything said by both students and the professor. They join a study group that reviews and discusses the cases for the week. After Thanksgiving, they put together a voluminous outline of over fifty pages cobbled together from their class notes and reading notes. They review the outline until they feel they have achieved a solid comprehension of the information. They take a few practice tests in the week leading up to the test. The test is a typical open-book, three- or four-hour exam worth 100% of their grade. They come to test day equipped solely with their giant fifty-page outline and their annotated casebook. They feel security from the weight of prepared materials. The exam is intense, hectic, and difficult. They are continually flipping through their fifty-page outline and books for little notes they know are somewhere, as valuable time slips away. They finish the exam in a bit of a time crunch and feel a little worried but somewhat satisfied. Grades come back in January.
Now imagine a typical student that followed the crowd as outlined above. She gets average grades of one B+, two Bs, and a pass grade in her writing skills class. She has never gotten a GPA so low before.
What went wrong?
I. Grade Distributions
The hypothetical student did not actually do badly; her grades were average for a top law school like NYU, where the grade distribution is usually less generous than it was in college. For example, a typical grade allocation at NYU Law School is as follows:
C or below: 2%
This is not made up or a guess about the grade distribution, this is approximately what the grade distribution was in my Civil Procedure class, rounded to the nearest percent for clarity.
It is important to note that getting an A in law school is somewhat like getting an A+ in college, for that grade is given to a much smaller percentage of the class.
The hypothetical student did not do poorly; she just simply failed to distinguish herself from her peers. Because all those attending law school generally succeeded in college, getting average grades can be disconcerting and quite a blow to one’s ego.
However, by effectively studying for law school, with the primary goal always being to succeed on the final exam, one can do very well while still living a balanced and fulfilling life in law school.
II. Focus on the Final Exam from the Beginning
The weaknesses in the typical student’s approach are numerous. I would estimate, based on the law students I know, that 75% or more of the first-year students in my class followed the road outlined above. Some extremely bright students follow this road and get A’s. This is a measure of their brilliance, not a justification for their study system. I would wager that using a smarter system would allow them to fare even better.
The first major issue here is failure to respect an exam worth 100% of your grade. It is essential that you always budget enough time in your schedule for exam preparation. You should not be spending time doing things that do not contribute to an increase in your exam score until you have completed all of those things that do increase your exam score.
A professor may open a class and welcome you to law school and to her class. She may inform you about the lengthy readings and level of preparation she expects from you. She may inform you of the test at the end worth 100% of your grade, but tell you not to worry about it because it is too early. She may tell you to brief every case and not to read study guides.
You need to hear beyond her words, into the reality and implications of what she is saying. This is what I hear:
“Welcome to Contracts; I am Professor Smith. I am going to talk about what I am interested in because this is my class and I am going to teach the way I want to. I am not going to advise you on how to play tricky games to maximize your grades because when the end of the semester comes I am going to give out a fixed number of A’s, B’s, and C’s anyway. I care about my research, not about how you guys fight it out amongst yourself for the 5 A and 15 A- grades I will be awarding. I don’t want you to read study guides or for you to practice tests all year long, even though doing so will get the select few of you that do it better test grades. Reading these books and practicing sample tests may get you great at taking tests, but you are short-cutting past all of the hard work that will make you better suited for a career in legal academia in the long run.”
Or sometimes this:
“Welcome to Contracts; I am Professor Smith. I am completely out of touch with what it is like to be an average law school student with typical abilities relative to my peers. When I was at Harvard Law School in 1972 we used the Socratic Method, and I stand by that tradition. It doesn’t matter that I was a 178 LSAT and 3.98 student in undergrad, with a 172 I.Q. and that I could have only studied ten hours a week and still have made Harvard Law Review. I am completely out of touch with what it would take for the typical law student to read or practice in order to do well on my exam.”
The Law School Professor has no interest in helping you do well on his exam because his grades will be fixed anyway. He is concerned about teaching you what he wants to teach you, not helping you to be the one to get the A.
It is up to you to figure out a good system, since there will always be a trick to excelling.
In no way do I intend to disparage any law school professor at my school or any other school. The law school professors I know and have known have been brilliant and professional while still remaining approachable and helpful. However, in my opinion, many of these law school professors have been out of school for so long that they have lost touch with the law school student’s perspective. When thinking about how to do well in school, I value the opinions of those of similar intelligence and who have recently experienced law school.
To excel in law school by definition, you must ace your final exam, which is the sole determinant of your grade. It is surprising to me that people do not start from the vantage point of exam preparation when choosing how they study and prepare for law school. The road to success must lie in preparing in a way that optimizes your law school exam score.
III. Thinking Outside of the Box
It is a bad strategy to do exactly what everyone else is doing in terms of study and preparation. Students are afraid that if they vary from the pack, then they will end up falling to the bottom of the class. This is a valid concern, especially if the system you propose is poorly thought out. However, unless you are brilliant, following the pack by definition will get you average grades, which is generally a B. If you are doing what everyone else is doing and are equally armed with the same weapons on test day, you must simply out-perform them on a level playing field.
There is an alternative. You can bring a gun to a knife fight. Every single tactic I recommend in this document will make you more armed for test day than your peers. If at any point you cannot see or do not believe in a justification of how a proposed study strategy will improve your test score, then I would discourage adopting that method. However, I stand by every part of my system and the explanations for how and why they improve your exam score.
