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Lessons for starting the law school year (from some law professors)

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It’s not easy to successfully get through law school. Do you join a study group? How do you deal with stress? What advice do professors have for you?

If you’re looking for advice, you’ve come to the right place.

The ABA Law Student Division and Themis Bar Review took to Twitter in August for a conversation about best practices for starting the law school year. From studying tips to stress busters, our panel of law school professors has you covered.

Our contributors include:

  • William Birdthistle, Professor of Law at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
  • Christopher Fromm, Multistate Bar Exam expert at Themis Bar Review.
  • Yvette Byes Edwards, California Director at Themis Bar Review and part-time adjunct professor at Golden Gate University School of Law.
  • Zachary Kramer, Co-Interim Dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

What are some tips and tricks you could offer to students looking to improve their study habits and/or note-taking skills?

BIRDTHISTLE: Try taking notes by hand. I know, I know: “Tyranny of the laptop ban!” But if you type, you’ll end up with 400 pages of transcription at the end, which is largely useless. If you write by hand, you’ll have already distilled most of that down to a usable, exam-worthy outline.

FROMM: Not everything the professor says is noteworthy.  Rather than try to get every word down, understand the big picture.  If you write everything down, it won’t make sense later.  If you summarize rules, case holdings, ideas, they become sound bites from which you can expand later. 

KRAMER: Create a schedule to form the habit. Office hours, people. Professors are lonely in there, ask questions. Sample questions are golden, though it’s better if you have model answers. At the end of the week review your notes so you’ll understand them later.

EDWARDS:

THEMIS: Put away your phone. Don’t even have it in the same room! Give yourself a chance to focus fully on the task at hand without any distractions. Don’t make your brain switch from task to task–it lessens your cognitive functionality and increases stress levels.

FROM THE AUDIENCE: Eileen Prescott of Wake Forest University School of Law added, “Typing up the handwritten notes at the end of the quarter/semester is also a very effective way to review and organize that outline pre-exam!”

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In your experience, what are the biggest benefits and drawbacks of opting for study groups?

BIRDTHISTLE: On the good side, the fear of being unprepared in front of peers can be a powerful motivator to study. And nothing helps you to learn better than having to explain difficult concepts to others. The potential costs are social loafing, mistaking meetings for productivity. And “Hell is other people.”

FROMM: One of the benefits is you can work as a team. Divide and conquer. Push each other, create bonds. Feel better about the task at hand and have someone to bounce ideas off of. But as drawbacks go, someone else’s outline is just that. It might not be as easily remembered later since it was not yours.

KRAMER: I simply could not handle a study group, freaked me out. I quit every one that I joined. Solo studying to the end! Do what feels right for you. Study groups are helpful if they work for you. Don’t feel like you have to join one or stay in one.

EDWARDS:

FROM THE AUDIENCE: Mikal-Ellen Bennett of Kincaid & Associates in Wilmington, N.C., said, “Study groups are SO overrated!! I didn’t even know what they were until I watched Legally Blonde right before I started law school, and once I saw them in the movie, I was like ‘oh HELL no!’ They’re even worse in the real world. My verdict: AVOID!”

Here’s some advice on study groups from one of our Student Lawyer authors. And in case you’re curious, our audience wasn’t high on study groups, according to this poll.

Are there any professor “dos and don’ts” that most students wouldn’t think about?

BIRDTHISTLE: There are some petty things, like we can see when you’re yawning & take it personally. (Though maybe masks can help.) Coming to class late is no big deal, but letting the door slam is an act of war. But on the real side, asking if “this” is going to be on the exam is a big don’t. Fight the desire to learn the least possible!

FROMM: Commercial outlines are great, but they can also be problematic. Sure, you have to know the rule, but be able to provide answers that speak to your audience. Remember, lawyers advocate on behalf of clients to different audiences all the time. Consider this your first case!

KRAMER: Do the reading! It’s surprising to me how many students stop reading, even in the first year. Granted a lot of faculty assign way too much reading. But the real work, in my classes at least, is in digesting the material before class.

FROM THE AUDIENCE: Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, professor at American University Washington College of Law and author of “The Law of Law School: The Essential Guide for First-Year Law Students,” suggests listening to this ABA Journal podcast to learn about finding the best shot to succeed among the hidden rules of law school.

Georgetown University Law Professor Jonah Perlin also covered Tools for Success for New 1Ls in the How I Lawyer podcast.

Law school is stressful. What are your best recommendations for alleviating and dealing with stress?

BIRDTHISTLE: Exercise. Preferably against weaker opposition. The physical activity will help to keep you sane, and endorphins are real. Plus, the weaker opposition may help you find a few wins, which can be hard to come by during law school no matter how great a student you are.

FROMM: Yes, law school is your job for the next few years, but if you have a hobby or exercise, don’t stop. The more things we juggle, then more productive we are. The fewer things we have, the less urgent, therefore the more time we waste. Get involved; try lots of new things out.

KRAMER: Do stuff you enjoy. Get your heart rate up. Remember to be a whole person and not just a law student.

THEMIS: Get bored! Do nothing! Listen to your favorite playlist (Themis creates study playlists on Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and Amazon Music) and let your brain actually rest so that you can come back to the hard work of law school ready to learn and process information.

One option: Walking. Read how getting out on a “walk commute” helped one law student. But whatever you do, take care of yourself during law school exam season.

What is a law school memory that makes you think fondly of that time in your life?

BIRDTHISTLE: Graduating. Not that there weren’t fond memories along the way – there were many, often of working late nights with friends. But the sense of accomplishment from getting a law degree in front of family who had flown thousands of miles to watch is enormous. It changes your life.

FROMM: My first legal interview. I put on a suit thinking, this is the uniform I will wear for life. Before that, a suit was just something I wore on special occasions, but now it meant something. I felt good, I believed in myself. I immediately felt more comfortable and confident.

KRAMER: Um, I was in a band with my legal writing professor and three other classmates. We were awful. The professor was super stiff but loved punk music. It was great fun but holy moly were we bad.

FROM THE AUDIENCE: Emily Wright, Visiting Assistant Professor at University of Oregon School of Law, brought up a common daunting touchstone for students: “Cold called on the first day of torts class. I was terrified but came home so excited that I had found my place.”

Shannon Davis, attorney at Davis Legal in Tennessee and Arkansas, said, “Last class of law school: teacher calls on me for an answer. I repeated her notes back to her. She asked why, I said. ‘Why change perfection?’ She laughed. Being a lawyer is about the ability to research and find answers.”

We hope you now feel a little more prepared to start law school. Make sure take advantage of your Premium Law Student discounts from Themis for super helpful study resources, including their free 1L and Upper-Level Law School Essentials courses.

ABA Law Student Division The Law Student Division empowers law student by providing them with meaningful connections to practicing professionals, job resources, relevant programming, and practical skills competitions. We represent the law student community by advocating for policies that improve legal education, champion diversity, and strengthen public service.