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Tips for new law students: Take practice tests, and start your outline now!

Your first year grades will depend primarily on how you perform on your final exam. Accordingly, the best possible use of your time, in preparing for that exam, is to take practice tests. Your professor probably has some previous exams on reserve in the library; if not, exams from other professors who have taught the same course are probably on reserve.

Practice tests will help you with time management when the real exam comes around, and get you familiar with the format. So when you take the final exam, you should have completely figured out how to write an exam essay. The typical first year law school exam is very different from essay questions in college. Your job in the law school exam is simply to spot the relevant legal issues in a particular factual context, and explain the pro/con arguments that are relevant to analysis of the legal situation. Beautiful writing is not important. You are just presenting an organized listing of how the law might be applied to a given set of facts.

You absolutely should not wait until the final weeks of the semester to begin your practice exams. Within a few weeks, you will have covered enough material so that you can answer at least some exam questions. For example, if your Torts class is one semester, you will probably be finished with intentional torts no later than early October. At that point, you can practice the essay on a Torts exam which covers intentional torts. (A typical exam might have one essay on intentional torts, one on negligence, and one on strict liability.)

By the end of the third week of school, you should begin outlines for your classes. After three weeks, you will have completed at least one discrete section or subsection in all of your classes. For example, in Torts, you will have finished assault, and the class will have moved on to other intentional torts.

If can get ahold of Bar Review outlines for your classes, do so. Sit down and read through them. Your objective is not to memorize the contents. Rather, you are engaged in pre-reading. If before you read a non-fiction book, you closely read the table of contents, your comprehension of the book itself will probably be better. Likewise, reading a bar review outline will give you a good overview of the subject, and help you understand where a particular day's class fits into the context of the subject as a whole.

A final tip: there is a vast difference between the first year of medical school and the first year of law school. In the former, students must learn an enormous number of facts. But the substantive content of a first-semester law school course is rather thin. The full content of all the black-letter law that you will learn in, say, first-semester criminal law, could be taught in a semester to a bright group of seventh graders. The main thing that you are learning is not the law itself, but how to analyze legal problems: how to spot legal issues in a factual pattern, and how to make pro/con arguments. That's why taking practice exams in September will not only make you a better exam-taker in December or January, it will also make you a better student in October.

And BTW, this is advice is not about working harder than your classmates. It is about working smarter. You should definitely have time to go to campus football games, do whatever sports you enjoy, go out drinking and listening to music on weekend nights, etc. The amount of time wasted by hard-working but inefficient first-semester law students is enormous. To wit: investing a huge amount of labor (rather than just a lot of labor) in a pass/fail writing class; using hornbooks to excess (a hornbook is fine to use to clarify a legal concept you don't understand; you should not use a hornbook to learn extra law, unless for your own intellectual curiuosity. All the law you need to know for the exam is in your casebook); creating an overly detailed, 200 page outline (100 pages, at most, should be plenty for a single semester class, and some classes can be done in 50); obsessively studying the details of cases for fear of not being able to answer a question in class (spend as much time as you need teaching yourself how to read a case; after that, you should not need to read most cases more than once to extract the legal rule(s) from the case. Except in constitutional law, there few if any cases for which remembering the facts of the case will do you any good on the exam).

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Really Really Belated Advice to New Law Students:
  2. Tips for new law students: Take practice tests, and start your outline now!
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Really Really Belated Advice to New Law Students:

I know it's probably too late, since you're already deeply embroiled in your first year classes (and have given up, among other things, trolling through the Volokh Conspiracy), I did want to pass along two thoughts in response to master conspirator Eugene's calls for our thoughts on the matter, for what they're worth.

The summer before law school, I read Charles Rembar's wonderful book "The Law of the Land," and I recall myself thinking, many times during my first year, how glad I was that I had done so. Rembar takes you through the history of the development of Anglo-American law, and I found it both fabulously entertaining and extremely helpful as a practical matter -- trying to extract some meaning from those inscrutable texts that one encounters early on in most first-year classes (Pierson v. Post in property, Hadley v. Baxendale in contracts, and all the rest) is not easy, and I found it helpful to have some rudimentary understanding of the archaic and arcane forms that the law had taken in the past -- about the old pleading rules and their "writs" and forms of action, about the Field Code, about the differences between law and equity courts in the old days, and like matters. Highly recommended.

Second: I agree with all that was said, in several other postings here, about different learning styles for different people. But I suspect everyone would agree on one thing: to be a good lawyer, you have to know how to write well. You're probably taking some kind of "legal research and writing" class during your first year, and, if you're tempted to blow it off (as you may well be), my advice to you is: Don't. In many, many ways, what you learn there is more important than what you learn in any one of your doctrinal classes -- there are a lot of terrific lawyers out there who never really understood (and still don't understand) property law, say, or constitutional law, or contracts. But there are very few terrific lawyers out there who haven't mastered legal writing and legal research. (And consider this, too: all of those judicial opinions you're reading in your "doctrinal" classes are themselves the output of judges (and their law clerks) engaged in the process of "legal research and writing"; the more you understand about that process, believe me, the better you'll be able to understand those opinions and, therefore, the better you'll be able to understand the various doctrinal subjects you're encountering). If I had the magic bullet to get you to write well I'd reveal it to you, but I don't. Legal writing, in my view, is one of those things (like playing the piano, or juggling, or carpentry) that you get better at by practice, and only by practice. There are lots of guidebooks out there -- Volokh's, of course, and Bryan Garner's got a good one -- and I've even tried (here) to put down on paper pretty much everything I could about how to write good legal prose. But you won't learn how to write good legal prose by talking about it or reading about it -- you learn by practicing it, so look for every opportunity you can to do so

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Really Really Belated Advice to New Law Students:
  2. Tips for new law students: Take practice tests, and start your outline now!
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