To quickly defend myself and my study system: I am not a lazy person. I can see how I could be misconstrued as one by a reader of this guide. In reality, I am the opposite of lazy. I value my time so much that I do not want to waste any minute of it doing things unimportant to my life. I plan to practice at a large law firm, and I am fully aware that it is not the law review students who make partner at most law firms. It is those with solid academic skills and superb social skills that make partner. I push myself to socialize and network as much as possible. These are the skills that are most important to me. Whether you value networking and socializing, or having time to exercise or pursue other interests, following this system efficiently allows you to do well in law school while having time to allocate as you choose.
I fully respect the law school tradition. However, the law school system is geared toward a career in academia. For someone with my objective of private law firm practice, I do not have to reread and spend hours studying and rereading Posner’s perspectives on torts when an analysis of the professors last fourteen exams indicate that he does not test and never will test on policy.
IV. Exams, the Importance of Class Rank, and Introduction to My System
Have you ever looked at a law school exam before? If you are just starting law school and haven’t yet, why haven’t you? I sometimes am amazed by how many students do not even look at a law school exam until deep into their first semester. You are graded 100% by your performance on this test; you must respect this test and know what you are facing.
Everyone at law school is familiar with the law school admission process. There are many of you who did not get into your top schools because of either GPA or LSAT. Your amazing personal statement or your outstanding job performance meant nothing to the school that rejected you because your GPA and LSAT were too far outside of their target range.
A similar judgment will also be passed by law firms, who base their employment decisions on where you rank amongst your classmates, not what you take out of law school. Although activities and intangibles will help your job prospects, the number one hiring criteria will be where you placed in your class (and of course which school you graduated from, but you cannot change that now, unless you plan to transfer, in which case grades are even more critical). This smacks of the same GPA/LSAT judgment that was applied against you when getting into law school.
If the number one criterion you will be judged by is class rank, and this is determined solely by an aggregate of your 3- to 4-hour final exams, it only makes sense to study with the aim of maximizing your exam performance and scores.
This leads to the most critical point. Since the entire legal world judges you on your grades, you must study exclusively for the exam, even if this means reading additional materials, skimming assigned readings in order to buy time to do other forms of study, going against the advice of your professor, or taking some lumps in class because you are preparing for the test rather than to look good when you are called on.
The most fundamental error a law school student can make is to believe that by doing the assigned readings and preparing for class as expected will result in strong grades. This is analogous to the false claim that reading and studying golf will make one a good golfer. The actual writing of quality law school exams is a completely different skill set than reading case books and learning in class by the Socratic Method.
I like to think of the assigned readings, casebooks, and the Socratic Method as a suggestion by the professor as to a possible, traditional route to exam preparation. What I hear is, “We learned to study for these tests by the tradition of casebooks and the Socratic Method. Times have progressed and vastly superior ways to exam preparation exist, but there is a beauty to sticking to a system that dates back to Greek antiquity.”
When you open up a law school exam, you will most likely find a series of traditional fact pattern questions and possibly a policy essay. The key to tackling these questions does not lie in the casebooks.
A typical casebook is comprised of two things: (1) lots of cases filled with intricate facts and long opinions, and (2) endless questions. I just opened my property casebook to a random page. The case is six full pages, with another five pages of notes and squibs. There is a near infinite stream of questions, with no answers or even a discussion of the answers. Questions include, “Under what circumstances might a seller or purchaser want the contract to include such a clause?” and “Why is there so much resistance to a uniform approach to real estate transactions, given the striking success of the Uniform Commercial Code, dealing with goods (personal property) throughout the United States?”
Intricately reading these cases and answering these questions with no feedback on your response is a poor substitute for exam practice. Most law students who do not know any better spend their entire semester briefing each case and working in study groups through these questions. In my opinion, this is one of the most inefficient study systems imaginable. It might take ten hours of study by this method to equal one hour of directed study toward the exam. It also does not teach any of the skills related to applying your knowledge to a fact pattern, which is what the final exam requires. I see some strength in discussing the questions with a study group that is intelligent, terse, and efficient with their responses, but repeatedly reading those long cases and briefing them is an incredible time sink.
I do not recommend briefing cases. If I am assigned a fifty-page reading in contracts, I will treat it differently than the rest of the class. The rest of the class will go home and read all fifty pages. They will brief all cases, and spend a lot of time taking notes, highlighting, and writing in the margins. They will spend some time thinking about some of the proposed line of questions.
On the other hand, I will go home and take out my Case Summary book keyed to my class. I will also read the corresponding sections of the Examples and Explanations book for the class that explains and then applies the material. I will also read the sections of the hornbook, which is a treatise on that subject, relevant to the material. I will then read the assigned reading very quickly. I will only carefully read the heart of the court’s analysis, which I can easily spot because the case summary book, hornbook, and Examples and Explanations book have all pointed me toward it. The rest of the material will only get a quick read. My time is spent thinking about how this case will be tested on an exam and how it will fit on my dense outline. I see where the case fits in the scheme of things because my system is big-picture focused.
I will end up bumping into a fellow student the next day before class. When she comments upon how long the reading was last night, I will comment on how it wasn’t long for me because I read it very quickly, with the exception of the court’s analysis. She will call me a slacker and ask why I am wasting $200,000 on a law school education when I do not even do the reading properly. She will accuse me of disrespecting the school, the professor, and the class. She will smugly think to herself how easy it will be to get good grades, because here is just another student she will have one-upped by her diligence and careful reading, rereading, and studying.
