A friend recently emailed to tell me that he was starting law school, and to ask if I had any advice or suggestions for staying abreast of his first year. I did, and I do.
While I realize the following eight suggestions may be controversial, I'm going to throw them out there anyway. The've worked for me and although each may be subject to qualifications and exceptions (isn't everything in law school that way?) I stick by what I wrote to my friend:
- Use the Examples & Explanations series (published by Aspen). Unlike casebooks or professors' lectures, the series covers the basic concepts and then provides examples for you to respond to, followed by explanations of how your answer should have looked. They're no substitute for your casebook, but they'll go a long way to helping it make sense. You can likely get your hands on one for each of your classes, and it's money well spent.
- Avoid using another student's outlines. First, nobody is perfect and you don't need to compound your own mistakes (which everyone makes) by building off of someone else's. Second, outlining a course is where the real learning takes place and there isn't any viable substitution for it - with outlines, it's the process and not the finished product that counts.
- Do brief cases separately on your computer, at least for a while. The exercise is good because it is important to learn how to distinguish the "holding" in the case from the "reasoning" and so forth, but as time goes on two things will happen: First, you'll start to see that the distinctions are sort of artificial - e.g., the so-called "reasoning" is often intertwined with the so-called "holding" or the so-called "rule," such that the categories overlap. Second, you'll start to find that you can separate out the various elements of an opinion without actually having to type anything up. When that begins to happen for you, you'll know the case briefing exercise has lost (or perhaps realized?) its utility. At that point, you can trust yourself to take reliable notes in the margins of your book, and you can forgo the briefing exercise.
- Do read and reread each case until you understand it. You are after the rule at issue, and how it applied to the facts - don't stop until it makes sense, and I mean REALLY makes sense. This might take more than one reading at first because law has its own language, but it'll come faster with time. I promise.
- Do not worry about minutiae. Minutiae includes memorizing case names, judge names, the name of the court in which was heard, the state in which the court sat, and so forth. Some professor may or may not bust your chops over this in class some day, but I promise - PROMISE - you it will not be relevant to the exam. The exam will test your facility with the rules and your ability to apply them to the facts. It will not ask for nor will it reward trivial details that do not bear on the core rules and principles the cases for which you read stand.
- Do not worry about what your peers are up to. There are probably people with crazy highlighter schemes and freakish coding or index card systems for rote memorization. These are likely the same people who talk about staying up all night, and who later in the semester will talk about how long their outline is, or whatever. What they are expressing is insecurity, not some kind of insider knowledge you don't have. Ignore them as best you can.
- Do not study with others. And if you can't take that advice, do not study with more than one other person. I know that sounds coarse, but as a 1L I fell a time or two for the "study group" thing and I swear it's the blind leading the blind. If you don't understand an issue, try to frame it as a clear and precise question, then go look it up yourself. You'll have the answer in front of you instead of the word of someone who is just as new to the law as you. If looking it up doesn't work, and it sometimes doesn't, go ask your professor in person. You'll have an expert answer from your evaluator, instead of a lay answer from someone in your shoes.
- Do not underestimate your ability to succeed. Law school is all about work, not brains. True, you have to meet some threshold level of intelligence to get by, but that bar is set disappointingly low. The most successful students are not the brilliant ones. The successful students are those who take the time to think everything through, to understand what is happing in a case, why the judge decided it they did, and what the case "stands for" now. Admittedly, there is a lot of information to sort through. But that's a blessing in disguise, because the volume of information makes it so that the people who apply themselves will succeed where the lax do not. And whether you apply yourself is entirely within your control.