This post grows out of a repeated conversation that I’ve been having over and over again since my second semester of law school. That conversation usually goes like this: someone who is either in law school or seriously considering law school asks me for advice because they know that I have done well for myself in law school. Or (just as often, and perhaps less polite of me) I learn that someone is going to law school and I offer them advice that they may not have asked for. The people I talk to seem to generally be expecting vague advice, but I don’t have vague advice to give—I have really specific advice about exactly how I did it, and how they can do it too if they want. Sometimes people don’t want really specific advice, which is totally fine, but sometimes they want the whole spiel, and then I start giving the spiel and it’s a little overwhelming. Or, it’s exactly what they’re looking for, but they don’t have the time or the bandwidth to really engage with it.
So: I’m writing the spiel down. If you’re reading this and you’re my friend who wants advice, please know that I’m happy to talk through everything with you step-by-step, and to help you set this system up with your schedule. I’m just also presenting the spiel this way so that I don’t forget anything, and so that you can have access to my experience anytime you want, instead of just when you can get me on the phone.
There are a lot of things you can do before your 1L year that will put you ahead of the curve on day one. Most of these don’t actually have much to do with the law, but they’re nevertheless crucial to your success as a human who has to live through law school.
- Consider reading a law school prep book, like the newest edition of 1L of a Ride. These books won’t give you all the answers, just like this post won’t give you all the answers. But, crucially, a prep book will help you figure out what you want your 1L to look like, and what you don’t want it to look like. For example, when I read 1L of a Ride I thought it was ridiculous that the book seemed to presume I could not get straight A’s. I decided to prove the book wrong, and I did.
- Consider a typing speed course. You will type a LOT in law school, both in classes and during your exams. Being able to type quickly and without many errors will give you a leg up in class and in studying that is ridiculously helpful.
- Set up your home study spot. Do some serious thinking about where this spot should be—is it near a window, or would that be distracting? Is it in your bedroom, or will the allure of your bed make it difficult to work? Is it in a shared space in your home where roommates can distract you? Wherever it goes, some crucial basics are: a chair with lower back support, a book stand to hold up your casebooks, maybe a second book stand to take with you to school, a laptop, an extra monitor for reading PDF’s on while you take notes on your laptop, and a desk large enough to comfortably hold all those things. You might also consider a standing desk setup add-on, a ring light for looking snazzy in Zoom meetings, something small to fidget with, and some encouragement, like a sticky note reminding you that you’re doing a great job.
This is my 3L at home study spot, featuring a huge wall of encouraging decorations, a humidifier, chapstick, tissues, a little bookshelf for my desktop, and proximity to my tea set up.
- Schedule a doctor, dentist, and optometrist appointment preferably for before school starts, though during the first couple weeks of school is good too. These simple check ups might not seem super important at first, but by getting your medical support network set up before you need it you’ll save yourself a lot of headache when the need arises.
- Read an inspiring book or watch an inspiring, vaguely legal movie. A couple of my favorites are Legally Blonde and To Kill a Mockingbird. Watching or reading these kinds of media won’t teach you much about law school, but it might help you feel excited to start, which will make the work easier.
1L Coursework Scheduling
The first couple weeks of your 1L year are a time of huge opportunity. During those first couple of weeks you get to decide what kind of study habits you want to have, and how you want your classmates to see you. Try not to view the first week as a blow off like syllabus or add/drop week of undergrad; instead, use the time to start strong, and you’ll find yourself immensely less stressed three weeks later when everything is in high gear. This section will talk about how to plan your assignment schedule out so that you’re ready for whatever the semester throws at you.
- As soon as you have the syllabi for your classes, make a homework plan. Your homework plan should lay out for you what days you will do what assignments. In making this plan, you should stick to three big commitments:
- Plan to do your readings for each class at least two sleeps before the class the homework is due on
- Plan not to do homework on weekends, and
- Make sure you’re leaving yourself time to stop your assignments at least an hour before bed.
