Not far behind the plethora of recommendations incoming first-year law students receive—most commonly, “Make sure you practice hypos” and “Be sure to look over practice tests”—is a surprisingly controversial suggestion:
“Make sure you get into a study group.” Some law students rave about the numerous benefits of study groups— the intra-school networking that results from immediately creating a tight-knit cohort and the opportunity to work through challenges with other law students—while others want nothing to do the prospect of participating in a study group.
Both sides are right
Like most controversies, there are merits and drawbacks to both sides of the debate. Most law school administrators say that, like any method of studying, each individual student must find his or her most effective way to learn. Elizabeth Schroeder has served as the assistant dean for student services at the University of California, Irvine School of Law since 2010. She said creating a study group can be beneficial if done thoughtfully and carefully.
“The benefit of joining a study group differs for each student,” she noted. “Although study groups provide structure, accountability, and social engagement, they aren’t for everyone. Some students work and learn best on their own. I recommend against rushing into joining a study group. It can take several weeks for new law students to determine their learning style and to figure out a group of friends with whom they feel comfortable.”
Schroeder said there are certain indicators of success that most good study groups have. “The best study groups equally distribute the workload, keep members accountable, and delve deeply and thoughtfully into the course material,” she said. “The group should meet regularly, and members should provide each other both academic and emotional support.”
Courtney Abbott Hill is the associate director of student affairs at Syracuse University College of Law in New York. Study groups aren’t an essential component of law school success, she stated, but they do provide a valuable opportunity to receive feedback from other students.
“Many students can succeed without participating in a study group, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of seeking feedback to check your understanding and application of the law,” she said. “For some students, this happens during a formal study group. But for others, the discussion may happen informally, or a study group may evolve out of a group of peers in the same place at the same time.
“Students who work best on their own may find that periodic check-ins with tutors, upperclassmates, or, better yet, their professors can provide the feedback needed to ensure their studies are on the right track,” added Abbott Hill.
Not just any group will do
More important than establishing a study group is establishing a cohesive study group, experts said.
Schroeder said that cohesiveness can manifest itself in different ways, but it’s imperative that all
group members are on the same page. “Cohesiveness is crucial for a study group’s success,” she argued. “The group will quickly fall apart or suffer from internal friction if one or more members fail to contribute to the success of the group or have an abrasive personality. Groups can work well with members who understand the material on different levels as long as the end goal is to raise up all members’ understanding.”
The creation of a cohesive study group requires each prospective member to assess his or her expectations and goals, stated Abbott Hill. “A good study group should be productive and alleviate, not create, stress; how that looks can be different for each group,” she said. “I encourage students to think about what they want from the study group and to communicate their goals. Some students may work best studying independently among peers, so they can ask questions as they arise, while others may seek a standing weekly meeting with a clear agenda.”
Abbott Hill said there are some risks to having a study group that’s too cohesive—risks that may serve as an indication of a need to reevaluate a group’s dynamic. “There are pros and cons to a cohesive study group,” she explained. “On the one hand, you want to work well together. But if you’re having too much fun, you may have a group that’s better suited for socializing than studying.”
More ways groups may help
Of course, a study group can provide a much-needed social dynamic that may not exist for students moving to a new city for law school or people who are unfamiliar with their law school colleagues.
Schroeder said a study group can be a great way to avoid the social isolation that can stem from the first year of law school.
“Law school can be socially isolating, especially in the first semester when students who always enjoyed academic success find themselves struggling with legal analysis and writing,” she said. “A cohesive study group offers emotional as well as academic support. It’s common for strong, life-long friendships to form within study groups.”
A study group can help build soft skills as well, like the ability to work effectively on a team. “Teamwork is critical in the practice of law,” added Schroeder. “Successful study groups help students solidify their teamwork skills.” Abbott Hill said the social impact of a study group can be incredibly beneficial if each member has a positive influence on the rest. “Law school, especially the first year, can be overwhelming,” she said. “You should surround yourself with people who are a positive influence, both academically and personally.”
In fact, a negative influence within a study group can cause extensive damage as group members prepare for final exams and can affect how they learn class material. “Be aware that study groups can lead students astray—reinforcing misinterpretations of class material,” said Schroeder.
“The best preparation for final exams is your own analysis of the class material and preparing an individual outline,” she advised. “It’s tempting to have each member of the group prepare a subject-specific outline shared with all—that’s fine as a supplement, but it shouldn’t replace your own critical thinking and analysis.”
The way to avoid the reinforcement of misinterpretations of class material is to avoid replacing individual preparation with work done in a study group. “Don’t substitute work in a study group for individual preparation for class and exams,” said Schroeder. “And reassess the value of being in the group at different points in the semester and especially after mid-terms.”
Law school, like many endeavors, according to Abbott Hill, requires you to practice a certain amount of introspection and to focus on your personal, professional, and academic development. “Law school should push you to think in new ways, including about how you study, but many students mistake best practices as the only way of doing things,” she said.
“The most successful law students find a way to balance their learning style with general best practices and aren’t afraid to modify their approach as they learn from professors and peers.
“The key to most things in law school, including study groups, is not to lose sight of who you are and how you learn,” advised Abbott Hill.