As you have probably figured out by now, studying for law school is not the same as studying for undergraduate or even graduate school. You have pages of dense material to read each night, not to mention attending classes, outlining for each class, meeting with study groups, and finishing your legal writing exercises. What follows are some of the ways that you can manage studying and time. You should modify these techniques to fit your own personality or style of study.
The area in which you study should be:
- Comfortable, but not too comfortable
- Well lit (if you have a natural spectrum lamp, use it)
- Available to you at the time you want to study
- Free of distractions: Turn off the TV, don’t log on to the internet, and turn off the phone or use an answering machine to screen all but the most important calls
- Erase the games off your computer
- If at home, be clear with others with whom you live about your need for quiet
- Adjust your blocks of study time. In times of extreme lack of focus, make the blocks of study time very short and the breaks brief (e.g. 15 - 20 minutes of study and 3-5 minutes of daydreaming or taking a walk). Stick to the schedule as much as possible.
- Introduce variety into your studying (techniques, location, posture).
- Analyze what’s interrupting your concentration; is it sleep deprivation, too much caffeine, anxiety, boredom, lack of exercise, family conflicts, something else? If it’s a problem you can solve, go solve it. If it’s a large issue in your life, consider talking to someone (friend, family member, student services professional, career counselor, therapist, etc.).
Do take breaks. No one can study all the time. Remember to eat well, exercise, get a full night’s sleep, see the occasional movie, and visit family and friends.
Reading Your Assignments
- First, skim the assignment quickly for section titles or chapter titles, to help get you in the mindset for what is to come. As you skim each topic area, you may wish to jot down or highlight the key points. This part of your reading should not take much time. It is just to get a sense of the landscape.
- Next, read the assignment in more detail. Think about what you are reading. If you are reading cases, be sure you understand who all the parties are, what they are seeking and where the case is being heard. Ask yourself: What are the issues? What is the holding? Do not spend time trying to memorize the facts of the case.
- Finally, read analytically and in great detail - read each word, take your time. Seek to understand which facts are important to the issues and the holding. What would happen if you changed the facts? What are the policies that come into play in the judge’s decision-making process? Are there other relevant public policies that should have been considered?
Take notes as you read, but do NOT simply copy information.
- Highlight only the key phrases, facts or issues.
- Write down any questions triggered in your mind by the material.
At the end of each section:
- try to reiterate what happened in that section, in your own words, without looking back at the passage you just read.
- If you are given a series of cases to read on a particular topic, try to figure out why each case is there. What is the key difference between one case and the next? Why would the author put both or all of the cases in the textbook?
Class participation is important for many reasons: It helps you to stay focused on the professor’s presentation and class discussion.
- It accelerates and deepens the learning process.
- It focuses your analytical and “lawyerly” thinking.
- It sharpens your oral advocacy skills.
- It promotes self-confidence and poise.
- It contributes to the overall educational environment of the class.
- It demonstratesyour knowledge and abilities to the professor.
Since most of the reasons that you should participate in class are to benefit yourself, you should not pass up the opportunity to become an active participant in class discussions. Remember:
- Professors generally do not penalize you for your performance; they only use it to improve your grade, so you have virtually nothing to lose.
- The professor is unlikely to remember any mistakes that you may make – they’ve already heard plenty of mistakes from plenty of students.
- Your classmates are all too worried about themselves and preparing to answer the next question to pay much attention to your performance.
- Chances are that you are a much harsher critic of your own performance than a classmate will be.
If you nevertheless feel too intimidated to speak up in class, consider trying the following:
- Decide in which course you feel most comfortable.
- Select a particular upcoming topic or case in that course and prepare extremely well for that discussion.
- If you are unsure about the material, consider looking at material in a hornbook or other well-respected supplementary resource.
- When this topic or case comes up in the class, volunteer to answer the professor’s question(s), rather than waiting to be caught off guard at some other random moment.
- Slowly increase your participation in this class and expand your attempts into other courses.
- Go for it!
At the end of each day or each week, review your notes. Fill in any gaps in the notes by asking classmates or looking at supplemental materials. If you are still unable to fill in a gap, ask the professor, or his/her teaching assistant.
As an additional resource, please see Abbreviations to help with Law School note-taking.
- Start preparing outlines now. There is almost no point in cramming an outline.
- Do not rely on outlines from friends, commercial outlines, etc.
