Law school bears little resemblance to undergrad, and it’s important to know what to expect in order to avoid mistakes that can sink you. A number of people drop out or flunk out after the first year; with some planning, you won’t be one of them.
Unlike the rest of your law school career, in your first year you have little choice in the subjects you take. Expect to study contracts, civil procedure, torts, constitutional law, property law, criminal law, criminal procedure, and legal research and legal writing. You may get to choose an elective in your second semester.
Realize that your grades in the first year of law school depend almost exclusively on your exams at the beginning and end of each semester. You must do well on these exams to do well in law school. You must work hard, but you must also work smart. So let’s look at some ways you can pass and even excel in these courses.
1. Put Your Coasting Days Behind You
You’re smart, and in undergrad you may have skipped a lot of classes, pulled all-nighters and still aced your finals. Yeah, not going to happen in law school. Study for exams early. You cannot pull it out with all-nighters like you may have done in undergrad.
Stay on top of your reading or you may never catch up. There is a vast amount of material to read and master, and your classmates are likely to be at a much more competitive academic level than your undergrad classmates. Not only that, but most law schools grade on a forced curve. That means there are a set number of A’s, A-minuses, B’s, etc. Most of the class’s grades will be B-pluses or B’s. This means you are competing directly with your classmates for the top grades; there are only so many A’s to go around.
2. Go to Class, Pay Attention and Participate
Some professors test almost solely on class discussions rather than book materials. You are paying a lot to be in law school, so you should take advantage of your professor’s insights on case law during class. Also, be aware that if you miss too much class, there are severe grade penalties.
Take good notes, but don’t write so much that you are unable to think or participate. If you are prepared, there is no reason to worry about how you appear in class. The classroom is the place to make your mistakes; don’t wait to make them on the exam.
3. Brief the Cases
You will be expected to brief cases you study in law school. A case brief includes a short summary of the facts, the case’s holding and why the court reached that decision. Think about how the case precedent can be applied to new scenarios. But don’t stop there. After the class, review your case briefs in light of class discussion and your professor’s guidance.
4. Make Your Own Outlines of Law School Courses
Make your own course outlines rather than buying them commercially. A great deal of the value is thinking through the materials while creating them. Work on them early throughout the semester rather than waiting until a month before exams, and keep them streamlined.
5. Form a Law School Study Group
Early in your first semester, find three to five people with whom you are compatible and set up a weekly study meeting. You can help each other practice, quiz each other and discuss the cases. And if you really MUST miss a class, your study group members should be willing to share their class notes
6. Attend Review Sessions and Practice Tests
Many professors hold class reviews and practice tests. These are wonderful opportunities you should not miss. And even if your professor does not actually hold review events, it is a good bet that he or she can make old exams available for study. But don’t depend solely on these. Review your class notes, review your case briefs and discuss the cases with your study group. You cannot review enough.
7. Take Advantage of Your Law Professor’s Office Hours
If you have done the work and still don’t understand a case or a point of law, by all means visit your law professor during office hours. That’s why they are there. And it will show your professor that you are serious about the class.
8. Try to Have Some Semblance of a Life
It’s unlikely you will be able to take off entire weekends very often in your first year of law school, or anytime during law school. You will also probably be studying a lot of nights. For married students, this can put a strain on a marriage, so discuss what three years of law school really means with your spouse before applying. However, you need to take some time off to relax now and then, or you may not be able to go the distance.