Hi everybody, I got a 3.95 GPA at a T14 last year and wanted to share my tips for how to ace your first year of law school. I saw a ton of super intelligent students fail to get As for the first time in their lives in our fall term, and (IMO) it was mostly due to very preventable mistakes. I am also a bit older than a typical 1L (28) and was a tutor before entering law school, both of which I think gave me perspective on how best to excel. Hopefully this helps someone.
LECTURES & BRIEFING:
1. Study ONLY from your class notes, NOT case briefs. The #1 mistake I saw otherwise smart students make is they’d brief cases in detail before class, and then take notes to supplement their briefs during lectures. However, if you do this, you’re going to be studying 75% what YOU understood about the case, with maybe 25% of gaps your professor filled in. If you start from scratch during lectures (even if that means copying down BLL redundant with your brief), you’ll know EXACTLY what to study. You’ll also have a LOT less material to study than your classmates struggling to consolidate their detailed briefs.
Having too much irrelevant information bouncing around in your brain is lethal for an exam and you will be floundering. And the extraneous detail won’t come from class notes, but from your own briefing material that you can’t bear to part with.
If you must brief cases (I personally didn’t), THROW AWAY your briefs after class and don’t use them to take notes on. Again, you want your class notes to serve as ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of your study material. Your professor is not going to test material that wasn't covered in class.
2. In addition, I tried to take notes using the EXACT phrasing my professors used when describing the doctrine to emerge from a case. Your goal is to construct a version of the case that most precisely replicates your professor’s vision of it.
These notes are still going to be FAR shorter than any case brief. Your notes should be structured as: CASE NAME, 1-2 bullet points for case facts (write whatever your teacher prioritizes), and as many sentences as you need to describe the doctrinal law. I’d also include any examples the prof gave to illustrate the doctrine. Don’t skimp on doctrine.
This means you’ve got to take very good class notes, granted. But 90% of whether or not you develop a good understanding of the BLL is based upon paying attention and taking notes in the lecture.
It’s worth repeating that I used the EXACT phrasing and EXACT sentences my professors used to explain doctrine in class, translated that language verbatim into my outlines, and often verbatim onto (open note) tests. Your prof’s phrasing is always more elegant and accurate than the phrasing you can come up with yourself. Don’t take notes by truncating your prof’s explanation into simpler language; you’ll get the doctrine, but it really does add style points on a test to be able to use that exact language. You also won’t have to waste precious time on the exam thinking about how to phrase things.
3. This one is personal preference to some extent, but all of my professors encouraged students to handwrite their class notes, and I was 1 of like 5 students in my section of 115 to actually comply. I recommend writing by hand for 2 reasons:
- Research has proven that people understand material better and memorize more when they hand write over typing. The enhanced understanding/memorization that comes from hand writing is super useful.
- It acts as a check on over-writing. Some students will reflexively type every sentence the prof utters on auto-pilot. You need to practice active listening, not auto-pilot typing. Because hand-writing is slower, you’re forced to sift through information (note: you still need to write down the entirety of the BLL lectured on. What I’m talking about is refraining from writing down the stuff that can’t be tested—detailed case facts, for ex.— or redundant BLL info when your prof re-explains the same doctrine in a slightly different way. Instead of retyping redundant stuff, use hand writing as a much more facile medium to supplement existing notes, i.e. add a little carrot and only include the new phrasing your prof is adding).
4. Make your own outlines 1-2 weeks before classes end. Some students write outlines episodically as the course progresses, and while this might seem responsible and proactive, it actually hinders your ability to understand the course as a WHOLE, and how the pieces fit together.
I write 3 outlines: the first is basically an index of case briefs, about a paragraph long each. 1 bullet point for case facts, then a bullet point for the fundamental doctrine, and additional bullet points if the doctrine has offshoots. If you’ve taken good class notes, this outline is basically transcribing your class notes into a word document.
Writing a case brief index/outline allows me to write a shorter doctrinal outline, because I know my case brief outline exists to provide extra facts/doctrine if needed (concision in outlines is king). Also, sometimes an issue spotter question will implicate a case specifically and thoroughly enough that having a paragraph on that case is helpful to analogize to the doctrine in a more complete way.
The second outline is a standard doctrinal outline, arranged by subject-matter, with the case names cited parenthetically. Ideally around 20-25 pages.
The third outline is an “attack outline” written after I’ve taken a few practice tests. It basically lists the doctrinal law in highly abbreviated, bullet point form on a single page I use as a reference guide. It also lists anything I forgot while taking the practice tests, so I don’t make the same mistakes on the final.
Lastly, outline-making is basically a preparatory process for YOU, not a reference guide for your open note test. If you’ve studied well, you essentially won’t need to use your outline on the test except to double-check details. If you find yourself taking practice tests and laboriously referencing your outline for the actual BLL, you need to take more practice exams until you’re more fluent in your outline.