- Often these outlines are not organized in a way that makes sense to you.
- They may contain errors.
- The main reason to make the outline is to review the material and organize it in a way that it makes sense to you. In addition, by drafting your own, you may form a visual memory of the outline which will help you recall the material.
- Format: use what works for you. Popular techniques include:
- If the professor provides a detailed syllabus for the course, use this syllabus as a structural basis.
- If there is no syllabus, use the second, more-detailed table of contents from the course textbook. As you go through the course, mark the portions covered in class. Fill in relevant information.
- Start with a broad topic and work down to specific cases.
- Use the basic law as the foundation of a topic and fill in with cases and exceptions.
- Keep it short. 100 pages is not going to be much help for an exam. A 20-page outline is much more useful.
- Do not rewrite the fact pattern of the cases into the outline – use buzzwords to help you recall the cases. (A few words should be all you need during an exam, e.g. “the hairy hand case”).
- Just as in college, focus on the issues and material your professor covered in class.
- Do not get caught up in trying to have the most complete outline possible.
- Don’t forget about hypotheticals, especially if the professor spent a lot of time on them in class.
- If you will be taking an open-book exam, consider placing labeled tabs on the different sections of your outline so that you can access them quickly should you need them.
- If you will be taking a closed-book exam, consider finalizing your outline as early as possible, and handwriting any last-minute changes, so that you can retain a visual memory of the outline.
Bear in mind that one particular approach, though popular, may not be the best approach for you. Other study techniques, either used in conjunction with or instead of outlining, might work better for you.
Other Study Techniques
- Review your notes frequently. This is an incredibly simple and effective technique that many students overlook.
- Form/join a study group.
- Can be a good way to supplement your own studying and a way to make sure you are not missing something important in class.
- Toward the end of the semester, you should go over old exams your professors may have on file in the library. (See below.)
- Do not let study groups turn into a social hour.
- Do not let study groups get too big (approximately 3-5 people are enough).
- If you do not want to join a study group, a “study buddy” might work well for you.
- Remember, you don’t need to have the same study group for all of your classes.
- For a start on how to use study groups, consider visiting Professor Barbaran Glesner-Fine’s material on the web (see “Additional Resources” below).
- Make your own flow charts.
- Useful to connect seemingly disconnected topics, and understand the structure of concepts and/or systems.
- Keep them brief, just an overview.
- Can be particularly useful for classes with a lot of rules.
- Make your own flash cards.
- Useful in breaking down large complex subjects into smaller pieces.
- Particularly useful for closed book exams where memorization is important.
- For example, a single flash card can contain an acronym (first letter of each word on a list) on one side, and the list of elements written out on the reverse side.
- Flash cards are very portable, so you can review them on the train, the bus, in line – anywhere.
- Take with you only the portion on which you are currently focusing.
- Provide positive reinforcement for learning: as you master material, you can remove the cards from the pile and watch the pile shrink to nothing!
- As with outlines, the process of making the flash cards may be as important as memorizing them.
- Take practice exams.
- As you approach the end of a course, see if the professor has placed any old examinations questions on reserve in the library. (If not, ask the professor if s/he would be willing to put one model question on reserve.)
- Use the examination questions for practice in the following ways:
- In order to avoid unnecessary anxiety, do not try to answer a question until you have reviewed the topic and have a reasonable understanding of it.
- As you get close to the actual exam, take practice exams under timed conditions.
- Unlike most college exams, time is often very tight in a law school exam and your ability to answer within the stated time will have a large impact on your grade. Don’t let this catch you by surprise during the actual exam.
- Review your approach to the answer to an exam question with at least one other student to see if you have spotted all of the issues, understood the law, and answered the question(s) asked.
- Create a bare-bones checklist of issues. Each issue should be one or at most two words (e.g. duty, breach, causation, mailbox rule).
- If you will be taking a closed-book exam, create shortcuts to memorize the list. A shortcut might be an acronym (a word that contains the first letter of each item in a topic) or a sentence, each word of which starts with the first letter of each item in a topic, or a visualization of some imagery.
Back Up Your Documents
Do not carry all of your copies together, or leave them all unattended in the same place. This may sound paranoid, but it is a horrible feeling to lose the only copy of your notes or outlines just before an exam, and/or after hours and hours of work.