To her, law school is about how well you listen in class and how carefully you do the assignments and prepare for class. To me, law school is about how well you perform on the exam. When exam day comes, she will have all of her book notes, case briefs, and class notes. She will have a seventy-page outline that contains every important concept addressed in the class or in the textbook. She will have all the information at her fingertips, but it will take her too long to access, and she will not know how or when to put it on the page. The result will be a clumsy fifteen-page essay that misses issues, fails to make leaps regarding questions on the boundaries of the class, and lacks legal restatements, rules, and case citations because she cannot access them quickly enough from her outline. After grades are posted, she will likely realize that my legal education was not being wasted but instead I was using my time studying in a different and more efficient way in order to maximize my grades, the primary criteria that perspective employers and fellow lawyers will judge me by.
I come into each exam with a functional, no bullshit sixteen-page outline of flow charts, dense rules and applicable case summaries. Nothing in my outline is explanatory or in the form of a narrative. Everything on the page is an applicable tool aimed at gaining points when the professor grades my test from a point-awarding checklist. I have associated key ideas with a set of visually distinguishable slides, and when I close my eyes, I know exactly what page and spatially where the material is on the outline. I have printed my outline on both sides of the paper and carefully chosen flow charts that are on opposing sides of an outline that resembles a small pamphlet because it is stapled at the spine and opens like a book. I rarely have to flip pages because each major topic is set out on a carefully grouped set of pages that is designed for minimal page flipping. I type continuously because by practice and with my outline design, I am able to do this. I do not miss any issues because I have practiced countless exams and have honed my issue spotting skills by practice. I know what a good argument looks like and how to write one because I have done it so many times. When the professor tests issues at the margins of the class, I make difficult leaps that impress the professor. The professor does not know that I have mastered the hornbook and therefore have a comprehensive survey of the entire branch of law. I know what the students who have not read the hornbook don’t: that in reality, a certain question is a well-debated and discussed point in academia. For me the leap was easy, even though it was on the fringe of the class. My exam is twenty-two pages and is loaded with case and rule citations that make my arguments convincing. My essay does not ramble; it cites equally as many, or more, issues with analysis per page as my peers. The efficiency came from practice, familiarizing myself with the big picture, and a usable outline for test day.
The teacher grades the two exams along with the other ninety-eight over the winter break. Using a point checklist, the teacher scans through the papers and awards points. The points are totaled, and the grades are awarded. The fifteen-page paper from the first student is average, and the professor ends up awarding 150 points, which works out in the end to be a B, narrowly missing the B+ cut-off. When the professor encounters my paper, he appreciates the citations of rules and cases which make it both easier to understand and easier to award points. The essay misses few issues and has a solid analysis based on hardened practice. The professor is impressed when I make a difficult jump and appreciates the fact that I listened to the subtle points that he was alluding to in class (he does not know that a hornbook turned those subtle points into fully discussed and addressed points). I score 230 points, and I am awarded an A-. The paper was one of the better in the class, but not on par with the 5 that were awarded an A. Those A grades went to students who were strong admits at Harvard and Yale and instead took a scholarship at NYU. They generally had a limited social life and solely focused on their studies. They have read the casebook, answered the study questions, read the hornbooks, conducted independent research, and sacrificed personal and social relationships to get an A. Their hard work was rewarded, as it should be.
Occasionally I will also land in the A pile, when I make a particularly great argument that impresses the teacher in a highly subjective sense. Occasionally I will also land in the B+ pile, when I make a mistake on a big issue or the subject is highly subjective and the teacher is not impressed by my approach. In general, the B+’s and A’s are canceling and I am getting mostly A- grades, placing me at about a 3.7, which is approximately the top 5-10% of the class. Doors are open at all firms upon graduation, 1L big firm internships that pay $2,800 a week become available, Law Review is a possibility if I make a solid showing in the writing competition (admittance to Law Review being a combination of grades and the writing competition), and transferring to Harvard is a possible consideration.
V. The Essential External Materials
For every class you need to buy three external books, and in some cases, four. The sum total of cost of these books is a real concern, but dwarfed by the tangible gain received by finishing high in your class. Since you have likely sunk well over $120,000 into law school, the additional cost of about $120 per class is worth it. Hornbooks typically are $60, while Examples & Explanations (E&E) are $30, and the case briefs are $30. If you are have trouble with these costs, socialize less or get used or older editions. Links to the Examples & Explanations book series and hornbooks can be found below.
Hornbooks are typically 800 to 1200 pages. They are your real textbook for the course. A casebook is a maze in which the reader is somehow expected to be able parse through in order to obtain both rules and the big picture. It does not work. While other students read a 1000-page casebook, I only quickly read the casebook and instead focus my time on reading a 1000-page hornbook. We both invest the same amount of time, but the hornbook is about answers or a set of debatable answers and not about questions. By reading the hornbook, you will get a summary of the entire area of law and not just a set of sampled points that your professor chooses. If the professor were only to test on material directly covered in class, there would be no problem skipping these hornbook sections. The reality is, however, that a professor will quickly touch on a lot of things and expect you to have made connections and leaps from his comments. Sometimes, this would be nearly impossible to do so given the materials discussed in class. However, the hornbook likely covered the material in more depth. Also, sometimes professors will model a test question on a somewhat famous case that has been academically debated that is not in your casebook. He is testing how you extend the tools he taught in class to a new situation, although you, as a reader of a hornbook that covered that case, have seen the court’s actual reasoning.
The other book that is your co-textbook is any rule book that the teacher relies on. For example, in Civil Procedure, you must know the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Along with the hornbook, this is your true textbook. Too many students don’t pay attention to the restatement or rule book because the teacher doesn’t spend a lot of time on this in class. Often they will be surprised when the Civil Procedure test is nothing but a test on how well you can apply the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or the related statutes.
