How to Study Law
Studying smarter, not harder, is the key to success when studying law. The field of law provides such a diverse and vast opportunity for knowledge acquisition that there simply aren't enough hours in the day to learn and do it all. As a student of law, part of your job is to determine how and where you'll allocate your efforts to maximize your success in your classes and to position yourself for a job offer following graduation. Remember, just because your professor tells you to read something doesn't mean it's the best use of your time. As a law student, one the strongest signals to potential employers of your value as an applicant is your GPA. As you study law, earning a high GPA should be a priority, but not your only goal. Your study of law, and the content of that study, should also focus on preparing you for a specific career path. For example, if you want to be a real estate attorney, your time may be better spent studying contract law than in mock trial. Be strategic. Allocate your time and efforts in a way that will help you succeed not only in your classes, but also in your future career.
As a law student, part of studying smarter includes employing strategies and techniques that will help you maximize the effectiveness of the knowledge acquisition and learning process. Below we'll introduce you to proven techniques and strategies that will facilitate your study of the law, improve your GPA, and prepare you for career success.
Do the reading. Don't fall behind.
Complete all of your assigned readings and complete them on time. If you fall behind in your readings, you may never catch up. Do you reading assignments at a time, and in a location, where you can focus and are not distracted.
Brief each case.
As you read each case, take notes. Organize your notes into a short summary and analysis of each case for classroom discussion. Identify the legal issues, the holding of the case, and analyze the reason for the court's decision. And remember, your briefs should be just that, brief.
Arrive at class prepared.
Not only should you arrive at class having completed all assigned readings, you should also review your reading notes, and case briefs, before each class. If you arrive at class having neglected either of these tasks, your ability to follow class discussion will be limited, and when you're called upon by your professor to answer a question, you'll be unprepared. Avoid classroom embarrassment, and increase your ability to follow class discussion, by always arriving to class prepared.
Attend class regularly.
It is true that class discussion often follows the assigned readings, but sometimes your law professor will introduce concepts and material not covered in the readings. If you don't attend class, you'll miss information vital to your success on exams and as a law student. Law school is already competitive enough, don't put yourself at a disadvantage by not attending class.
Don't just attend class, participate.
Students who participate in classroom discussion tend to perform better than students who just show up to class. This could be because they are actively engaged in the learning process or because those that participate typically arrive to class prepared. Either way, you'll learn best when you participate in classroom discussion.
Take notes in class.
If you arrive at each class with notes from assigned readings, along with the student case briefs you've prepared, then your class notes should just fill in the gaps. Don't write down everything your professor says. Your class notes should include new material introduced by your professor as well as explanations and analysis that improve your understanding of the law as it relates to cases you've reviewed. Never get so caught up in taking notes that you don't pay attention to what is being said or become unengaged in class discussion. Review your class notes directly after class, before starting your next reading, and right before your next class.
Prepare an outline for each class.
The process of preparing a course outline for each class is vital to subject mastery. Don't rely on commercial outlines or those developed by more senior students. Using an outline prepared by someone else is no substitute for doing it yourself. The analysis of the rules of law necessary to develop a course outline is what will help you master course subject matter and determine how the rules of law relate to one another. You can prepare an outline once a week, once a month, or whenever a new topic is completed. The most important thing is that you actually do it.
Form a study group.
With respect to the study of law, there are many advantages to forming study groups. Study groups provide students the opportunity to discuss course material with one another. Talking through law concepts, cases and course material increases understanding and improves retention. It's been said that two heads are better than one. This is another benefit of study groups. Each group member brings unique insight, perspective and knowledge to the group. Keep study groups between three and five students. Select group members who are well-prepared for class and have similar academic goals as your own. Study groups should never turn into social gatherings and should run no longer than two to three hours.
Don't procrastinate. Don't cram.
There is no place for procrastination or cramming in law school. Waiting until the reading period to start reviewing for exams is a recipe for bad grades. Cramming just doesn't work. One of the keys to superior exam performance, and achieving good grades in law school, is to review your notes and course material frequently throughout the entire semester.
Attend review sessions.
If your professor holds a review session prior to the exam, make sure you attend. Review sessions are a great way to get answers to questions you may have. In addition, many professors will divulge helpful tips and information for improving your performance on the exam and provide insight into possible exam questions.
Take practice exams.
Taking practice exams, especially those administered by your professors, is one of the most effective ways to prepare for exams. Take each practice exam and then compare your answers to the sample answers in order to evaluate your performance. The more practice exams you're able to take, the better prepared you'll be for the actual exam.
Develop a study plan.
As we already pointed out, there aren't enough hours in the day to accomplish everything. But there is enough time, if you plan carefully, to prepare outlines, brief cases, take practice exams, attend review sessions and complete everything else you need in order to succeed in your law studies – and still have a social life outside of school. Part of your job as a law student is to determine the most efficient and effective use of your time. This requires creating a study plan. To learn more about effective time management for improving study skills read Using Time Management to Improve Study Skills.
Get an early start on LRW papers.
Good legal writing requires time, preparation and a lot of editing. Good LRW papers don't happen over night. Once you've received your LRW assignments get started on them as soon as possible. The sooner you get started on an LRW paper, the more time you'll have to review, edit and perfect it.
Review your exam performance.
Law school isn't just about getting good grades. It's about learning the law. However, if you want to improve your grades and learn the law at the same time, then take the opportunity to review each exam with your professor after grades have been posted. With his help you can determine what you did well and what you need to do to improve in the future.
Don't get caught up in the competition.
Yes, law school is competitive, and you want to do your very best. But remember, only one person is going to be at the top of the class, and chances are it won't be you. Focus on achieving the highest GPA you can, while taking classes that are challenging and that will position you for career growth within your target niche. Don't cheat. Be respectful of your classmates. Make law school a positive and fulfilling experience for everyone involved.
Additional study skills resources for law students.
The following are additional study skills articles and resources we recommend for aspiring law students.
- The Cornell System for Taking Notes
- Improving Your Memory
- Using Study Groups
- Improving Your Note Taking