TABLE OF CONTENTS
How to Study in Law School
Law school is different than undergrad—and so are the most efficient study methods.
College students study in the strangest places. But if you’re starting the practice now, start studying the way lawyers study. If you found that your lawyer was billing you for researching an area of the law while they are at the beach, or sprawled on the couch, would you expect a bill? Probably not. That’s because the lawyer would not be considered as working at peak efficiency.
You need to approach your work with a sense of comfort and to do so in a way that promotes deep, sustained thought. Keep everything you will need handy and easily retrievable.
Tools for Success
Set up your computer and printer so that you have access to the keyboard and the printed page without having to walk to another room.
Paper, pens, highlighters, ink cartridges, stapler, hole puncher, etc.
During your study periods, you will need to refer to reference material often. On a shelf near your desk, include an English dictionary, a law dictionary, all of your casebooks, and all commercial study aids you own.
You will need shelving, and a large desk or table top that will have ample room for your computer, for a writing surface, and for your computer, along with room for a large textbook or two to remain open on your desk at the same time – you’ll also need space for your three-ring binder to sit, open, as you study. Your chair should be the proper height and configuration to allow for hours of sustained use, without inducing fatigue or muscle problems. Look for used furniture stores that carry what you need. Obtain a file cabinet right away, and equip it with alphabetized hanging file tabs. Yes, you’ll keep lots of material on the computer’s hard drive, but unless you scan and save everything, you’ll find that you will accumulate lots of paper.
Lighting and Acoustics
Make sure your room is well lit, to accommodate hours of reading and writing without eye fatigue. Soundproof your office as much as is feasible – another way to handle this is to use headphones with gentle music or white noise as you read.
Adequate heating, air conditioning, and ventilation is essential.
Prepare your space so that distractions will be minimal to nil. This includes distractions on your computer. How many undergrad study sessions went awry when you received a “notification” on your laptop? You can’t afford that now.
Take a hint from author Stephen King (giving advice about being a writer): “If possible,” he explains, “there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate any possible distraction.”
Timing Is Everything
How much time should you spend on studying? To answer that question, begin by considering how much time you actually have. You have the same time as I have: each day you have 24 hours; each week you have 168 hours. Now, use the lawyer’s week as a model. Consider this as a “light” schedule for a typical first- or second-year associate at a law firm:
Monday through Friday: 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with a lunch break
Two nights a week: 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Saturday: 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
That adds up to 60 hours each week. The fortunate young lawyer who works this little enjoys three nights of leisure each week, and most of their weekends free. If they want to go away for the weekend, they can schedule those weekend hours during the week.
Employing a similar schedule, the law student carrying 15 credit hours would spend approximately 15 hours in class, and 45 hours each week “practicing” outside of class, studying. This works out just fine, since many law professors generally suggest spending no less than three hours of outside-of-class study time for every classroom hour.
The law student who understands that they begin the practice of law the day they begin law school should have no difficulty committing to a workweek similar to what they should anticipate after bar admission. Just as many lawyers spend considerably more time at the practice than outlined above, so also do many students. Commit now.
The luxury afforded by law school (as opposed to most law firms, corporate legal departments, law clinics, courthouses, and government agencies) is this: with the exception of 15 classroom hours per week (9 percent of your weekly time cache of 168 hours), you may work whenever and wherever you like. You can adjust your schedule to fit your lifestyle and study preferences, your most effective daily rhythmic activity cycle, and your social/familial obligations.
The budget part you can do on paper—just as with financial budgeting, the self-control part is the tougher aspect of time management. In order to maximize the amount of control you exercise over your career and life, you need to add healthy doses of boundless enthusiasm, tenacity, and intelligent foresight. Be advised: law students report that, from time to time, passion, tenacity, and vision all wane—sometimes simultaneously. Keep at it.
