7 Essential Tips for Surviving Your First Year at Law School


1. There is no “syllabus week”

Syllabus week was that glorious week in undergrad where you went to class every day only to get handed a syllabus, sit for an introduction, and leave 30 minutes later. Unfortunately, this summer bonus week doesn’t exist in law school. Law school starts on the very first day. In fact, many of your professors will send you readings the week before your first classes. Take these readings seriously and try to understand them as best you can. It is important that you don’t fall behind on your readings, especially at the beginning. For the first few classes, your professor will go through the cases more slowly. These early discussions will teach you how to read a case. It will be much easier to follow along if you have already done the readings.

2. Endless Readings

I’ll warn you up front — it is probably going to take you a long time to read cases. Don’t worry, it’s taking everyone way longer than expected to get through these readings, even if they claim otherwise. It may take more than one read-through to understand what is going on, and you’ll need to at least re-read confusing sentences or paragraphs. Look at the year the case was decided. Is it dated pre-1930? Is it 1805? Are you reading Pierson v Post? Although people don’t speak the same way anymore (thankfully), you unfortunately still have to read many of these confusing judgments.

It is important not to let your brain skip over the parts that don’t make sense. If you don’t understand something, re-read it a few times. But don’t fret if you are still at a loss after a couple of re-reads, as it will likely come up in class — so just be ready to ask about it.

If you are feeling frustrated, remember that you are reading judgments. The cases are written to render a decision in a specific case; they are not written to help law students comprehensively understand legal concepts. The judgments you read are a vessel for learning. Use them as puzzle pieces — fit them together to create a larger, but still incomplete, picture of an area of law. Read your cases with this caveat in mind.


3. Falling behind

It is very important to stay on top of your readings. When you go to class your instructors will expect you to have read the cases. In most classes, your instructor will not be able to cover every case in depth. If you haven’t read the cases, it is very easy to get lost in discussions. Additionally, most of your classes will have a participation component. Participation can be anything from open questions posed to the class, assigned speaking days, or cold-calling students on the spot. If you haven’t done the readings, it will be very hard to answer a pointed question when you get called on.

Each of your classes will build upon the last. The goal of your courses is to develop a picture of an area of law. Each case helps us understand the cases that came before and the cases that are to come. Therefore, each reading that you miss is a missing piece to your puzzle.


4. Study strategies

Stick to the study strategies that you have been optimizing over time. Remember that you got into law school because you are a good student. Your past success in school is likely based on a study routine and strategy that you have developed over the years. This strategy has worked for you. While you may need to adjust it in practical ways to accommodate the study of law, you shouldn’t try to change the way you learn altogether. Stick to what you know and make adjustments as you go.

Most of your classes will have 100% final exams. This can be extremely daunting and makes it difficult to assess how you are doing. You will rarely receive direct feedback on your performance from professors before the exam. This means that you need to seek out ways to self-evaluate.

One strategy for self-evaluation is to really listen to what your classmates are saying in class discussions. When someone makes a comment about a case in class, evaluate their comment: Does what they said make sense to you? Do you agree or disagree? Did you have something similar in your notes? If you are starting to feel lost in class you may need to re-evaluate how you are reading the cases.

Another way to self-evaluate is to pose your ideas and ask questions during class. This will put your ideas to the test in the court of public opinion. Pay attention to the responses of both your classmates and your professor. If speaking out in class is too nerve-wracking, attend your instructor’s office hours to ask your questions and run your ideas past them there. They are unlikely to give you outright “answers,” but they will help you shape your thinking.

If you engage in self-evaluation, you will develop a better understanding of the cases. You will also know when and how you need to adjust your strategies.


5. Study Groups

Study groups can be incredibly helpful in trying to build a picture of an area of case law. As mentioned above, what you are looking for in all of your cases are puzzle pieces to add to your picture, however, the pieces do not have clearly defined places in the puzzle and there are always going to be gaps. Study groups give you an opportunity to talk about all of the pieces and gaps in a focused setting.

Hearing what others think about the cases can be very helpful in developing how you think about the cases. A word of caution — notice the “helpful in developing” part, it is imperative that you only use other peoples’ ideas as a tool to guide your own thinking. It is not helpful to simply adopt what others think. In fact, it is reductive to your learning. The reason you cannot simply adopt the thinking of others is because there is no right answer. Even though you are building a picture of the law, everyone’s picture can and will be different.

Instead of adopting the ideas of others, try to understand where your classmates got their ideas from and then evaluate them using your own thoughts about the cases. What you should be looking to get out of study groups is different perspectives that you can compare and contrast against what you think about the cases.


6. Outlining

Outlining is a method for understanding the material you are learning. To continue with the metaphor, by the end of the semester your outline is the imperfect picture that you created out of the puzzle pieces.

Your outline is not a summarized version of your notes. Your outline is an organized “map.” It is created out of all the resources you have at your disposal. When creating your outline you will use your casebook, reading notes, class notes, and any other secondary sources you used. Your outline should include facts about the cases you read, relevant statutory law, and legal tests. While the facts are important, what is more important is your analysis.

A purely factual outline would list all of the cases under each sub-heading with facts, rules, analysis, and outcome. While this would give you condensed details of every case, this will not help you determine where the important “gaps” are, making it virtually useless for your exam.

An analytical outline will answer questions and identify gaps. Your outline should detail what questions each case answers, what cases work together, what cases don’t work together, and your analysis of the reasoning each case employs. You should also identify questions that are not answered by the cases.

The answers to your exam questions cannot be “found” anywhere in your outline. Instead, you will use your outline to choose cases that you can use as tools to fill the gaps the exam is asking about.


7. Exams

Most law school exams are three-hour, open book, fact pattern exams. A fact pattern is a set of facts that make up a hypothetical legal dispute. On an exam, you will be asked what the outcome of the dispute should be.

One of the most important aspects of your exam is the organization. You should structure your exam to be clear and logical. Use headings that tell the reader what you intend to argue. The heading can be a statement “A owed a duty of care to B” or it can be a question “Did A owe a duty of care to B?”

There is no “right” answer to an exam question, so don’t worry about trying to find it. Every person’s answer will look different, and be composed of different arguments. Don’t get caught up in trying to figure out what the professor thinks is the “right” answer. Your professor is looking for you to make persuasive arguments that make them want to adopt your conclusion.

Persuasive arguments are those that account for the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Both sides will have arguments supporting them, and they will have weaknesses that you must address. If you only focus on the strengths of your side and the weaknesses of the other, your arguments will not be persuasive.

While you must present both sides of the argument fairly, you must also come to a conclusion. The exam prompt will ask you to advise a client or come to a decision as if you were the judge presiding over the case. While there are no “right” answers, you must come to your own definitive conclusion in order to adequately answer the question. Your job is to be an advocate for your client or to be the ultimate decision-maker. Neither of these positions allows for fence sitting. It is essential that you come to a conclusion.

While this may seem daunting, you don’t have to wait for the day of your exam to try it out. Most schools make past exams available for students to use as practice exams. Use these old exams to practice answering fact pattern questions. Then, get together in study groups to go over your answers. Practicing is the best way to prepare for your exam.

During the first few weeks, you will most likely feel overwhelmed, and that’s okay! Almost everybody does. But if you follow these seven pieces of advice, you will be well prepared to survive 1L. Good luck!