You’re starting law school, and in case you haven’t heard, the first (or 1L) year, is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a long haul and it’s full of challenges, but there are strategies that will help you make it through successfully. We speak with professors who teach first year law students and with authors of some helpful guides to tackling your first year of law school – and beyond. We also check in with a student to hear what you should know before you go. They have some insider tips to help you with specific strategies for success and to manage your time, so you can hit the ground running in law school.
- James D. Gordon III, Marion B. and Rulon A. Earl Professor of Law, Brigham Young University Law School and author of Law School: A Survivor’s Guide
- Henry Noyes, Professor of Law at Chapman University School of Law, author of Acing Your First Year of Law School: The Ten Steps to Success You Won’t Learn in Class
- Don Macaulay, Founder of AdmissionsDean.com and Law Preview
- Nancy B. Rapoport, Gordon Silver Professor of Law, William S. Boyd School of Law, UNLV and author of Law School Survival Manual: From LSAT to Bar Exam
- Gary Young, Adjunct Professor of Law at University of Nebraska College of Law, Lincoln and author of Law School Ninja
- Ashley Brian, 2L Law Student, Indiana University School of Law, Indianapolis
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan.
You’re about to start law school and in case you haven’t heard, the first year is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a long haul and it’s full of challenges, but there are strategies that will help you make it through successfully. On this show, we speak with professors who teach first year law students and with authors of some helpful guides to tackling your first year of law school and beyond, like Professor of Law at Boyd University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nancy Rapoport. “Law school doesn’t have to be intimidating, but you do have to take it seriously. It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun while you’re there.”
The professors, authors, and student we hear from on today’s show have some insider tips and specific strategies for success in law school and to help you manage your time so you can hit the ground running in law school. The first year of law school is probably like no other academic experience you’ve had so far, there’s a lot of work. There is a different approach to classroom instruction and then there is the stress of it all. It’s a lot to juggle.
Before we dive into the specifics, our guests had a few general suggestions to keep in mind. First, the 1L experience is not something to fear. If you’re in law school, it was not an admissions mistake. You’re among the most intelligent. Trust yourself. Second, before you walk in to your first day of classes, plan how you will schedule your life and remember, if your first semester doesn’t go as well as you like, that you can recover and that some of the first semester stars might rest on their laurels a bit too much. Law school is graded on a curve.
With these general guidelines in mind, let’s look closely at what you can expect and get some advice from experts on how to succeed. Nancy Rapoport is the Gordon Silver Professor of Law at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and co-author of Law School Survival Manual: From LSAT to Bar Exam. Rapoport says undergraduate is very different from law school. “I think the main problem for law students adjusting to law school is that they think it’s a continuation of college. They think that they need to memorize things, and do you remember in college when people would raise their hands in class and they would say, do we need to know this? Well, the biggest adjustment that I hear from third years going back to first years is, I wish we had known that we needed to know all of it. It’s not just for memorizing. It’s for your career.”
In college, professors want you to be exposed to everything and to absorb it. UNLV Boyd’s Nancy Rapoport: “In law school, we want you to apply what you learn because no one goes to a lawyer and says tell me everything you know about X. People go to lawyers because they want lawyers to solve things for them. So in undergraduate, it’s about input, what you’re taking into your brain. In law school, it’s all about output. How do you take what you know and actually apply it to a new situation?”
Don Macaulay is President and Founder of Law Preview, a law school prep course. Macaulay says there are two differences between undergrad and law school, how you are taught, and how you are tested. In undergrad, the professor leads you through the class, not so in law school. “From the first – very first class, the professor jumps into the material and has the students talking about the particular case that they’ve read. And the idea is that you’ll take those cases, boil them down to a fine point of law, and then using the case method, you’ll read other cases throughout the semester or throughout the year. So it’s the full-year classes that build upon the law that you’ve already learned.”
“So, it’s not until the end of the semester or the end of the year that you can look back and say, okay, that’s what contracts law looks like and that’s how contract fits together or that’s what tort law looks like and that’s how tort law fits together. Usually in undergraduate classes, what they do is they give you an overview, they give you a road map for the course, and then the professor walks the students through to show them how the course is mapped as he or she said it was. In law school, you don’t see the map until the very end of the semester.”