Time Management: Organizing
- Obtain and keep a planner
- Can be anything from a notebook to a PDA as long as you use it consistently.
- Only keep one planner and put all obligations (e.g. social, professional, family) in the one planner.
- Try to make it small enough to carry with you.
- Start a to-do list
- Keep a running to-do list of everything you have to do, whether today or in the next few months.
- Estimate when you will do each thing and how long it will take.
- At the start of the day, review the list to help you get organized, focused, and motivated. Highlight things that must get done that day. Spend 5-10 minutes at the end of each day revising your list so that you can hit the ground running the next day. (This will make getting started the next day much easier!)
- Don’t be discouraged if you were not able to accomplish everything that you had set out to do that day. Periodically reassess your allocation of time. If your system is not working, adjust your approach.
- Try to combine items. For example, can you: Do your bills on the train? Write your shopping list while doing your laundry?
- Can you totally eliminate items? For example, is it worth the extra money during crunch time to send your laundry out instead of spending the time to wash it yourself?
- Break larger projects into smaller pieces
- Will give you a more easily obtainable goal to reach.
- Will allow you to see progress and feel satisfaction.
- Will act as a check to make sure you are on track for your classes.
If you find that you don’t have enough time for everything, see “Prioritizing” below.
Time Management: Prioritizing
In order to re-prioritize your activities:
- For one week, write down everything you do from the time you get up until you finally go to bed. Include time spent brushing teeth, walking the dog—everything.
- At the end of the week, look at your list. Ask yourself:
- Where are you spending your time?
- Does the distribution of you time mesh with your ultimate goals?
- If not, or if you’re not sure, spend time clarifying your goals.
- Once you have determined your goals, write them down and place the paper somewhere where you will see it everyday.
- Budget your time to achieve your goals.
- Are you spending more time on things that will not help you reach your goals than things that will help you achieve your goals?
- Why are you spending time on things that will not help you reach your goals?
- Is it just due to habit? (Do you iron the sheets because your mother ironed the sheets?)
- Is your day filled with “time wasters”, e.g. watching T.V., surfing the net, instant messaging, talking on the phone. These are all activities that can absorb a surprisingly large amount of your time.
- While you don’t have to eliminate them, be sure that you don’t let them take over.
- Can you adjust, delegate, share, or eliminate some of the tasks?
- Can you lower your expectations in certain areas?
- Do you need to reduce the number of goals that you have to a manageable, realistic level?
- Are you having trouble saying “no” to others, even though you really want to or you know you have to? This is a common problem.
- You may have trouble saying no because you don’t want to risk another’s anger, because you are trying to please someone else, or because even though you know that you should say no, it’s something you would actually like to do.
- Try to figure out the reason for your hesitation, so that you can address the heart of the matter, rather than the symptom.
- If you find that you are having conflicts with others as to how you spend your time, try having an open discussion (which means that you must be open to what they say as well) with them about your goals and short vs. long-term rewards that will result for you as well as for them.
- Perhaps the other person can share in the discussion as to how you can prioritize. (For example, you might earnestly ask, “I could help you with that project now, but then I won’t be prepared for my review session tomorrow. Do you think it’s important for me to do that, or is there some other way we can solve this?”).
- More generally, you might also try to find ways to include another person in your life in your law school efforts so that they will feel connected to you and to the endeavor. For example: Bring them to a class meeting in one of your favorite courses. Bring them to a law-school panel on a topic of interest. Recommend a popular book on the law or lawyers for them to read.
- Spend time together working side–by-side, though on different projects.
- Ask them to help you by looking for articles on certain legal topics when they read the paper.
- Ask them if they can connect you with anyone they know in the law with whom you can chat. If appropriate, arrange a social event for all of you to connect. Use the opportunity to ask the person about what they do, how they got there, how they like it, and any suggestions that they have for you as you pursue your legal career.
Never forget yourself!
- Give yourself credit for how far you’ve come and for what you are doing.
- Remember that you are not a machine.
- Take time to eat, rest, laugh, and love.
- Having balance in your life will improve your performance in law school and make you a better lawyer.
- Keep in mind the reasons that you came to law school.
- Be open to new possibilities, but don’t lose sight of who you are and what you want.
- Get to know your classmates, professors, and members of the administration. They are all people with much to share, as well as your future colleagues.
For Further Reference
- For assistance developing a schedule that works, please visit The Legal Writing Center