You need to look at former tests from each of your professors and see what is going to be needed. In all classes I have had so far, knowledge of something like the Uniform Commercial Code, a Restatement, or the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure has been a major key to exam success.
The extracted rules of cases and the rule book or restatement are the weapons for test day; the hornbook teaches you how these weapons are used and what they are, and doing practice tests teaches you how to use these weapons. Do not forget that the rule book is a weapon for test day that is equal to or exceeds the utility of rules from cases.
E&E books are an essential supplement. They are simple quick summary guides that give you a big picture of the class and have some problems to test your understanding. I find this to be an essential tool, if only for the questions alone. I find going through the entire E&E book before classes start or early in the semester to be extremely helpful to get a picture of the entire course as quickly as possible. Without this big picture, you get less out of reading the hornbook, which is very detailed.
The case summary book is a fast guide to your casebook. As pointed out earlier, your casebook, in my opinion, aids you minimally in test preparation. However, the central rule of a case is an essential weapon for use on the test. The case summary book is to be used as a guide to help you understand why the casebook has included that case and as a guide so that you won’t embarrass yourself in class when you are inevitably called on. However, if you are reading the court opinions like I suggest, it should only be some factual nuance that should trip you up in class. You should not be wasting time perfecting factual nuances for recital in class.
A fourth book, a policy book, is essential in classes that are heavily policy-focused and have a policy essay or expect policy commentary while answering a classic fact pattern. In the later case, I will often throw policy in the conclusion of an argument to determine which way an issue will be resolved when the analysis otherwise does not clearly point to resolving the issue in a specific way.
For example, in Contracts, we were informed that a policy essay would be on the exam. Most students used the basic policy tools taught in class to piece together a reasonable answer to the question. The very brightest students likely used these tools better than anyone else and got an A or A- level essay for this portion of the exam. Instead, I located a non-required policy book by the author of our casebook. In this policy book were a series of law review articles and scholarly pieces covering policy analysis on all areas of contracts. In my outline I summarized this book as a series of arguments with pros and cons to each situation. As expected, on test day, I got a question involving policy analysis of standard form contracts that required some critical thinking. Using both my own ideas and ideas from two of the essays from the book, I was able to write a very strong policy essay.
Two groups of people wrote A and A- essays that day. The first group included those select brilliant few, who by virtue of their cunning, came up with persuasive arguments on the fly of A or A- quality. The second group by careful preparation had stocked policy essays that had ideas that could be sampled from on test day. From the perspective of the teacher, this second group was either a highly motivated group of over-achievers who had worked above and beyond what was required, or they were so smart as to come up with arguments similar to the brightest in the field, on the fly, on a four hour exam. In either case, the teacher is highly impressed which results in large point awards. I would argue that most teachers couldn’t distinguish which A and A- papers were in each of those two categories.
I am generally opposed to the concept of casebooks. I do not mean to disparage any particular professor’s case book. Reading case books is likely very helpful training tools for those entering academia, but, in my opinion, they are not very useful as aids in preparing for the exam. I consider spending an inordinate amount of time reading case books to be a distraction from real study. Be careful not to be fooled into thinking you are on track because you are up to date on the casebook readings.
VI. Selecting a Class for Early Test Taking
By their third year, law students are accomplished test takers. They have enough experience to no longer fear the exam in any way. You will succeed on your customary first-year exams if you can master the art of exam taking without requiring three years of experience. Thus, it is critical for an incoming law student to have as much exam practice as possible before exam day. In particular, an entering 1L needs to truly know what a law school exam is so that he or she can make the modifications necessary to his or her test preparation plan well in advance.
I can’t tell you how many students regret so much of their work first semester because they realize, in hindsight, how much work they did was completely useless. This is oftentimes due to bad advice they received.
For example, one of my TAs kept reassuring us not to worry about the exam. He explained that he had started his outline for that class after Thanksgiving, took his first exam shortly after, and still got a good grade (probably an A-). I laugh when I hear advice like this. You can’t base a strategy on exceptions, because there are always exceptional cases from exceptional or lucky people.
It was immediately clear to me that I needed to use one class as a trial, in which I would work ahead, so that I could take a real law school exam and ascertain what it is was like. Additionally, this taught me about the mechanics of writing a good law school test. I found I needed to do things such as the following: train my mind to write answers to fact pattern questions, learn how to pace myself on a four-hour exam, learn how to decipher fact patterns and spot legal issues, learn what it is I should truly be getting out of the cases I am reading, learn what an A essay consists of, and learn what I should be doing to develop the skills necessary to write an A essay.
The lack of test taking experience by your fellow first semester 1L’s gives you an opportunity to distinguish yourself from your peers. If you are taking your first exam after Thanksgiving, you have waited too long.
Do not base your strategy on the basis of one success story that has no basis in why or how it works. The TA’s suggestion of not to worry was more of a way to calm the growing test day tensions and not a system to excel on the test (how can starting late and not worrying result in high grades?). By telling students that by starting late and not worrying it was still possible to get an A-, he conveyed the mistaken notion to many that starting late and not worrying was not a factor in who gets an A-.