Henry Noyes is Professor of Law at Chapman University School of Law and co-author of Acing Your First Year of Law School: The Ten Steps to Success You Won’t Learn in Class. Noyes says the first year is stressful. Remove all obstacles including a commute. “My advice is for your first year, live close to school. You want to be able to get to your classes and use the library and all that for studying effectively and especially when exam time comes, you don’t want to have to be worrying about a long commute. After your first year, you can move farther out and farther away but I urge students to live close to school and get their housing taken care of early.”
“Next, figure out how you’re going to pay for law school and make sure that it’s an investment that you’re willing to make and be honest with yourself. There are many scholarships available for students and all that sort of stuff. But some students come and they pay full freight. And when they do, when they take on loans, they’re going to graduate with $140,000 or $145,000 in loans. Make sure you’ve got your financial aid not only for school but for living expenses taken care of in advance.”
“And then I think my last two things are really the most important. Number one, don’t plan on working at all during your first year of law school. When you get to school, you should think of law school as a full-time plus job. The more distractions you have, the harder it is to be successful and having a job and trying to balance that during your first year is incredibly difficult.”
And finally Noyes says let everyone you know and love know that you will be completely focused on law school and physically and emotionally unavailable to them. Nancy Rapoport adds that the habits you develop in your first year carry through school and your career. “The way that you approach problem solving, the way that you meet colleagues, the way that you interact with your peers and the way that you manage your time, all of those are things that you have to learn in your first year of law school. So among the things that law school wants you to do is we want you to be able to write well, analyze well. So to prepare right before law school, some of the things you can do, obviously besides reading our book which is Law School Survival Manual: From LSAT to Bar Exam, we think that’s good prep but also read some of the classics of literature. It doesn’t matter which one but get used to reading difficult material and trying to understand it. That’s one of the key skills you’re going to need at the very beginning of law school.”
It’s no secret that the first year is vitally important. Chapman professor Henry Noyes says it sets you up for a successful career. “First year grades determine those two factors, membership on law review and class rank for interviewing during the beginning of your second year. And those grades follow you throughout being able to starting off a long race with a big head start if you do well with the beginning and actually gives you some advantage over other students if you do well at the beginning.”
One way of excelling in your first year is to build in a schedule that will guarantee that. It’s a good idea to prepare yourself before your first day. Don Macaulay of Law Preview explains. “A strategy or a study schedule that you must stick with throughout the semester and sort of set a plan of attack for the entire first year and making that decision before you start law school rather than flailing around like most students do throughout the law school experience. It’s critical.”
There is an incredible amount of reading in law school, as UNLV Boyd Law Professor Nancy Rapoport says, “Not only are you reading a lot of pages each night for your classes but you have to have a dictionary right by your other reading because it’s as if law was written in an entirely different language. I remember my first night I had to read just a simple four-page case and every other word I had to look up in the legal dictionary. So, I think that there is copious amount of reading but the main thing people need to do is figure out their time management skills. It’s not just that you need to read the material. You need to be able to understand it and you need to be able to divide your time among several different classes. So, first thing you should do is build a schedule. When are you going to study contracts? When are you going to study property? When are you going to study civil procedure? And equally important to the studying schedule, you really need to build in some stress relief. I worked out every single day of law school because it was hard and frustrating and I needed to get my stress out. So, you need to read for understanding, you need to build a schedule, and you need to have some YOU time in there so that you stay sane.”
You have to know your own style of studying as we hear from student, Ashley Brian, who just finished up her first year at Indiana University of Law, Indianapolis. “I would go into school at 7:00 AM every day and leave at 6:00 PM. During the whole time I was at school, I would get all my reading done for whatever classes that I needed to read for that day whatever my schedule was. And then when I got home, I would just enjoy my free time and not worry about school because it really helps. And then the next day go back in at 7:00 AM and do the same thing.”
Gary Young, an attorney in Lincoln, Nebraska is Adjunct Faculty Member at the University of Nebraska College of Law. Young also wrote a book called Law School Ninja. He says he realized before he went to law school that he could not sit still to study and he changed that. “I went through a process where I just forced myself to sit down at the table and read a difficult text eight hours a day, three days in a row and that’s all I did. I didn’t get up for anything. I had coffee sitting there. I got up to use the restroom and go to lunch maybe, but that was about it. I went to the same spot in the library every day where I was going to be studying for law school. And as I did this three days of that, if you can believe that I forced myself to read that text well, not to skip over difficult spots, not to assume that I would figure that out later, forced myself to work through that three days, all my bad habits of not being able to sit still and focus on material that I developed in undergrad and in high school, all those bad habits were gone. That was the best advice I ever received as a student was to go through that process and it paid off for me in law school big time.”
