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Get the grades, avoid the burnout

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Studying
Here’s how to form study habits that work for you.

If you’ve been in law school for any amount of time, you’ve probably realized that cracking open a book once in a while never hurts. In fact, whether you’re just finishing up your first semester or getting ready for the bar exam, you know that “once in a while” doesn’t usually cut it.

Still, too much studying can cause burnout. By adopting small changes in study habits, you can develop the skills you need to get the grades without the burnout.

Are you self-regulated?

Researchers at Baylor University and Texas Tech University found that individuals who are “self-regulated” showed more positive academic outcomes than those who aren’t.

“The self-regulating learning cycle is three parts,” explained Lisa Young, executive director of academics at Kaplan Bar Review. “The first part is planning and setting goals. The second is using strategies to monitor performance. The third is to reflect and adapt. You have to make sure you’re reflecting on your learning and on your routine and pivot if you need to.”

In law school, self-regulated learning is a cyclical process. Understanding how it works can help you come up with a study plan and habits that best serve you throughout law school and beyond.

Of the three steps, Young stated, law students often neglect the final stage of the learning cycle: reflecting and adapting. By constantly checking in with yourself, gauging your study habits, and improving in weaker areas, you can form study habits that work for you.

Set a realistic study schedule

Creating a study schedule and sticking to it helps to form productive study patterns that eventually become habits. While filling up your calendar or color-coding your planner might sound like fun, be sure to keep your schedule realistic.

“Think about how to incorporate consistent review throughout the semester,” advised Young. “Spending eight hours studying one content area—our brain gets tired with that. Spacing out study sessions throughout the week will help with long-term retention and active engagement with the content.”

Balancing your schedule with time to both memorize the law and engage with the material will increase your productivity and efficiency. Engaging with the material might involve taking practice tests, reviewing class notes, or writing practice essays. Be sure to block out short bursts of time, ranging from an hour to a few, to preserve your concentration and keep working without interruption.

A realistic study schedule also involves knowing how you work. Set aside time during the day to study different topics, building in hours for your most difficult content during the times you work best.

“If, for example, you are a morning person and study best at 6 a.m., build time right in your schedule to do work at that time,” recommended Ashley Heidemann, founder and owner of JD Advising, a law school and bar exam prep company. “The human brain can’t function at a very high level all day long. So it’s critical to take advantage of when you naturally work best.”

“Learn” your outline

Another critical part of your study habits is to discover the type of outline that works best with your learning style. An outline should help you remember content both now and in the future. While everyone’s outline will look different, it’s important to keep in mind that your outline is a tool. It needs to be functional and useful to you.

“The best outline is one that works for you,” said DeAnna Swearingen, chief operating officer at Quimbee.

“The worst outline is one you won’t use. If you have a comprehensive outline that covers every facet of the law and runs 600 pages but is so intimidating you never crack it open, it’s useless. On the flip side, if you have a perfectly condensed attack outline that runs just five pages, but you don’t understand the shorthand and have to keep flipping back to your notes, it’s not serving you either.”

To get started creating your outline, Swearingen recommended using a commercial outline and supplementing it with your class notes, adding in specific topics your professor wants you to know. Young suggested using a combination of commercial outlines, your syllabus, and your casebook’s table of contents to create the framework of your outline.

“This process isn’t about getting a product that looks really pretty,” Young stated. “It’s about creating something you’re going to be able to use to study. You want it to be manageable and realistic, and you want to be sure you’re balancing the time you’re spending on it with the benefits you’re getting out of it.”

The process of writing your outline, too, will help your studies. Rather than focusing on your end goal, you should interact and engage with the material through review and follow-up. “Many students think it’s enough to have an outline,” Heidemann stated. “However, if you want to perform well on a law school exam, it’s important to not only write a law school outline but also to learn your outline.”

Don’t short-change writing

Do your essays make sense? Can you write well under pressure? Are your papers fraught with grammatical errors, mistakes, or inconsistencies?

These are all questions you need to ask yourself when forming study habits for written class exams and the bar exam. It’s never too early to tackle issues and make time to practice.

“Legal writing professors are there to help,” Heidemann advised. “If you struggle with legal writing, bring a draft of your work to your professor and ask them to go through it to give you tips. You won’t get a lot of graded feedback in law school, so if your professor offers office hours, it’s an important opportunity to take advantage of.”

Swearingen added that practicing timed essays can be invaluable to improving your ability to write under test conditions. “Treat these essays as if they were real exams, meaning sitting down in a distraction-free environment with only those materials your professor would allow you to bring on exam day and writing the exam out, preferably under timed conditions,” she recommended. “Make no mistake: Working through practice essays can be one of the most challenging forms of studying. But it’s also one of the most effective.”

Tackling practice essays also develops key critical thinking skills by forcing you to further interact with the material you learn in class.

Finally, read to become a better writer. “If you want to improve your legal writing skills, read briefs, memos, and opinions similar to the kind you hope to write,” suggested Heidemann. “You’ll start to gain an intuitive feeling for the proper format. You’ll also discover the style of writing that speaks to you.”

Consider a study group

Many law students report feeling isolated or too intimidated to ask their peers to meet up and talk about legal subjects. But having a study group you can interact with and ask questions of can be helpful in forming good study habits.

For the most effective study groups, Young recommended blocking out time to meet with your peers so you all stay focused and moving forward. “You don’t want your study group to turn into a four-hour procrastination session,” she said. “You really want to make sure your study group has goals and a purpose—and that it isn’t too large. It needs a start time and end time.”

Having good communication among your study group peers is also important not only to form good study habits but also to improve your teamwork and discussion skills.

Keeping an open mind, respectfully debating, and maintaining a calm demeanor during disagreements are all important habits future lawyers should foster.

Keep up with review

“If there’s one thing that often gets sacrificed, it’s review,” Swearingen stated. Reviewing class notes, writing down questions for your professor, and engaging in reflection is important to establishing your study habits. Rather than learning the material right before class and then neglecting it until your final exam, try to reflect on the concepts throughout the week. “Taking a little time at the end of the week to look back over your class notes or self-grade your essay with a rubric and then compare it to the model answer can really help firm up challenging concepts in your mind,” Swearingen explained. “And it takes less time than you think.”

Your review might include memorization, charts, practice essays, or tests. Take a look at your professors’ old exams or find some bar review materials that work for you.

Learning experts agree that synthesizing material works best when you review consistently.

Drop the distractions

Perhaps one of the most powerful study habits—and one that works for everyone—is to block out distractions.

Heidemann said you can do this ahead of time by starting with a list. “We recommend you make a list of five things you tend to get distracted by—for example, social media, online shopping, your phone, friends, and so on,” she explained. “Then figure out how you can eliminate these distractions during class and when you study.”

Whether that means hiding your phone while you’re working or turning off your WiFi so you can’t access social media, find what works best for you.

The best way to pass your classes—and eventually the bar exam—is to set goals for yourself. Keep in mind that your ultimate aim is to be a lawyer. To be a good lawyer, you need to be able to think like one. Forming good study habits now will help you apply and adapt these skills as a lawyer.

“Law isn’t about perfect memorization or regurgitation of statutes,” said Young. “It’s about whether you can think like a lawyer. That means knowing the law and also showing that you can apply it.”

Elizabeth Badovinac Elizabeth Badovinac is a third-year student at Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School and a member of the Student Lawyer editorial board.