By the middle of the semester, I was taking generic torts exams. (Torts is the required first-year class that focuses upon negligent and intentional harms done to another person. Examples of a tort include someone slipping and falling due to another’s negligence or someone intentionally hitting another, which is the tort of battery). I had worked through the torts Examples & Explanations, hornbook, and had worked out a basic course outline. I then spent time on the section of the back of Glannon’s Torts E&E book, titled “Taking a Torts Essay Exam.” In this section, Glannon gives a masterful introduction to test taking and includes comments on IRAC, common exam writing style mistakes, and general test taking wisdom. In this text, there are many of the gems of wisdom I have already passed on. For example, “Most students spend inordinate amounts of time learning more and more about rules, and very little time practicing the skill of applying the fundamental rules to new facts. You would be wiser to spend less time memorizing rules and more time applying them.” Glannon is speaking out against the typical law school student’s strategy in the introduction to this document. Around the middle of the semester, I also paid for a one-day law school test-taking seminar, which was an excellent experience, if only to confirm several of my suspicions about law school.
By the middle of the semester, I knew what a law school exam was. Just like you can’t learn how to apply law only by reading about it, neither can you know what a law school exam truly is without doing one. Even if I could lecture to you on what a law school exam is, it is so much easier—and I can only be sure you truly understand what it is—if you actually are somewhat prepared for one and take it.
When you arrive at law school, stay afloat in all of your classes. However, pick one class (not Civil Procedure or Property, the most technically complex two classes) to be your test vehicle. Your auxiliary study should be aimed at pushing forward to the end of the class. You must learn as soon as possible what a law school exam truly is so that you can adjust your study habits in all classes in a way so as to redirect work and optimize exam success. Additionally, this class can be used as a basis for doing practice tests early and often, so that you can learn how to apply an IRAC based system, create an outline, and other general test taking mechanics. You should aim to be taking these tests in this special class before or around the middle of the semester.
VII. What to Do the Summer Before
I did nothing the summer before in preparation for law school and mainly focused on preparing for and passing the Patent Bar Exam. During law school, I placed a high priority on a lot of other things (mostly social) inside and outside of law school. Although I like to be smart about what and how I study, I cut corners in areas like casebook reading and preparing for class in order to open up time for other things. By managing my time wisely, I was able to go out 5+ nights a week to social events (cutting back severely during the 4 weeks leading up to finals) in order to network and develop interpersonal skills and yet still do well in school. A gunner, in contrast, will cut all areas of their life in exchange for high grades. They spend their time reading hornbooks, supplementary books, going to office hours, studying in groups, preparing for class, reading the casebook, etc. It is very easy to do well in school if you are willing to wholesale the rest of your life for success in school. This is probably what you must do if you want to go into academia, although I strongly question this road for those planning to practice in a law firm.
You can be like me and do nothing before starting school and you can still do well (although it may be harder).
If you want to do some work, but not an outrageous amount, I would start by reading the Examples & Explanations books before school. Start with torts or one of the easier subjects, since this may be your first introduction to law. I think it is very valuable to get an overview of a course in advance, and you are cutting out work that you are going to have to do anyway.
If you are a gunner, and value nothing other than school, I would probably recommend reading all E&E books and hornbooks before class. I would begin to really work into the statutes like the UCC and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. I would make a sample outline for one class, and begin with practice tests in that area. If you were to do this before law school, and then continue with gunner tendencies throughout the semester, I could not see how you would fail to get nearly all A's (a few scattered A-s are probably unavoidable because there is some subjective judgment in picking the A's from the A-'s). If you cannot make law review after doing all of that, the issue lies with you and not your diligence.
VIII. What You Are Doing at School
Before every class, you must have read the E&E sections corresponding to the material in class. I like to get the E&E books finished and out of the way very early. I also read the hornbook section before class.
In between classes I am extremely efficient with my time and am working. I will not be spending a lot of time reading the casebook, as mentioned earlier. Most of my time will be spent doing the E&E books, pushing forward in the hornbook, and studying the set of rules or statutes for the class (like the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or the UCC).
In the end, I actually end up reading the hornbook and E&E books twice, although in the second pass, certain areas may be skipped.
For a general class, I read the E&E book from cover to cover first. I am not smart enough to understand everything after the first pass, but I have a general view of things and a basic understanding of the course and a few of the big cases and what they mean.
Next, I read the hornbook as the course progresses, being careful to always be ahead of the course.
I spend a huge amount of time getting to know the actual statutes and rules associated with the class. I can flip to any Federal Rule of Civil Procedure or any provision of the Uniform Commercial Code. I do not memorize these rules, but rather work to understand why the rule was written and how it fits into the law as a whole.
In class, I don’t know the facts of the case very well and don’t do that well when called on. Some people actually prepare to look good in class, but this is a waste of time. I am preparing for the test. My peers would never guess that I am smart. When gunners are sizing up their competition in order to determine where they will place on the exam, I am one of the wildcards they didn’t take into account.
I am not taking endless notes on everything said. I am noting only the important ideas that I have not already thought about or are not completely obvious to me. I am thinking about how this case fits in the big picture and how it might show up on an exam in the context of statutes and the other cases.
By middle of the semester all of the E&E books will be finished. I will still be working through the hornbooks and staying ahead of the casebook with these. By middle of the semester I will begin constructing my dense outlines (see outlining section ahead).
When the four weeks leading up to finals come around, I will no longer be going out any more than once a week. I will be studying continuously, like everyone else. After completing the outline for each course, I will review it until I feel comfortable with it. I will then redo all of the E&E problems. I will likely reread most of the hornbook sections with the aim of finding hornbook gems to add to my outline. I will review class notes. This is an active process, resulting in modifications to my dense outline. I develop an incredible familiarity with my outline and where information is located on it. Four weeks before exams I will have at least one class where the outlining process is completed. I will be taking many exams with this outline. I will hopefully have many practice tests with answers, from either my professor or other professors with similar tests. If practice answers are not available, I will form a study group solely for discussing exam answers. Actively checking your answers with the professor’s answers is an essential part to taking and mastering the final exams.