An example of what your homework plan might look like is below.
|Class Time||Homework Day|
|Contracts, Monday 10 - 12||Wednesday Before|
|Property, Tuesday 10 - 12||Thursday Before|
|Civil Procedure, Tuesday 4 - 5:30||Thursday Before|
|Contracts, Wednesday 10 - 12||Monday Before|
|Writing, Wednesday 1 - 4||Monday Before|
|Property, Thursday 10 - 12||Tuesday Before|
|Civil Procedure, Thursday 4 - 5:30||Tuesday Before|
In this example you have one class on Mondays, two on Tuesdays, two on Wednesdays, and two on Thursdays, but none on Friday. On Mondays you’re going to Contracts, then doing the reading and assignments for the upcoming Wednesday’s Contracts and Writing classes. On Tuesdays you’re going to Property and Procedure, then doing the homework for your upcoming Thursday Property and Civil Procedure classes. On Wednesdays you’re going to Contracts and Writing (your longest day of class) then just doing readings for your upcoming Monday Contracts class. On Thursdays you’re going to Property and Civil Procedure, then doing the reading for your upcoming Tuesday Property and Civil Procedure classes. With this schedule, you’re doing reading for each class at least two sleeps before you have to go to the class, and you’re not planning to do any homework on Fridays or weekends. You’re also planning to do the least homework on the day when you’re in class the most, which is smart. You don’t want to set yourself up for exhaustion and failure from the start.
- Why schedule homework at least two sleeps before the class it’s for? Most importantly: so that when you get behind, everything doesn’t fall to hell. Because you’re going to fall behind your schedule (you’re going to get sick, or go on a hot date that ends up taking your entire evening instead of just a couple hours, or you’re going to take an extra long nap on a rainy day and love every bit of it) so you want your schedule to include wiggle room that makes falling behind not a crisis. Also, humans retain and understand information a LOT better if they get to sleep on that info, so purposefully putting sleep in your study regime will help with your retention a lot.
- Why not schedule homework on weekends? Partially to give yourself time to catch up on work if you fall behind, or to work on large assignments that can’t be completed in a normal day’s worth of working (like your legal writing class’s brief assignments). Also though, you need to take breaks. You have to do errands and see friends and go on hikes, and if you don’t plan substantial time to not-work-on-law-school, then you will find you’re always working on law school.
- Why spread assignments out so that you’re stopping at least an hour before bed each day? So that you can sleep! Making your brain work right up until bedtime is a great way to lay in bed thinking about your readings instead of sleeping. Having bad sleep habits will make you tired during the days, and being tired during the days will make you less effective at working and less fun to be around. It’s an endless cycle of more work, less sleep, and less fun, so don’t do it! Even if you’re a little behind and just one more hour of work could get you back up to speed, keep a hard cut-off for yourself and respect your own sleep boundaries. They’ll pay dividends like you wouldn’t believe.
- Another important boundary to keep for yourself is meal times. You’ll want to set aside about an hour each day for lunch, and another hour for dinner. Don’t plan on working through these times. Your work would be subpar anyways, and your brain will thank you for the break. Meal times don’t need to be strenuously planned if you’re the kind of person who always makes time for them anyways, but if you find yourself skipping meals or only eating cheap takeaway because you don’t have time for searing vegetables, then make meals a part of your meticulous planning. Just like missing sleep, missing good meals will reduce your ability to work well, and also, ya know, it’s bad for you.
- Once you’ve got your homework plan (that’s the days you’re going to do each kind of homework) you need to actually plot out each assignment that you need to do on each day. I personally use and absolutely love an app called Things to keep track of my to-do’s, but you might prefer a paper planner or a bullet journal. Whatever you use, your system should tell you every day exactly what you need to do. If you need to do this upcoming Monday’s Contracts homework today, and the syllabus says that the reading for that upcoming class is pages 30-50, then your planner system should say that today you need to read pages 30-50 of your Contracts casebook. You should not be going and looking at the syllabus every day to see what the assignment is. Get that administrative work out of the way early (read: as soon as you have your syllabi) so that it’s super easy to just knock your homework out on the day you need to do it.