What about the “Get a Life!” comments you may have heard, thought, and perhaps uttered—all related to someone who seems to spend quite a bit of time involved in a singular endeavor? Consider this: once you commit to the practice of law, it becomes (a most essential part of) your life. As soon as you commit to practicing law—whether in law school or later, you will have gotten a life. Also, do the math: If you sleep eight hours nightly, and focus on law school for 60 hours weekly, you will have more than 50 hours each week to attend to the other parts of your life: family life, spiritual activity, exercise, eating, socializing, and household chores, for example. It’s about balance.
Is Memorization Important?
Some call it memorizing. Some call it learning by heart. I like to call it “internalizing.” Whatever you wish to call it, do it! Yes, having hundreds of elements, definitions, strategies, and templates at your (mental) fingertips is critical when you take an exam. It enables you to write a complete answer without wasting time trying to recall everything.
Do not be swayed by educational philosophy or pedagogic prejudices advanced by some who think that “memorize” is a dirty word. Professors expect their students to accurately state difficult rules of law, remember the elements of many crimes and torts, and respond automatically to certain verbal triggers.
Commitment of the rules, definitions, exceptions, and other essential material to memory, so that these words, phrases, maxims and even templates for persuasive arguments become an integral part of your legal vocabulary, is essential in order to achieve the liberating degree of instant automaticity you will need. Need? Yes, in order to spend your precious limited exam answering time on the essential activities of analysis and persuasive writing, you need to be in a position to spend no appreciable time groping for essentials.
Most first-year classes are graded based upon an examination at the end of the semester (some professors give mid-terms as well). The examination is the professor’s only method of assessment—the only way the professor can determine the extent to which each student in the class has achieved the course objectives they have set.
The exam tests law students’ skills associated with resolving hypothetical legal problems faced by hypothetical clients. If a student scores high on an exam, they have demonstrated high-end proficiency at precisely what the professor intended for them to learn. They have, for example, actively resolved (in writing, under time pressure) a complicated contractual problem by recognizing the legal issues, applying the particular legal rules that relate to those issues, persuasively arguing for a position (by explaining how the preferred resolution is consistent with the reason the law exists—the policy behind the law—and comparing or contrasting the hypothetical situation with cases studied throughout the semester), recognizing and discussing the “other side’s” position, and stating a well-supported conclusion.
If a student studies (read: practices) law throughout the semester with this in mind—doing their “personal best” on the ultimate assessment (the final exam), then the student will be practicing each week precisely what they need to practice to be assessed at the highest level. This is assessment-targeted study. Study for the examination from the first day of each class.
One does this by attending to what I refer to as the Components of Assessment-Targeted Study in each subject, each week. In other words, by practicing law each week, a student will become as proficient as their aptitude, their time commitment, their intelligence and their passion for the law allow. Just as in the professional practice, the practice of law in law school should be broken into its many components.
Those components include:
- Reading and briefing every case
- Attending every class, actively participating and taking notes
- Transforming notes
- Creating course summaries
- Developing flow charts
- Practicing answering hypothetical questions in writing
You will find quite a bit about each of those components on the links provided throughout these web pages; the step-by-step “how to” of the CATS – and how to fit them into your schedule – is detailed in 1000 Days to the Bar – But the Practice of Law Begins Now.
Passing the Bar
If you are eligible for the Bar Exam in any state, and about to begin studying for it, know this: You have no chance of passing the Bar Exam! If you are a 1L at a law school in California, planning on taking the Baby Bar (FYLSE), you ought to know this: You have no chance of passing the Baby Bar Exam!
But you certainly can pass. Say what?
Chance has everything to do with roulette, but nearly nothing to do with passing a bar exam. Instead, it’s a matter of risk avoidance. That is something you can control. Start exercising that control today.
How? Simply do everything right. Is “what’s right” the same for everyone? Pretty much. Take open water swimming for example. You may prefer freestyle, while your best friend excels in the backstroke. But to swim to shore, you both need to kick, stroke, and avoid inhaling when your mouths are underwater. And you’d both better be in pretty good physical condition if the beach is a long way off.