To summarize, the general procedure early in the semester is:
The general procedure for the middle of the semester is:
The general procedure for the last four weeks of the semester is:
My study techniques are common for a third-year law school student, but are almost never done by during a 1L’s first semester. It is studying effectively that is a huge advantage in your first-year grades, which are by far the most important in determining employment opportunities. For if you do well in your first year of law school, getting a great law firm job during your summer is quite easy. The jobs are both high-paying and generally lead to offers of permanent employment. Thus, success on your first-year exams is crucial and paves the way for a great law school experience.
For the first semester, you have the additional work of pushing ahead in one class to get a crude outline together that allows you to take a few practice tests. This is essential for you to understand your target goal so that you can do your work properly in preparation for it.
Aim for at least five practice tests in each class. Spend particular time on the test you are going to take last. Many students burn out or never get around to fully studying for their last test. This class may be your best shot at an A-. If you have a poor teacher, this is also a great chance to go for the A-. Your peers are unprepared, from bad lectures while you are stocked with hornbook knowledge which provides a comprehensive and solid overview of the class.
The outline you bring to the exam is essential to you doing well on the exam. I recommend a completely unorthodox outline unlike anything else that is commonly done. The test taking process, hornbook review, and answering the E&E questions will produce many revisions to your outline.
It is a good time to discuss outlines at this point.
Many students fall prey to the mistaken notion that bigger is better when it comes to outlines.
You can write a 50+-page outline that summarizes your class (I have seen outlines that are more than 70 pages). This will likely help you review everything in the class and by putting it together on one document it may help you to remember it. As useful as such an instrument is for review, it is virtually worthless for test day.
My outlines for my classes were 11, 13, and 16 pages respectively. I also had large outlines, but these were accessed at most once or twice on test day. They were based on the fundamental premise that it is not feasible to flip pages constantly. The idea of an open-book exam may be appealing to some. They think that they will have time to look up cases and research cases on a four-hour exam (four hours is a very long time, right?). This idea is fundamentally wrong. This is just another immediate realization that will come to you when you do your first real exam (which is why I so strongly insist you get to test taking immediately for you to see and believe this for yourself).
A simple refutation lies in comparing a large outline system to mine. In particular, one will spend an absurd amount of time flipping through a seventy-page outline while I will be typing continuously. The few extra points a voluminous outline contains will not compensate for the extra 25% I will write more than others. If my writing has as many points per page as others do, I will score 25% more points off the checklist and excel past others on the test by a large margin.
The 11, 13, and 15 page outlines are near the same length for a reason. The fundamental assumption I used in construction my outlines is that I must never be required to flip a page while addressing one single, major topic. There are only so many major topics per course, so you will naturally find your outline length to be somewhat near mine.
Although I may have time to flip to a single page in my outline from time to time, generally I must be able to be able to continuously type while only glancing at my outline for specific rules, cases, or tests. While I incur ten minutes of overhead in accessing and scanning for information from my outline, those with long outlines will incur upwards of forty minutes to an hour looking for and finding the same information.
I only realized the utility of the succinct and dense outline from my experiments with test taking. I encourage you to do the same.
I now include four pages (download printable pdf file of the four pages). First, I show you a flow chart. Second, there are two pages on class actions (a Civil Procedure subject). My outline must be printed on two-sided paper, and the two pages on class actions open like a book; thus, I will not be required to flip a page while writing on class actions. The final page is a sample page from a typical civil procedure outline. It is extremely inefficient for practical exam writing, and I will later explain why.
Erie R. Co. v Tompkins, p. 364, US Supreme Court, 1938
§ Tompkins (PA) hit by protrusion from Erie train (NY) and lost arm
RR liability is question of substantive law – should state law or federal general common law apply?
§ SC struck down Swift v. Tyson and ruled state substantive law applies to Diversity cases
Swift ruling unconstitutional since power to create federal general common law was never given to Court in Constitution – Article 10: all non-specified powers to states
§ Also said Congress has no power to declare substantive rules of common law applicable in a state whether they be local in nature or general
§ Rules of Decision Act (1789) – state law must be applied when there is no federal law on point
Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, p. 372, US Supreme Court, 1945
§ How to determine statute of limitations – state law or federal practice of laches?
§ Statute of limitations defines the longevity of a right so considered substantive law. Thus federal courts must adhere to state statute of limitations standards. Act like a state court.
Avoid forum shopping – federal court may allow a case when state won’t
Avoid inequitable application of the law – out-of-state advantage since can remove to federal court where case may be adjudicated more favorably to that party
§ Emphasis on outcome determination in deciding which type of law applies
Ragan v. merchants Transfer & Warehouse, Co., US Supreme Court, 1949
§ P filed complaint for Diversity Suit in Sept, but marshal didn’t serve D until Dec, after state SOL passed
§ SC held that Rule 3 was not intended to govern questions concerning the tolling of SOL’s, and therefore state law would determine in diversity when statute was tolled. Reinforced York, outcome determinative
§ Decision caused lots of anger (appeared unjust to P as well)
Byrd v. Clue Ridge Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc., p. 379, US Supreme Court, 1958
§ Primary issue for SC is whether a judge (state) or jury (federal) should decide if P a statutory employee
South Carolina lets judges decide; Feds allow jury to decide facts in civil trials
§ SC used balancing test rather than saying Byrd has Const. right to jury trial
State interest – procedural, not very important
Federal interest – significant, since “influence is not the command” of 7th amendment upholds jury
Likelihood of outcome determination – not inevitable based on judge/jury decision
§ Case is a slight retreat / adjustment from Erie and York
Hanna v. Plumer, p. 385, US Supreme Court, 1965
§ Service of process according to federal or state practice?