- Although I know some people love a beautifully illustrated journal, I really recommend using an electronic system like Things. An app on your phone and laptop can’t be left at school as easily, and it will auto-sync to include Google Calendar invites from your various responsibilities. Also, it can push little reminders to you about what you need to do each day, and it’s one less object you have to carry to and from classes.
This is what a standard day for me looks like in Things. You can see the events I have on my calendar for that day at the top, synced from my iCal, as well as the day’s to-do’s (homework, prompts for my job as a notetaker, and the reminder to mist some of my plants,) including deadlines for the homework.
Come your first day of class (or whenever you have gotten all your syllabi) you should be able to go to any day of the semester and know just about exactly what assignments you want to be doing on that day. You will need to do some rearranging for school holidays and any rescheduled classes your professors announce, so be open to that kind of simple change, and plan for as many of those ahead of time as you can. This system might sound crazy school-focused, but it’s actually designed to help you do schoolwork as efficiently as possible so that you can get on with the rest of your life. If you want to take a vacation four-day-weekend, or get to spend a whole day in the middle of the week hanging out with your friend who is only briefly visiting town, then this system will help you know exactly what assignments you need to do ahead of time so that you don’t feel behind.
- Now that you have your homework plan, get emotionally ready for the fact that it’ll probably change a whole bunch! You’ll want to feel things out during the first couple of weeks and see what needs to be shifted around. If you’re feeling yourself consistently exhausted on a certain day, and you’re not getting your homework done that day but are just shifting it to the next day, then just make your new plan to split your homework between those two days, or to move a certain kind of assignment to a different day entirely. This homework plan is meant to be changed, so don’t be afraid of changing it to suit your needs!
- Be especially attentive to your body’s needs during the first two weeks of class where you’re deciding what changes need to be made to your schedule. You might find, like I did, that your back is incredibly tired of sitting on long class days, and you want to plan to do some of your homework at standing desks (either your own, or one provided by your school). You might find that working at home alone is socially exhausting, and you prefer to do some of your work in public spaces (cafes, the library) so that you feel less isolated. You might find that trying to study around other people is a great recipe for not getting any work done, and you need to commit to doing your work at home. You might find that you’re more productive in the early mornings, or in the mid-afternoon. Whatever you feel, let those physical and mental needs help craft your schedule. Trying to do work like other people is not the way to success. You should use this outline of a work plan to do the work in your own style.
So, if you’ve done all the above you’ve got a fancy sparkly schedule stretching out through the whole semester ready to go, and you’ve got a well-appointed desk to do the work on. But…what should that work look like? This section will talk about the substantive part of 1L coursework, as opposed to the scheduling procedure discussed above. Generally for law school doctrinal classes you will be assigned cases or pages of a casebook (which contains descriptions of the law as well as portions of cases) to read before class. In traditional classrooms, professors might call on you and ask you to talk about one of the cases that was assigned to be read in preparation for that class meeting. Your grade for a class will usually depend entirely on a single exam at the end of the semester, an exam that will ask you to use the lessons you learned from the cases and from class to identify and discuss various legal issues in a story. Here’s how you’re going to feel comfortable in class, and absolutely rock the exam.
- Read all the readings and brief every case before class. That sentence is my most common, and least popular, piece of advice. It’s a lot of work. Most people won’t do it, so if you choose to do it you’ll stick out, which doesn’t always feel great. But look: you (or your parents) are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for you to be in this classroom. You have dedicated three years of your life, years that you could spend gaining work experience or hiking through Europe, to being in this classroom. So are you really going to half-ass being there? Maybe you will. That is certainly a choice that a lot of people make in law school, and you can probably become a lawyer who gets paid lots of money by doing so. But this is my advice column, so I’m not going to pretend that I think half-assing it and skipping readings or foregoing briefings is a good or reasonable choice for your first 1L semester. Commit to the work, and you’ll get an immense amount of learning and confidence out of your law school experience, and not an immense amount of stress.
- What does briefing look like you ask? I’ll tell you! A brief is like a little summary of a case, written in your own words, and written for your own benefit. Briefing will help you learn to identify the important parts of a case, and it will help you remember cases better both by requiring you to read closely, and by getting you to write about the case in your own words.