STUDYING FOR EXAMS
5. The #1 most important studying aid is TAKING OLD EXAMS. It doesn’t matter how well you understand the doctrine or how perfect your outline is, if you do not take enough exams written by your professor from previous years, you will 110% underperform on your final. It is hard to overstate how important this is.
Do not waste time taking multiple choice questions in supplements, etc. I did not use a single supplement my entire 1L year. Your goal is to understand the law as your professor understands it.
You should take three old exams per course. Each exam you take, you get better. After you take the exam, you ALSO need to read the answer key thoroughly and write down anything you missed on your attack outline, list any substantive questions you have about the BLL implicated, etc.
For classes that you find especially difficult, I recommend taking those same 3 exams (at least) twice. Take the exam until you do well enough on it to get an A. Exams differ by year, of course, but working with one test until you master it is more helpful than half-assedly taking 6 and not learning anything.
Taking old exams twice also helps because the second time around, you will structure your answer better, and structuring your answer well is a BIG part of a good test grade. Remember that a great exam answer is about information delivered in the clearest way, and taking old exams helps to perfect that cleanness and clarity in delivery (since you will already know the information and law implicated on the exam).
If you are someone who struggles with timing, the solution is again to take more practice tests. You’ll get faster the more you do.
The last thing I’ll say about old exams is that you should practice active learning. As you’re “grading” your exam, ask yourself why you missed what you missed—do you not understand the doctrine? Did you miss an analogy to a case? Did you miss procedural steps in your doctrinal checklist (e.g. not cover causation for a tort you identified)? See my next point for a more detailed description of how to do this.
6. Firstly, law school exams (at least, issue spotters) require both associational and procedural thinking. The associational part involves figuring out how the exam fact pattern relates, often in veiled/hidden/complicated form, to course doctrine. Making these connections requires a creative thought process-- the tough analogies will call for an “aha” moment. Many students struggle with making these connections, because it appears to boil down to whether you “got it” (the analogy) or didn’t.
Law school exams also require procedural thought-- essentially an extremely systematic, check list of doctrine to mention. Your attack outline is key here, because often you’ll see so many issues on an issue spotter you get clumsy and disorganized. Use your attack outline to structure your answer so you don’t miss anything. Good procedural thought requires a pristinely-organized answer. (These are things like: did you list causation for torts? All elements necessary for a contract formation?)
In essence, any mistake you make on an old exam will fall into one of three categories. It will either be a failure of A) doctrinal understanding, B) associational thinking, or C) procedural thinking.
A) If an old test illuminates for you that you don’t understand an aspect of the doctrine, try to identify specifically what you don’t understand (often writing out a question for your professor helps uncover the core of your confusion), and then ask your prof. Re-reading the case in question may help as well.
B) If your associational synapses just aren’t functioning well on an old test, it can be very frustrating. However, you will not make those associational connections by procedurally going through your entire outline to try to find analogous law. Making associations requires a good, clear, thorough version of course doctrine already in your head. Which means associational failures can often really be a failure to understand doctrine well enough-- see reason A). Remember, the point of writing an outline is basically that the contours of your outline will live inside your head so that you can apply them to the fact pattern you’re given.
If you really struggle with associational thought, I recommend you do more than 3 old exams—as many as your professor makes available to you. There are a finite number of tricks your professor can throw in the exam, and seeing all the old examples will give you a more complete knowledge base going into the exam.
The second way to approach associational thought on the exam is to make note of each fact in the exam fact pattern. Your professor included each fact for a reason, and each fact WILL implicate an aspect of course doctrine. Your job is to discover why the case fact was included. Professors don’t include extraneous facts.
C) Finally, procedural thought (my personal issue), is solved mainly by having a good attack outline, and taking old exams multiple times. Taking an old exam a second time means the info in the fact pattern is not new to you, so you can focus mostly on answer structure.
If it’s not obvious, I did not spend much time prepping for class. The only reason you would need to prep extensively for class (read: brief cases) is A) if you find yourself unable to understand the BLL presented by the professor without additional pre-class preparation B) you care about cold calling and/or it’s part of your grade. I recommend reading the cases, but not exhaustively. Your professor will explain the BLL in class.
To succeed as a 1L, you WILL need to do 4 things 1) attend every single class 2) take good class notes 3) have all outlines completed ~5 days before exams start 4) use those last 5 days to take 3 practice exams per course, retaking the exams if you are struggling, and comparing your practice exams very thoroughly to the answer key/best exam provided.
That's it. The hours you spend laboring over Cardozo's opinions largely won't effect your grade, so prioritize accordingly.
(Study Tips, Dealing With Stress, Maintaining a Social Life, Financial Aid, Internships, Bar Exam, Careers in Law . . . )
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