§ Like Byrd, Hanna holds that if there is a federal interest, Federal Rule trumps State Rule
§ To control, a Federal Rule must be
(1) applicable – on point and in direct conflict with state rule
(2) valid – doesn’t violate RDA (procedural, doesn’t abridge, enlarge or modify substantive right)
(3) Constitutional – none found un-Constitutional so far
§ Conflict with federal practice, see if outcome-determinative by twin-aims of Erie:
prevent forum shopping
prevent inequitable administration of the laws
§1652 – Rules of Decision Act (Erie/York – substance/procedure; measures state created rights)
Based on Supremacy Clause of Constitution
Let us begin by looking at the flow chart. The flow chart does not contain everything you need to know about venue to do well on an exam. In fact, you know a lot more about venue that what is on the chart, but what is on the chart is the kind of stuff you would likely need on exam day. There are specific references to federal rules and statutes that will be highly useful to throw in on the exam. There are lots of rules and tests that are outlined by numbers and structured and organized in a way that allows you to easily find what you are looking for. This is not an explanation of what venue is. This is a supplement to the difficult venue knowledge and a graphical representation of what to address when handling a venue problem.
Let us move on to the two pages on class actions. Notice, once again, that one topic (class actions) is contained on two pages that oppose each other on two different sheets of paper (when printed on double sided pages). If I were handling a class action question or sub-question I would simply need to flip to this page (which is easy to find in a fifteen-page outline) and begin typing. Everything that is in the outline is what is important. I have included nothing but actual rules and tests. For example, look at the seven key points for FRCP 23(e)(1)(C). Now that is something that is useful for a test. Or, for example, look at how FRCP 23(b)(3) is organized. In particular, if I were considering class certification under FRCP 23(b)(3), I could scan the page and start with each element of the test. I then would encounter the case Allapatah, where a very brief but precise holding for the case is presented. I, in fact, know more about Allapatah than what is presented here, but I am not going to spoil my outline by making it too long and having a half-page case brief on Allapatah. If you were in my class, you would realize that this two-page outline contains information above and beyond what was presented in class, but is theoretically derivable from a study of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or good intuition (for example, the FRCP 23(a) test was not discussed at this level in class, but can be derived from the rule). It is these kinds of extras that come from the hornbook that really make me stand out. The professor may test on this peripheral area on exam day, and he will assume I extracted the test on the fly from the Federal Rules themselves or that I am a general over-achiever, and he will reward me for it.
Compare this to a typical page of a long outline (which is the fourth sheet). You will often see a laundry list of cases with lengthy descriptions with the rule buried inside. Notice that in my class action outline, we arrived at Allapatah only after traveling through rule FRCP 23(b)(3). The lengthy outline contains plenty of information and facts, but it is organized in a manner that requires a lot of time to find what you are looking for. It also contains information that you should know, but that doesn’t belong on your test day outline. For example, under Ragan, the outline states: “the decision caused lots of anger (appeared unjust to P as well).” This is arguably important information, and I remember when this was discussed in class. However, this is going to net zero exam points and does not belong on a test day outline.
A comprehensive outline can be in any format and be in any length. It is meant to be a review tool to help you assemble the knowledge you acquired over the semester. I fully encourage you to write such an outline, but bear in mind that this is virtually useless for an in-class essay. An in-class essay’s outline should be bare bones and contain the detailed information or principles of law that will be difficult to recall from memory. It should contain only the rule from the case, not a laundry list of background facts. That is the very nature of a functional test day outline.
All of my classes were open-book and open-outline. I never cracked my book and exclusively used my outline. If your test is closed everything, I still recommend writing a short ten- to fifteen-page outline that you will memorize.
I do not write of my system so that you can copy it to the letter. In fact, this would be a bad idea since I am sure there are nuances at your school that will require you to adjust your plan accordingly. I also concede that some people learn differently and that this system would be inappropriate for their learning style.
The bottom line is that law school is about grades, and grades are about tests. Whatever strategy you develop, it should focus on maximizing your test score. Your employers and your peers will respect you far more for ranking high in your class than for any other academic endeavor you are involved in at law school.
A lot of people are disgusted by my decision to study for the exam, rather than for the law school experience or for some other abstract principle. I think they miss the true point of law school.
In law, it is often said that the case is won long before trial, in the preparation. The students that can sort through the casebooks and endless questions and manage to prepare the best for an exam, are the same future lawyers I would want preparing my case. When that student is working for me, they are not going to be told what to do to win a case, and similarly, they will have to parse through endless bullshit to get to the heart of the matter and find the real issues. I think the entire law school system is designed to sort and rank students in their ability to handle a simulated trial preparation. The exam is the trial, and the semester is the preparation.
It is interesting to note that I know of one person that did better than me first semester. There are, in total, about four of these in my 100-student section and about twenty in my 400-student class, but I do not know who they are. I assume many of them are the gunners, but I do not know for sure.
It is interesting to see what approach my neighbor with the 3.8 GPA took in law school. I had the very fortunate experience of knowing her, having her in my lawyering group and sitting next to her in a class, both of which allowed me some insight into her study habits.
