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School Success in Seven Steps

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Success Steps

Realize that law school requires a different commitment to your studies. For many law students, prior college courses were not essential to their futures. They could cram at the end of the semester, “brain dump” for a good grade, and then forget what they learned because they never planned to use the information again. Conversely, law school skills are essential to the daily work of lawyers. A practicing lawyer will spend her career reading and briefing cases, synthesizing legal information, researching precedents and statutes, writing legal documents, arguing policy, and applying the law to facts. Every hour spent honing these skills as a law student leads to a more practice-ready prospective employee. A solid foundation in various legal subjects also prepares a graduate for passing the bar exam on the first attempt. A law student who does the bare minimum of work and depends on shortcuts throughout law school will be ill-prepared for the hard work of lawyering.

Organize your course materials.

Syllabi, handouts, and other course papers can quickly become an avalanche of disorganization. Begin a binder for each course and file away all paperwork immediately. Read each syllabus carefully to take note of assignments, exams, papers, and other required work. Notice deadlines for each course. Pay attention to the course objectives, absence policies, grading policies, exam or paper formats, and any recommended study aids. Professors often include information about the course in the syllabus that can increase your likelihood of success.

Implement a calendaring system.

Use a weekly planner. Smartphones have calendars, but a weekly planner is better suited to the big picture. If you use a smartphone calendar for daily tasks, remember that it will be useful only if you look at the tasks regularly. Put all important dates from the syllabus into the weekly planner: assignment deadlines, due dates for paper drafts, and midterm or exam dates. The week prior to the deadline, write in a reminder such as “Family Court observation paper due next Friday.” Set an artificial deadline two days prior to the real deadline and work toward that deadline. By finishing the paper two days earlier, you have time for another rewrite or edit.

Add to the weekly planner any family or social obligations that you have during the semester. If you will be out of town for a weekend without any time to study, then you need to avoid getting behind by completing additional work the week prior to the trip.

Set up a routine study schedule.

By scheduling regular blocks of time for each study task for each course, you will see exactly where you will read and brief, outline, review your outlines, complete practice questions, and research and write papers. You also will see when you will eat, sleep, exercise, do chores, and have downtime. A basic schedule that repeats every week will take the guess work out of each day’s workload and minimize wasted time.

Thorough class preparation is essential to success.

To determine the time needed for each course, time yourself reading five pages. Then multiply that time by the longest assignment in your syllabus. You now know the reading block for one day’s class preparation. Add time for writing notes, briefing cases, or completing problem sets as the course requires. This total time block is what you set aside for each day that you prepare for that class.

Once accustomed to a professor’s style, consider preparing for a class two days before it meets. Preparing the day of class or the day before encourages rushed preparation rather than deeper understanding of the material. By reading for Monday’s and Tuesday’s classes over the weekend, you use your most flexible days wisely and can begin the week less stressed. This schedule means that you finish your Friday reading by Wednesday. You reserve the end of the week when you are getting tired to complete other more active and varied tasks: outlines, practice questions, review for exams, and work on papers.

Before you go to class, review your briefs/notes for a half-hour to refresh your memory and think about the class material a second time. Every week, you should schedule an hour to an hour and a half for outlining each course. By outlining regularly, you condense the material while it is fresh instead of having to relearn it weeks later. As you build your outlines, you can begin exam review to promote long-term memory and to allow more time for practice questions.

Whether you have a major paper or several smaller papers to write, you will produce a better result with consistent work over time rather than last-minute efforts. Put six to eight hours per week in your schedule for research and writing time for any paper course.

Understand that class and exams require you to use complementary but different skills.

The content and testing formats for law school may require you to modify study habits that worked in college. To be successful, you need to master how to view any legal topic from 360 degrees. You will dissect cases to learn how policy affects the law, to extract the legal rules and concepts, and to understand how courts reason about the law. In your outlines, you will flip your thinking to see the bigger picture of how the law and policy you have learned can be used to solve legal problems. Although you must memorize the law, it is the application of the law that will determine your exam success because exams will test whether you can use what you have learned to make arguments for both parties to solve new legal problems.

Seek assistance to improve your studies.

Most law schools provide academic success professionals, writing specialists, teaching assistants, or other academic support staff. Professors are willing to answer questions about their course material during office hours. Assessment instruments for learning styles, procrastination styles, or study habits can increase student awareness of effective study strategies.

Take care of yourself.

Law students often become so focused on their studies that they stop using common sense about their lifestyles. Law study requires a great deal of mental heavy lifting. A good sleep routine of seven to eight hours per night is essential to your brain cells working well. Students with adequate sleep comprehend material quicker, take less time to complete study tasks, retain information more easily, and notice the important nuances in legal concepts. Exercise—at least 150 minutes per week—is important to stress management. Ideally, that 150 minutes is divided into smaller, frequent intervals. Nutritious meals are essential to brain function. Downtime with friends and family provides balance. A regular study schedule allows you to have guilt-free relaxation because all of the necessary study tasks have been completed.

Success in law school requires more than rote memorization and constant study. It requires understanding of the law and the ability to apply the law to new legal problems. Students who use the assistance of academic success professionals and their professors learn how to study more efficiently and effectively. Rather than merely survive, they are more resilient under the stresses of law school.

Vol. 42 No. 1

 

Amy Jarmon Amy L. Jarmon, assistant dean for academic success programs at Texas Tech University School of Law, is a professor and coeditor of the Law School Academic Support Blog . She is the author of Time and Workplace Management for Lawyers, which is published by the American Bar Association. She has practiced law in the United States and the United Kingdom.

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