If the key to bar passing is risk avoidance, you ought to know the risks and how to avoid them. Let’s dig into that.
About three-quarters of first-time bar takers (across the country) pass each year. Check the statistics in your state and you’ll find that something like fifty to ninety percent of the first-time takers pass. Students who finish higher in their classes at law school tend to pass at a higher rate than those with low GPAs. But neither the pass rates in general, nor the GPA-related pass rates translate into “odds” or chance.
No matter which percentile of your class standing you fall into, if you have been working at your highest level throughout law school, you have avoided the risk associated with having to move from mediocre effort to the extraordinary effort required to pass the bar.
If the exam looms close on your horizon, you need to concentrate on avoiding risks as the exam draws nearer. Examples of the risks to avoid include poor preparedness, undue anxiety, less-than-optimal health, and distractions such as financial and relationship issues.
- Risk #1: Poor Preparedness
- Risk #2: Undue Anxiety
- Risk #3: Less-than-Optimal Health
- Risk #4: Distractions
The rule of thumb for the amount of study for the full exam is about 600 hours. That figure represents 10 hours a day, six days a week, for 10 weeks. Nearly every bar applicant takes at least one commercial bar review course. I recommend that you attend a full-service bar review course covering all aspects of the bar you intend to sit for. Also consider a second course focusing exclusively on the Multistate Bar Examination.
Prepare a detailed written schedule before the start of your 10 weeks of concentrated bar study. Most commercial bar review courses provide a comprehensive study plan. Integrate that into your personal plan, and then do everything the plan requires.
Don’t rule out professional assistance. This is not the time to gut it out. If you decide to talk with a doctor, counselor, or therapist, it’s best to do so earlier rather than later—most treatments take a while to become effective.
To handle anxiety on your own, you need to maintain your balance. Even though your study time between graduation and the first test day should be considerable, you need to spend quality time exercising, relaxing, sleeping, and socializing with family and friends. Some students find yoga, meditation, deep-breathing exercises, and similar centering activities helpful as well.
If you spend 75 hours each week studying (including breaks and commute time) and sleep sound eight hours each night, that leaves more than 30 hours each week for the rest of your life’s activities. Use that time to sustain a high level of psychological stability, mental alertness, and good health (including adequate exercise).
If you have significant health issues that can be taken care of, address then now. Have you been putting off that root canal? Do you need to visit the ophthalmologist for new glasses? Do whatever you can do to optimize your physical condition during your critical 10-week intensive study time.
Do you have a significant relationship? Make sure those closest to you are supporters, not distracters. Educate your family and close friends about the process of bar study. In their book, Pass the Bar!, authors Denise Riebe and Michael Hunter Schwartz warn that “significant others in your life may doubt your need to study hard.” After all, you have a doctoral degree, and you’ve been locked in a library for several years! How much more could one study? Answer: A lot more. They need to know this. They need to be aware of the rigorous schedule you will be keeping and your need for solitude and quiet.
Are you moving from near your law school back to your home state? To the extent possible, handle all the details of the move before graduation, including packing. If you have help available—you parents or significant other, for example—don’t be shy. Ask for help. Are you able to fly across the country while your mate makes the trip by car? Fantastic!
Other examples of distractions to avoid during your bar study weeks include getting married, planning your wedding, changing medications, and vacationing after graduation. (“Thanks Mom and Dad, but I’d rather wait 10 weeks.”)
Every year, just days before the bar exam, students report that they finally feel as though they have earned the doctoral degree they were awarded at graduation. Studying for the bar finally ties all the loose ends together; you should feel like—and you should be—an expert. Thorough study will lead you to a place of well-deserved confidence. You can actually look forward to the bar exam as an opportunity to demonstrate that you deserve to be a lawyer.