- Writing something in your own words is one of the best ways to understand and remember it, which is why some people will tell you to take notes by hand. Taking notes by hand isn’t actually better for retention and understanding than typing notes, but because you write slower than you type, you are more likely to write in your own words than you are to type in your own words, because you might be capable of typing fast enough to record what your teacher or what the book says verbatim. So, don’t be afraid to type, but do type in your own words.
To write a brief, start with a simple fill-in-the-blank outline that will prompt you to look for certain stuff. You can find my personal outline below. Then, fill in the blanks as you read the case! Try to keep your brief to less than a page, typed. A briefer brief will be easier for you to review for exams, and it will probably mean that you’re focusing on the most important parts of the case, and not transcribing too much stuff verbatim.
Question of the Case:
Opinion ([this part is for who wrote the opinion]):
Concurrence ([this part is for who wrote the concurrence]):
Dissent ([this part is for who wrote the dissent]):
In my brief outline I have the facts up top, which is the who did what of the case. Next is procedural posture, which is the story of how this case came to be in this court (like was it appealed from another court, or is it a decision on a specific kind of motion). The Question of the Case is what specific legal question the judge is answering. The question might be as simple as “Did John do this murder,” or it might be complicated like “Did this corporation violate this statute when it violated this fiduciary duty?” The Answer section of my brief is the answer to the Question presented in the case, and it is usually a very simple sentence beginning with Yes or No. The Opinion section of my brief is usually the longest section, and it is about the court’s reasoning. The Legal Outcome section is the specific decision of the court, like for example the lower court’s decision is overruled and the case is remanded to them for retrial, or the defendant is ordered to pay damages. The Concurrence and Dissent portions are often unused because concurrences and dissents don’t always get assigned, but when they do get assigned I summarize them in their respective sections.
- A small tip: consider using a text shortcut generator on your laptop, like aText. A shortcut generator like this will allow you to type a brief phrase that automatically expands into your brief outline, which can be SUPER handy for not having to type that outline a hundred times each month. I use atext and really like it. Whenever I wanted to brief a case, I would just type briefme and my outline automatically appears. Also, it makes me feel cool and technologically literate.
- Whatever you do while reading and preparing for classes, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD, DO NOT HIGHLIGHT IN YOUR CASEBOOK. “But Destiny Rose,” you say “everyone highlights; my casebook even already came with highlighting in it.” Yes, that’s true and those people are WRONG. We have DECADES of good science proving that highlighting is almost never helpful, and is often harmful, for retention and understanding, and the fact that students still do it is RIDICULOUS. So don’t do it. Don’t even buy highlighters. If you have them, throw them away so you can’t be tempted by their siren song. Call me in the night when you feel tempted to highlight and I will talk you off the ledge. I will be your no-highlighting sponsor. Please, just don’t highlight.
Acing the Exam (with preparation)
Doing all the readings, and briefing every case, before your classes on a handy dandy schedule is a great start, but for most people it won’t be enough to ace your exams. That’s because law school isn’t just about memorizing what cases say, it’s about learning how to apply lessons from cases to novel fact patterns, which is a much more complicated skill. This section is going to talk you through the extra things I did and recommend to make sure you ace your exams. Hint: none of these recommendations have to do with cramming during finals season. In fact, finals should be when you do the least exam prep, because you’re going to be prepping for exams all semester.
- Doing well on exams starts with introducing yourself to your professor at the very beginning of the semester. You’re going to have questions throughout the semester, and you might even find that at some point you need a special accommodation that only your professor can give. You won’t have the social capital to comfortably get your questions answered or to get that deadline extension if your professor has never met you before, so introduce yourself! Especially if you’re in a big lecture class, make a point to pop into office hours specifically for the purpose of saying hello. Your professor will appreciate that you’ve made yourself not just another disinterested lump.
