Law Students Looking for Purpose Have the Best Outcomes
There’s an old trope that says the first year of law schools scares you to death, the second year works you to death, and the third year bores you to death. Fear, hard work, and boredom are pretty decent descriptions of a lot of academic programs, so don’t single out law for criticisms unless you are prepared to denounce accountancy and the sciences, too.
But there’s definitely a wall facing law students in the first year. Climbing over (because you cannot go around) takes sheer grit. The speed at which new concepts hit, coupled with the steep curves of skills to navigate, conspire to defeat many an enthusiastic newcomer.
Fortunately, there are strategies for this. One of the best thinkers on law school teaching and learning is Michael Hunter Schwartz, now dean at University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. In 2005, he published “Expert Learning for Law Students”1 with dozens of strategies for success in many aspects of law school, from reading assignments effectively to memorization and classroom learning. One of his best recommendations – which I stumbled across myself in law school in 1981 – is summarizing class notes as you go along, rather than recording everything for later organization and consideration. Apart from making it easier to study from the notes later and saving outlining time, recording your own summary in the margins, either during or shortly after class, dramatically increases comprehension and retention. It is one of the best strategies for dealing with a high volume of concepts, since you tackle them in the moment, with much less time on each.
Of course, you can easily setup electronic notes for this, but for good old-fashioned hand-written notes, nothing beats “summary law ruled notepaper” which moves the left hand margin line in, to the right, a couple inches to make space for your summaries.2 On the right, take notes as you normally would, then summarize them, in sections with headings, on the left. Often, you’ll find the keywords you are writing as section headings on the left become the trigger words in your memorization or outlining work later on. Slick!
For pure comprehension, nothing beats knowing what you are supposed to learn before studying. That’s where study aids come in. Many law professors disdain study aids, arguing they reduce learning engagement and hamper skill development, and there’s probably something in that. But, as an aid to comprehension, when a concept eludes you or time is very short, study aids are essential.
Tackle the bewildering variety of study aids with a clear focus on the purpose you’ll use them for. A deep, content-rich aid is great for initial learning but not so much help for exam prep. Brief, keyword-focused outlines are good for that, but probably leave things out that would help with initial understanding. Look for resources that offer both. A solid outline that also offers flowcharts or other memory tools is a good example. Be sure to check out the products offered by the major bar reviews (Bar/Bri, Kaplan, Themis, etc.), often for free or low cost as incentives for signing up. Because they face the job of filling gaps and supporting exam prep, they often have useful resources for both.
One of the best ways to research study aids is to look for law library “lib guides” on 1L, 2L and 3L. Often, a helpful law librarian has summarized the major resources available in that library, and you can use these guides to make your search more focused – even if you don’t attend that school.3 You might learn for example, that one resource is concise while another is practice oriented. It is a great way to save time and money.
Use them before doing the case reading if you are a person who like to see the big picture, organized, before delving into the details. Use them after the case reading if you learn best by seeing examples first and then reasoning to a general picture. Learners vary, but the case method really favors the specific-to-general, and some people can benefit from a little up front, big picture reading ahead of time.
Finally, focus on what you came to law school to do. The first year is about building skills you’ll use throughout law school and law practice, including thinking and writing like a lawyer. Take time to understand how different law school learning activities (for example, a closed-universe memo assignment) are designed to advance your skills and knowledge and set a goal (mastery or something less) for the activity. Once you’ve achieved that goal, move on to the next thing. This self-directed learning process, or “self-regulated learning” as Michael Hunter Schwartz calls it, turns fear-inducing, time-consuming assignments into steps to an exciting goal, making them both easier to face and more productive. If you take it one goal at a time, and keep moving when you achieve it, you’ll climb that wall.
1 The latest edition is the 3rd, now coauthored with Professor Paula Manning; Carolina Academic Press, 2018; ISBN 978-1611639650.
2 A very nice, padded and punched version is available from Amazon.
3 See, for example, http://lawlibguides.luc.edu/c.php?g=610826&p=4239525.
Gregory J. Brandes is a law professor and Dean of St. Francis School of Law. He is an expert on legal education and admission to the bar and is admitted to the bars of the United States Supreme Court, Colorado, and Illinois.