Law School Ninja author, Gary Young, says you never see 2Ls and 3Ls in “study groups” — those regular meetings of groups of students to discuss cases and concepts covered in class. 1Ls join study groups, Young says, because of one thing: they’re scared. “Law school study groups serve a psychological purpose. It’s kind of a group therapy purpose. And if you’re in that kind of a soup and you need some bucking up and some reassurance that you’re not alone, good reason to go a study group. But once you get your – get some confidence back and you begin to trust yourself again, I would move away because I don’t think you’re actually going learn much material in a study group.”
Some people study better alone. Ashley Brian. “So the first semester, I decided to study alone and take my exams. And I actually did really well the first semester. The second semester, I decided to join a study group because a lot of my friends were in one and it worked well for them, so I just wanted to see how it worked and it didn’t work well for me. I got worse grade in second semester than I did first semester because it actually distracted me.”
Study groups can work for you. You may guess wrong, UNLV Boyd Professor Nancy Rapoport says, but you should build a study group with definite values in mind. “You want a couple of different things. One is you want to mix the people you have different with strengths from yours just like you’d build a team in a sport or you’d build a team for your law practice, you want to build a team where someone is great at statutory analysis, someone is great at understanding case law, someone who is hyper-organized. You don’t want to be the smartest person in your group. You don’t want to be the dumbest person in your group. You want everyone to have different strengths, so that there is more from the group than you would get individually. So, it should be people that you at least tolerate. You don’t want anyone that you can’t stand. It doesn’t have to be your friend. You all have to want the same thing from the study group though. So, if someone wants it just for socializing and other people want it to be specific about developing outlines, that’s not going to work. You absolutely want people who share your goals and have different strengths.”
Success in law school comes down to one thing, mastering exam taking and the trick to that, Chapman Professor Henry Noyes says, is that law students don’t need to know everything on every single subject. “Taking a law school exam is more about having a framework for approaching a new set of facts so that you can put them into sort of the right boxes and compartments and address them and respond to them rather than telling the professor here is everything I know about civil procedure or even here is everything I know about personal jurisdiction.”
Law School Ninja author, Gary Young, advises you to go get all your professor’s old exams that are published and in the library. “Take your exams, the old exams, and just practice. Not by doing them and writing a whole answer, because that’s just specifically too hard on people and they end up not doing it as exam prep. Instead, outline each of the answers to the old exams. You do four or five old exams with the particular professor in a property or in a property class and you get to worry your outlining all of that professor’s exams beforehand. You do that four or five times and you are not only going to be able to do well in the exam, you’re going to be a machine because you have trained yourself already how to outline the answers to each of those exams. You’ve trained yourself how to think in the way that that exam wants you to be thinking. And you go into that exam and you’re much better off than the person who sits down on the exam. And the first time they’d ever thought about how to structure that professor’s exams is when they flip over the actual exam. There’s just no comparison and how well prepared you’re going to be compared to others.”
Young adds that when 1Ls don’t do well in the first semester, it’s usually because they’re focusing on preparing for class instead of preparing for the exam. In undergrad, taking the exam is all about regurgitation effects. In law school, it’s about application, according to UNLV Boyd Professor Nancy Rapoport. “If you’re going to be tested on putting and chipping, you don’t practice dribbling and dunking, you practice putting and chipping. So, since we’re going to give you hypotheticals that you’ve never seen before on your exam and you’re going to have to apply the law that we’ve been teaching you to these brand new fact situations, the only way to prepare well for an exam is to practice. Take as many practice exams as you can. What I did with my study group was we would take the practice exams separately and then we’d meet over pots and pots of coffee to go over our exam answers and see if we – any of us systematically would miss seeing something because the nice thing about a study group is all of you see different things on the exam. So, the more practice exams you do and the more that you do together, the more you can see if you individually have a systematic forgetting of something, a blind spot that you need to fix.”
“Now, the other thing that you want to do when you’re actually in the exam, I like the one-third, one-third, one-third rule. I spent a third of the allocated time per question just reading the question over and over and trying to figure out what were the issues in it. And then I spent the middle third of that allocated time outlining what I was going to say, and then I was able to actually write the exam answer in the last third. And if people think that this is just a law school trick, I took the Nevada Bar Exam three years ago when we moved to Nevada. I did the exact same thing for the two-and-a-half days of the Bar Exam, one third, one third, one third. It keeps you from messing up the timeframe in writing too much on one question, not enough on the other, and it makes your answer as organized and thorough as possible.”
Outlining your class notes helps you prepare for your exams. Chapman Professor Henry Noyes reveals the secret of outlining. “It’s not about gathering more. It’s about boiling things down to what’s going to tip me off for this kind of question. And once I know what this kind of question is, what’s the rule that I’m going to have to tell the professor? On the exam, to be successful, you have to do more than that. You have to do analysis. But that’s not really part of outlining. Outlining is a sort of to help you identify and spot issues on the exam and then state rules very quickly.”
Jim Gordon is Marion B. and Rulon A. Earl Professor of Law at Brigham Young University, and he is the author of Law School: A Survivor’s Guide. Gordon says there is too much material to not outline. He says you have to create an outline about 30 to 50 pages that contains the legal principles and policies in it which helps you to synthesize your material. “In terms of commercial outlines, there are a lot of commercial outlines out there and some of them are quite good. I think that your best materials for preparing an outline are your class notes because they’re going to include what your professor covered, what your professor emphasized, and then you can look at commercial outlines as a tracking device just to make sure that you’re on track and that you’re understanding the material. They can cost quite a bit of money and so sometimes you can check them out of the library or access them in the reserve room of the library or you may want to share them with your study group. One person buys one, another person buys another, and then you exchange them.”
Most people use outlining incorrectly. You don’t want shortened class notes. Nancy Rapoport says outlines should be designed to help you take exams. “In law school, since most of the grades are based on taking exams, you need to practice the skills that help you take exams the best way possible. So, you want an outline that helps you to be specific. You want an outline that helps you distinguish between rules of law that compete with each other. So, you know which ones to apply and how to apply them. When I teach contract law, I tell them to think of law as a continuum. There is a rule on one end of the continuum and there is an exception to that rule on the other end, and everything that they’re learning in their textbook places things along that continuum. And when we write an exam, we tend to write fact patterns that are smack dab in the middle of the continuum, which is why you get answers that start on the one hand and on the other hand. So if you outline as if you’re outlining for a continuum rather than some sort of black letter law that always applies, I think you’ve got a much better shot.”
You may wonder whether it’s a good idea to force yourself to participate in classroom discussions or how to handle the stress of the professor calling on you using the Socratic Method. Chapman Professor, Henry Noyes says other professors may disagree with him but the level of participation shows up in the professor’s syllabus. Follow that, and beyond that, participate as much or as little as you want. Participation has nothing to do with your grade. “Class is your time. Use it the way you want to. If you’re more interested in listening what’s going on and taking notes, then do that. If you want to participate, good. But make sure you’re participating not because you want to grandstand and you want the other students, the fellow students, to think you’re so smart. You can show them that by doing well on the exam. But instead, use the time to ask questions that you don’t understand. And if your professor is not walking you through the issues that you’re having trouble with, make sure you raise your hand and ask questions. But participation is not something where you should be putting your energy in terms of how to do well in school. Make sure you’re actively engaged in the class but that doesn’t have to mean speaking out and talking.”
Brigham Young Professor, Jim Gordon, says he used to believe that he was a slow thinker. But with practice, he improved. “Doing it, practicing it, you’re not going to bat a thousand. Nobody bats a thousand but just do the best you can and over time, you get better at it. The best way to handle anxiety, dealing with a Socratic method, is to understand that nobody is going to get all the answers right all the time. It’s a process through which you learn, and also to come prepare for class. If you’re prepared – it’s an ancient wisdom – if you’re prepared, you shall not fear. So, if you’re not prepared, you’re going to struggle in the Socratic Method. But if you prepare for the class, and you know the material, you’re more likely to succeed.”
Participating in class can be valuable, but Nancy Rapoport suggests you do it in a balanced way. “I was terrified of talking in class in law school because I was convinced I was in admission’s list that somehow they had a pity party and they admitted me to law school and I didn’t belong, and so I didn’t want to talk in class. And I probably talked four times in three years, only one of which was voluntary and that was a mistake because what law school class participation does for someone is, in a non-client environment, let you test if you’re getting the material. So, I should have talked more. You don’t want to be the person who has his hand raised in a permanent locked, upright position, because then your classmates hate you. But what you do want to do is if you think you have something to contribute, raise your hand.”
If your first semester grades aren’t good, you should first remember that they are graded on a curve, suggests Chapman Professor, Henry Noyes. “First thing is don’t lose hope. Second thing is, make sure that they become engaged rather than become disengaged if they don’t do well on their first semester. Go meet with every one of your professors, go over your exam. Figure out what the themes of what you’re doing well and what you’re not doing well and make sure that you can correct for that. Whatever problems or whatever reasons that a student might give during their first year to explain why they didn’t do well, make sure you eliminate those as possible cause of problems in the second semester and seek help from the academic support, again, that’s available at the school. Most schools, probably all of them, have deans of students who are available to talk and help and direct you towards whatever the right academic support might be, but the main thing is just to become engaged.”
If you have a bad first semester, don’t worry. Brigham Young Professor Jim Gordon says, “You know, 90% of the lawyers out there did not graduate in the top 10% of their class. Most students get jobs. Most students get good jobs. And so it is helpful to keep things in perspective.”
On the other end of the grade spectrum, the best students get on to law review. And Chapman Professor Henry Noyes says, it is a positive signal to potential employers. “Automatic membership is usually based on grades and class rank. So, the better you do at your first year of law school, the more you increase your chance it will be offered automatic membership into one of those journals. If you don’t, you can usually try to write on. And most schools have a writing competition in the summer between the first and second year of law school where students can attempt to write on the law review for membership. If you don’t “write on,” I urge all students to try to write on because like I said, membership on law review is sort of a proxy signal to employers for, ‘this is a very strong student.’ So, it is worth taking the time to try and write on and gain membership on law review. And if you’re offered membership on law review, you should definitely do it.”
Yes, potential employers will be choosing the best students by virtue of their attendance on law review and moot court. But Professor Nancy Rapoport says there’s more to it than that. “The real reason to do this is that your writing and analysis get so much better when you have to apply it in high-stressed situations. So, for law review, you’re putting out a magazine and you’re editing law professors’ work. That’s fairly high stakes because we all have egos. In moot court, you’re competing against teams from all over the country. So, you’re testing yourself against people from the fancy Ivy League schools all the way to the West Coast. So, you really – those are good credentials to have. The two things you need: You need good grades and you need to be able to write well. If I had to pick the single most important course in the first year, it would be the legal writing course. If you do that well, you can master anything.”
Juggling your work load and managing your time can be a lot to deal with for most first year law students. Ashley Brian says she was so stressed out when she first got to law school that she didn’t join anything. “Second semester I did hang out with my friends more and I added exercising into my routine. I would either work out in the morning or when I got back from studying at school all day, and it really actually helps me de-stress to satisfy that time for myself.”
As you embark on your first year of law school, know how to read and analyze cases. Start law school with an understanding of the material you’re going to study. What else should you keep in mind if you’re a 1L? Well, don’t worry. You’re in the right place as UNLV Boyd’s Nancy Rapoport counsels. “People who are smart have a real bad case of what we call “Impostor Syndrome,” where they think because things have been easy for them that wherever they’ve gotten is a mistake that they don’t belong somewhere. And I think that law students need to realize they do have a lot of talent. They’re not admitted by mistake. Law schools don’t make a lot of admissions mistakes and they should have some confidence in themselves.”
Ashley Brian shares similar advice from the student perspective. “I would just say to know yourself and know your study habits. During the whole first year, people are going to be telling you what to do or what not to do, whether you should use commercial outlines or if you shouldn’t use commercial outlines or if you should join a study group or if you shouldn’t. My thing was, I just knew what worked best for me. And when I started listening to other people and doing what they told me to do, it didn’t work out the best for me.”
Here’s a list of things to avoid from Law School Ninja author, Gary Young. “I would avoid spending my time in the library worrying about what everybody else is doing. Are they – do they have some understanding of what I should be doing better than I do? Are they looking at the right case and I’m not? These types of worries just drive 1Ls crazy. And you know what? Again, it’s the same thing. Trust yourself.”
One more piece from Nancy Rapoport. “Yes, in terms of avoiding things just, generally speaking, don’t be a jerk. Be nice to the people that you come across. It’s good practice for life.” Law School Ninja author, Gary Young, passes on this good advice. “Swim in your own lane.”
The recipe for success in law school is excellent time management and proper preparation. Know yourself and your study habits and plan out a study schedule that includes exercise and social stress relievers before you even arrive at law school. Make sure to reward yourself for your class work and your work at home. If you’re not getting it, ask your professor for help or to share his or her wisdom whenever necessary. It’s also worth remembering that you shouldn’t worry how well the other students are doing. Only be concerned with how well you do.
For more information, a transcript of this show, or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.