- Speaking of not being a disinterested lump: raise your hand in class when your professor asks questions. It isn’t important that you’re right when your professor calls on you—you’re not auditioning for anything. What’s important is that you’re engaged and grappling with the material, and a great way to keep yourself engaged is to commit to raising your hand to answer questions. Committing to raising your hand will require you to pay attention (both to identify questions, and to think through your potential answer) and it will potentially give you feedback about how well you’re understanding the material if your professor calls on you and you learn if you were right or wrong. Feedback on your understanding is VERY rare in law school, so you don’t want to pass up opportunities in class to get it. Also, answering (or even offering to answer) questions in class will further build social capital between you and your professor, which will help you both as discussed above, and when it comes time for you to request letters of recommendation.
- This last recommendation is for people who want to make straight A’s on their exams, and it requires a lot of work. It’s okay if you don’t want straight A’s, but I’m of the opinion that that should be everyone’s goal at the start, so I’m making the recommendation across the board: make flash cards throughout the semester. Your flashcard system will have several steps.
- Brief every case before class (I know, I’m a broken record)
- During class take notes on each case as your professor goes over the case. These notes should be SEPARATE from your brief, and should be in your own words, not a verbatim transcript of what the professor is saying.
- A week after you discuss a case in class, return to your brief and notes and write a single sentence at the bottom of your brief that you think encapsulates why your professor assigned that case. Does the case teach you a nuance about a certain Rule of civil procedure, or does it give an example of how to differentiate between murder and manslaughter? Whatever the purpose/takeaway of that case is, write it at the bottom of your brief. I always used purple text for these takeaways to distinguish them from my brief’s text.
- In the same calendar week that you write your takeaway, turn that takeaway into a flashcard. This step doesn’t have to happen immediately; indeed, I usually only did this once a week, after all the classes of the same type were done for the week. For example, if you have contracts on Monday and Wednesday mornings: after contracts on Monday of week two you will look at the cases you had briefed and discussed for Monday of week one, and you will write takeaways for those cases at the bottoms of those briefs. You’ll do the same for the cases briefed and discussed for week one’s Wednesday contracts class after you have finished your week two Wednesday contracts class. Then, you’ll make flashcards for each case and takeaway for contracts cases briefed and discussed for week one. The front of the flashcard will be the name of the case, and the back of the flashcard will be the takeaway. You can find an example of my flashcards here. You’ll notice that these flashcards include definitions of words that I thought were important, and Model Rules I thought were important, too. I recommend making a flashcard for whatever comes up in class that feels important, whether that’s a big concept, a case’s holding, or a simple statute (though avoid trying to make yourself memorize huge statutes).
- At least once a week, and preferably twice a week, go through your flashcards for each class. This step will only be useful if you do it in good faith, so don’t just stare at your flashcards and absentmindedly click through them. Actually try to think through what each flash card means each time you practice.
- The flashcard steps above should be part of your daily to-do system, whether you put that system in an app like I do, or in a paper planner. Your daily to-do’s should include steps like “create takeaways for last week’s contracts cases,” and “add this week’s property takeaways to flashcard deck,” and “practice criminal flashcards.” I recommend treating this work as almost equally important to your class readings, so make sure to balance it in your general work flow instead of dumping it all on one day where you’re likely to be overwhelmed. Always do class readings first though, since those are the building blocks that this system grows out of.
- I made most of my flashcards in an app that no longer exists, so I don’t have great recommendations for flashcard apps at the moment, but don’t be afraid of writing your cards by hand if you can’t find an app that suits you. I wrote over a hundred cards by hand for Professional Responsibility during 3L, and it was an absolute hassle, and I was very proud of my retention of the material and of my performance on the exam at the end of it.
These are my flashcards that I hand-made for my Professional Responsibility class. I made them colorful, because it made me happy to do so. Don’t be afraid to make your flashcards pretty!
- Finally, if you’re struggling to understand what the takeaway from a case is, get into office hours and ask your professor ASAP. Don’t rely on what other students say—they rarely know better than you, even if they’re older. Your professor is the one writing and grading the exam, so asking her is the most surefire way to ensure you’re going to understand the material in the way she expects you to understand it.
And that’s the end of this post! There may be other questions you have, like about how to outline and prepare for exams during exams season, or how to balance career searching and extra-curriculars, and those are good questions. But this post is just about the process that you can use to Ace 1L coursework, so I’ll talk you through those questions elsewhere if you’d like.