She was smart, pretty and shy, but witty when she did talk. She took the best class notes I have ever seen. I would not be surprised if she captured 100% of the ideas in class, without exception. They put my notes to shame, because I listen in class but I am a very poor in-class note taker. While in class she did not indulge in instant messaging or in internet browsing like many of our peers. She was extremely thorough with all casebook and class readings, and she explicitly criticized my use of external books on multiple occasions. We would often make comments to each other during class about the topic being discussed, and her comments were always excellent. She was always extremely busy with study, attended social occasions rarely, and was very serious about class assignments.
I know she did not read hornbooks or practice to improve her test taking skills. I saw her once with an old edition of the Examples & Explanations for Civil Procedure, and when I asked her about it she said she used it for the examples, and not the explanations. She openly criticized the use of the Contracts policy book that I was kind enough to share with our small legal research and writing class. Her basic stance on that book was that the professor had taught us everything we need to know to do well on the exam, and the book was not needed.
Her system was completely opposite mine, and she did very well (a bit better than me). Her strategy is interesting and deserves comment. When I think about everything I know about her and have seen her do, her basic idea was to explore fully 100% of every corner and turn of the material presented in class and in the assignments. While I tried to use external guides to look at the big maze from an aerial view, she decided instead to actually work through every possible turn of the maze. She had an acute eye for detail that the reader must not discount. She literally worked through every possible branch of the complex tree of possibilities presented by the class.
An example is needed to distinguish my system, her system, and the typical “system” used by the average law school student.
Imagine a question on a Civil Procedure exam. In the fact pattern, a very specific nuance of the legal doctrine of attachment is being tested. I notice the nuance because I have a very good overall view of the maze of Civil Procedure. I know attachment in general very well, including this specific nuance. I detect the issue and identify and analyze it on the exam and do well. She, on the other hand, is familiar with every single avenue and turn that our particular Civil Procedure class took. She spots the nuance of attachment from a reference to it buried in the dissenting opinion of one of our cases. 80% of the class brushed over this nuance when they read and re-read the case, but she did not. She had spotted the nuance, pondered it, and worked out an answer to it somewhere in her notes. She has explored every possible avenue that the class has addressed or touched on in any way and is prepared to write on these matters.
Law School is like the process of taking a walk through a poorly planned downtown maze of some old European city. The law is the maze of city streets, and your professor is your guide. While on the walk, the majority of the class did not see a side street or did not explore it out of laziness. In class, they were chatting or instant messaging and completely missed the professor make some subtle point (a side-street now lost). They don’t know where this small side-street goes or where it ends up. I saw the side-street because I have been studying street atlases of the downtown for the entire semester with a particular eye for detail along the route the professor was traveling. To be honest, I probably missed the subtle reference the professor made to it in class. The girl next to me is a superstar and came in with the plan of not letting a single side-street off the path our professor led us on go unexplored. By the most diligent preparation and attention to detail in class, she did not allow a single issue to be left untouched off our class route. I mentally explored few avenues and side-streets but studied the atlas, which informed me what was on the street and where it was located. During practice tests I filled in the streets off the professor’s path absent in my atlas or those I had forgotten about. She did not study the atlas but literally went down every side-street off the path our professor guided us through and carefully recorded where it went and where it was located. Our strategies are opposites, but both vastly superior to the plan of mindless walking, knowing some streets well and others not at all, with no plan or direction. That is the approach the typical law school student takes, and it is why they do not excel.
I do not concede my study system to hers, because she put in likely double the study time to slightly improve her GPA. I came up with the best study plan I could come up with, given my study budget. It would be interesting to know what GPA I would have achieved if I were to redirect the time I used networking and socializing (5+ nights a week) into study. I do not make the claim that I would have been a 4.0 student at NYU Law School if I had studied more. Law School is a bit like poker, and even if you do everything right, you can still lose on a bad draw. The subjective discretion of the professor makes some A- grades nearly inevitable, even for the best students. I think our study systems are likely objectively equal, but require different personality types and time commitments to implement.
Whatever plan you choose to follow, I hope this guide has made you question what goes into excelling in law school. Good luck in your first year.
All of the books that are recommended in the primer for succeeding on law school exams can be found below.
Top Law Schools Interview with Walter F. Mondale
Funding Your Legal Education
Success in Law School - A Unique Perspective
How to Succeed in Law School – Student Guide #1
How to Succeed in Law School – Student Guide #2
Law School FAFSA Code Mega-List
Income-Based Repayment (IBR): An Explanation
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): An Explanation
An Introduction to “Biglaw”
Preparing for the Patent Bar
Biglaw and Relationships
Interview with Tim Finchem, Commissioner of the PGA Tour
How to Learn to Do Well on a Law Shool Exam
On Self-Care in the First Year of Law School
Success in Your First Year of Law School
The Guide to Law School Loans
Legal Work in China
Cravath, Swaine, & Moore LLP
Kirkland & Ellis LLP
Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
WilmerHale (Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP)
Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP
Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz LLP
Arnold & Porter LLP
Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP
Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP
Clifford Chance LLP
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP
Mayer Brown LLP
Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy LLP
Morrison & Foerster LLP
Munger Tolles & Olson LLP
O'Melveny & Myers LLP
Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP
Shearman & Sterling LLP
Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett LLP
White and Case LLP
Williams and Connolly LLP
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP
Allen & Overy
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
Fried, Frank, Harrison, Shriver & Jacobson LLP
Irell & Manella LLP
Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP
Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker LLP
Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP