It’s a well-known fact. First–year grades are really important to law students. And second-semester grades are your best chance to distinguish yourself. These are what law firm interviewers and prospective employers will look to when you’re hunting for summer work next year and beyond. Plus, master these basic skills now and they will serve you well for two more years. Hear from law students and professors. What study techniques worked? What didn’t? What to do if first semester grades disappoint? What do your professors want to see? Listen to what our guests have to say to help you earn top grades.
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Althea Legaspi.
You hear it all the time. First year grades are really important to law students, and second semester grades can be your best chance to distinguish yourself. These are what law firm interviewers and prospective employers will look to when you’re hunting for summer work next year and beyond. The study habits you hone and strategies you develop help you learn what works best for you. These are also the keys to earning top grades and continuing to improve as you progress in law school. Mastering these good practices while you’re still a 1L will serve you well not only in law school but can aid you in passing the bar and succeeding as a lawyer. We speak with law students, a professor, and an editor from a commercial outline publisher, who give us insight for our show today.
We’re joined by Massachusetts School of Law at Andover’s Ursula Furi-Perry. She is their Director of Academic Support and Director of Bar Essay Writing. Senior Series Editor, Barbara Lasoff, is with Wolters Kluwer Law and Business, the publishers of Emanuel Outlines, and students Epiphanie Marquez from the University of Texas School of Law and Nicolle Kownacki from UCLA School of Law are both 3Ls.
Over an academic lifetime, we’ve all developed study patterns that have gotten us through many exams, and while what worked for you in undergrad may still apply, as Massachusetts School of Law, Furi-Perry explains there are some key differences between undergrad and law school exams. “First of all, I don’t think cramming works in law school. I think that for a lot of students, the law is just a foreign language essentially and you’ve got to learn your terminology and you’ve got to take the time to look up terms that you do not know because you won’t understand the cases and what they stand for if you don’t. So, that’s one big difference. Also, it tends to be that most law professors will give you essay exams. My understanding and just seeing students who are coming right out of an undergraduate environment and having talked to law students nationwide, my understanding is that a lot of colleges nowadays are testing more and more multiple choice and short answers and the like rather than straight essays. So, a lot of the times, a student may not have honed their writing skills to the extent that is necessary in order to successfully pass a law school essay exam. So, that is another big difference. And also just legal writing in any school or in any course is very different from the other types of writing that a student may be used to, and it is a formulaic type of writing. When you’re learning the IRAC method or a like method such as CRAC or TRAC, all of that comes as a very new type of writing for a lot of these students. And often the professors are expecting those kinds of methods to show up on your essays. And if you’re not organizing your essays along those lines, you may not be getting all of the points. So that’s, again, another big difference.”
She says IRAC and similar writing methods are integral to law school. “And so IRAC stands for issue, rule, analysis or application, and conclusion. So, you’re starting off by essentially stating the legal issue or the question of law that you found in the fact pattern, then you state the rule of law that applies to that fact pattern, then you take the rule and you apply it to the facts and this is really the essence of legal analysis, and then finally you conclude on the issue that you stated above, so you’re essentially coming full circle in your writing. Think of it along the lines of grade school Math. You know, you’re given a formula and you’re then given a problem, and you’re told to apply the formula to the problem and come up with a solution. And that’s much like what you’re doing with IRAC. You’re given a formula in the rule of law, you’ll learn your elements of negligence, for example, then you’re given a problem. And in this case, that problem is a fact pattern, and the facts are testing the issue of negligence. And so you take the rule and you apply it to the facts to figure out whether all of the elements of negligence were met and that your conclusion and that your, essentially ‘solution’ to the problem. So, it’s very simple once you learn how to do it. The more you practice it, the more easily it will come to you, and the more you use it, the more likely you are to find that legal writing and analysis get easier for you.”
A common mistake 1Ls make is getting caught up in individual cases, and they don’t organize properly. Furi-Perry explains how seeing the big picture during your first year is a skill to hone to get you through the rest of law school. “I think that one mistake is not recognizing the amount of work that’s going to be required when one starts law school or perhaps just not having a seriousness or purpose about it that one is really required to have in order to approach the curriculum and the learning style, the differences in terms of learning environment that a student may be used to from the undergraduate degree. And all of that, I think, goes into some of these mistakes that they make. I believe that students, as soon as you figure out basically what you’re doing in terms of briefing and reading cases and trying to call the rule of law from a case and figuring out what that case really stands for and why you’re reading it, as soon as you figure that out in your first semester, at that point, it is time to start thinking about putting together the information. Basically, it’s being able to see the forest from the trees. It’s being able to put the information together in a way that makes sense to you that is comprehensive and yet concise enough. A lot of students, I believe, miss that and rather than spending the time, they believe that they need to worry about the cases, the facts of the case, which is often what gets brought up during class in Socratic discussion. And so they’re so caught up in the facts of the case, they’re so caught up in one individual case at a time addressing what they’re reading that they don’t learn how to put it all together and why it all matters and how it all comes together in one cohesive unit for each class.”
It can be helpful, especially after a disappointing exam performance, to take a look back at your preparation and critically assess what worked and what didn’t. UCLA law student, Nicolle Kownacki says, the biggest mistake she and many students made as a 1L was not managing time well. It’s crucial to tackling the heavy work load and fully grasping the concepts Furi-Perry mentioned. Kownacki shares a few strategies that she now uses. “I do set certain days for studying for each exam, and I really try to stick to that schedule even if one class ends up being a little bit more challenging because it can be really tempting to just spend an entire week because the material is so dense and interesting, but you have to move on and you have to pace yourself.”
The mistake University of Texas law student, Epiphanie Marquez, made was skipping an essential study tool her first year. “I didn’t outline from the very beginning of the semester, for both semesters. It’s an easy thing to do just to summarize your notes even at the end of each week just to start seeing the bigger picture of the class, and I didn’t do that my first year, and I do that now just to keep up with the class throughout the semester.”
Marquez explains how outlines have been helpful and shares tips on how she approaches the process. “In outlines, it summarizes the main points of the class. I actually usually kind of make a couple of outlines. Throughout the semester, I put together a really long outline which summarizes my notes, and I tend to write a lot of notes during class and so it sort of summarizes my notes and it usually ends up being pretty long, maybe about 50 pages. But for the exam, it’s better to have a really well-organized outline, so I’ll look at sort of that first draft of the outline that I made, and cut it down even further. And I always make a table content for my outline also, so it’s really easy to look to the right section really quickly, so you don’t waste any time on the exam.”
Furi-Perry says that having a central document, such as an outline, helps students better process what’s being taught and internalize it because passing long exams doesn’t come rote memorization. But, she adds, there are several ways to synthesize and retain course information. “Some students don’t write outlines and that’s perfectly fine. Some students are more visual and perhaps a flow chart works better for them, also some students are more kinesthetic. I was one of those students, and I always wrote flashcards. I wrote out a complete rule statement on a flashcard, and I wrote out issue spotting flashcards, so I would put a hypothetical one side of the flashcard and then turn it over and write down what the issue was, and then write down the rule of law that corresponds to that issue. So, I was learning the law in context, so there are various ways to do this. What is important is that, again, you take one central document or one central place where you’re culling essential information and you’re putting it all together in a concise manner that makes the most sense for you.”
“I should add that in self-created outlines, it’s essential to update them. I would recommend once a week but even once every two weeks or so is okay to do as long as you’re consistent. Take a couple of hours a week out of your study plan. Schedule it in, with pen, and make sure that you’re sticking to that schedule in updating your outlines from the courses that you’re taking. And also, I should add, that there is really no substitute for these self-created outlines. Commercial outlines are excellent in supplementing the material, but you can’t internalize information or at least most of us can’t internalize information by simply reading somebody else’s stuff. Using your own words, using your own created materials is always a better choice because you’re really learning it as you’re writing. And one more thing to add to this is, often times, you’re going to end up with a really big document. You will end up with a 100-page or 200-page document at the end of the course. What’s important then is to learn how to condense it and then condense it again until you end up with something really workable, say a 10- to 20-page outline of just the basics that you can take with you during reading week and study it for the exam.”
While they shouldn’t replace a student’s self-created summarization, customized for each class, commercial outlines can be a good supplement and study tool. Wolters Kluwer Law and Business‘ Barbara Lasoff details what their Emanuel Outlines cover. “A commercial outline is a compilation of the black letter law that a student needs to know, most of the case law that will be covered in the course, as well as our Emanuel Law Outlines offer a lot of questions and answers, exam tips, essay questions and answers. It really is a synthesis of all the material that the student will cover in the course.”
Lasoff adds that commercial outlines like theirs help reinforce learning. “Because we don’t, of course, know what book a student is using, who the student’s professor is, and exactly what that professor is going to cover, our outlines will cover more. So, there’s the opportunity for a student to look at case law where he may have had a one case, he’ll find his case in the outline. But he’ll also find another case or two that addresses the same subject that will help reinforce his learning. The outlines also provide an abundance of questions and answers for students, so that they can really practice because, one thing a student — another thing a student can’t do enough, is practice. He needs a lot of questions and answers to get ready for that exam, and so the outlines have short-answer questions and answers as well as essay, and many of them have multiple choice questions and answers.”
As they say, practice makes perfect and all of our guests stress the importance of practice exams and questions. Marquez says taking practice exams are where students can separate themselves from the pack. “I went through and looked at the example answers and that was very helpful. I took what I did was a lot of — there were a lot of previous exams posted and so I went through the old exams and did them myself and then I looked at the example answers to see how my answers compared, and I started to see a pattern. And I think what they teach you in legal writing is something called IRAC, which is spotting the issue, explaining the rule applying it and then concluding, writing a concluding sentence and you start to see a trend in all the exams. That’s the best way to set up your answers. So, I think by looking at old exam answers, you start to realize trends and you see what the professors are looking for.”
So, it’s helpful to identify trends in exams when studying. It’s also smart to take practice exams under exam conditions using time limits. As each professor’s approach is different, another valuable piece of advice is to reach out to your professors, as Kownacki explains. “Sometimes you leave just as mystified or in disagreement with the professor about a specific point, but one thing it has taught me is that different professors value different things about exams. So, the next semester you go back and you start to think about what is the professor stressing in the class? What is unique to this professor? Not going too overboard because at the end, a lot of law school exams are fundamentally the same, but there are different tweaks for each professor. I think talking it through with them after really taught me how to look for that.”
So, what exactly are professors looking for what determining grades? Furi-Perry says there are four basic concepts. “First thing’s first, you’re looking at a fact pattern and that fact pattern is likely testing several different issues. The first step to all of this is to be able to spot those issues. And in building up this skill, you can take your professor’s past exams, you can take hypotheticals that you’ve gotten in class, you can take questions, whether it’s multiple choice or essay questions from review sources and materials, and you can look at those and you will notice that a lot of the times professors don’t tend to re-invent the wheel when it comes to exams. So, the fact patterns get recycled. The names and the places and some of the facts get changed, but the issues that are tested stay the same. There is only a number of ways to test medical malpractice, for example, in a torts class. So, if you’ve done your diligent work and you’ve taken the time to look at some of these past exams, then you will start to see some similarities. And the next time you see that same type of fact pattern, theoretically, you should be able to pick up on that issue right away. So issue spotting skills for sure. The second thing that I believe professors look for is — and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to any law student — is the fact that your knowledge of the law must shine across very clearly. You’ve got to be able to communicate not only that you spotted that medical malpractice issue but you then have to tell me what your definition is for a medical malpractice or a professional negligence. What are the elements that that plaintiff is going to have to prove in order to prevail on that claim? So that’s the second thing, knowledge of the law. There really is no substitute for this, and you’ll also find that the more you take the time to boil down these top concepts that your professors are likely to test, the more easily even issue spotting will come to you as you go. The third thing that professors look for is, again, a great organization in your writing. If you cannot put together an essay that is comprehensive and yet concise that gets right to the point and that addresses the issue, you’re going to be in trouble. And general writing skills play into this as well. Spelling and grammar may or may not break you on a law school exam, but it all goes towards showing your writing skills, your professionalism and the like.”
And she stresses the fourth concept. “They’re looking for great analysis, and perhaps this is the most important skill that you develop in law school, the ability to take the rule of law and apply it to a set of facts that then you examine how that plays out and you will ultimately resolve the legal issue through good analysis, sound analysis. Looking at both sides of the issue often is preferred by professors and maybe even throwing in policy considerations, historical considerations when they are relevant to the question.”
And just like every professor’s different, so is each student. There are many different and effective ways to study. Whether it be in a library or at home, with a group or by yourself, making a study schedule and sticking with it is paramount. Furi-Perry also says experimenting with various study methods to find what works best for you is a sound approach. “Try different methods from the very beginning of law school and then figure out what works for you throughout your first semester or so. Take that first semester just to experiment. And then whatever works for you, stick with that throughout the rest of your law school career because typically that will be the method that helps the most. I would even go as far as to, say, the bar exam, so anything from more visual methods such as writing things out. A lot of people learn doing that. Some people are auditory learners, so they learn by speaking, they learn by listening. And for those people, it might be really useful to have a study buddy or a study group to bounce ideas off of or even just to be tested by somebody who may not even know the law, who may not even be in law school, your significant other who is willing to listen to you or your cat, for that matter, who is willing to listen to you spout off legal concepts and be tested on terminology and the like. So, some people are benefiting from auditory learning techniques and preferences and then some people are more kinesthetic learners where maybe an online question program might be helpful. Again, flashcards really seem to help me where I was forced to actually have the — to actually make the movement of turning the card over and writing something on the other side, so that really helped me. So, you have to figure out what type of learner you are. Typically, whatever you’ve done throughout life up until this point, before you got to law school, may work best but you have to adjust it. You have to recognize that law study is very different from undergraduate study, from high school, from anything else that you’ve ever done whether you’re coming right out of undergrad or you’ve been a professional for years and years and years and you’re now making career change. Anything that you’ve done before isn’t like what you’re doing now. So, you may have to adjust your study methods. But typically someone who learned visually all of their life will probably be somebody who benefits from learning visually in law school as well.”
While our guests agree study groups are helpful as they give other perspectives, they all caution that too big of a study group may serve to confuse rather than help as there may be too many opinions. Kownacki says keeping distractions to a minimum has served her well. “I am studying by myself the majority of the time. That’s essential to put in a few solid hours for each case, each topic by yourself before you can talk about it with other people. It’s a matter of self-discipline, I guess. But that doesn’t mean I’m alone. I might be in a library or in a coffee shop with friends. So as long as they are the kind of friends that are also studying and motivating me to study more and not get distracted as much. The internet is a big temptation during finals, especially. It’s a great way to procrastinate and I think if you can find a friend who motivates you to go to that coffee shop that doesn’t have internet and you guys just work there all day, that’s a really good strategy.”
Marquez says it’s smart to not get too overwhelmed. Her single most important piece of advice for prepping for law school exams, “Get enough sleep throughout exams. I think, I know studying is very important. I think it’s important to study throughout the semester but especially during exams, I think you will start to see students just kind of losing it and I think it’s partly because they haven’t had enough sleep, and I think it’s really important to make sure that you take care of yourself and that you’re still eating right and you’re sort of an schedule so that you can do well on your exam.”
Kownacki advises to thoroughly review your outline and leave enough time to do practice exams. As for during the exam, she adds, “It’s just important to not panic no matter what happens. If you realize you read the questions incorrectly, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not going to necessarily destroy your grade right then and there. Lots of people makes those kinds of mistakes because they’re reading too fast, they’re thinking too fast, and I think that level of panic is what can actually slow people down or throw off the rest of an exam. I think doing the practice exams in advance really is so valuable because it shows you how to recover from situations where you may be misread the question and you have to rethink it.”
Grades are, of course, important. Furi-Perry details what students should focus on first year. “In terms of analyzing your own performance, first of all there are grades, obviously, so you can’t ignore the numbers and you can’t ignore those lovely letters that you get in the mail and you do have to be realistic and you have to be honest with yourself about how you’re doing. If you’re falling in line with the rest of the class and you seem to be right in the average, that’s okay. That’s okay. So, don’t worry so much about grades that that becomes the only thing that’s on your mind. Remember that 90% of your class will not be in the top 10% and that means, you’re really shooting to just understand the material to get through that first semester, that first year of law school to get through the fog that we so often refer to and to be able to take with you what you need to internalize in order to successfully complete the program. Think about it in terms of skill building as well. You’re there learn how to think like a lawyer. You’re there to analyze. You’re there to learn how to apply the law to a set of facts, and you’re also there to hone your practical skills, writing skills, communication skills. Those are very important to hone as a law student because a lot of employers are looking for you to really hit the ground running as you get out.”
And as Furi-Perry reminds us, the solid practices and skills you develop now will directly correlate to your future law career. “One thing that I think helps tremendously in being able to pass the bar is to sort of keep the bar in front of you the entire time that you are a law student. Don’t just think it’s an exam that you’re going to have to worry about when you’re done because really you can use those three or four years of law school to help you prepare for the bar, to consciously know what you’re going to be tested on, on the bar, and even maybe take some courses that are going to be tested on the bar as elective, that are not required by your law school, and keep that goal in mind and keep it right in front of you as you go through the law school curriculum.”
By finding your most effective study method, outlining from the get-go, utilizing practice questions, answers, and exams often and diligently, understanding what an individual professor values and synthesizing and internalizing the material, you can be well prepared to tackle the exams. Remember to take care of yourself and don’t panic. Use your first semester to develop an effective strategy that works for you. Stick with it and you can excel on your law school exams.
For more information, a transcript of the show or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit http://www.lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. This is Law School Podcaster, I’m Althea Legaspi. Thanks for listening and stay tuned next time when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.