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Professor Kathleen Elliott Vinson
Director, Legal Practice Skills Program
Suffolk University Law School
Notwithstanding the realization that no secret or magic pill exists to guarantee success in law school, the ten tips below may provide some concrete guidance. The list is not exhaustive, and includes, but is not limited to, general tips to survive and hopefully succeed in law school. Following this list does not guarantee success, but perhaps reading it is the first step on the path of success in your law school journey.
1. Acclimate Yourself- “You are not in Kansas Anymore”!
As Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz said, “[You] are not in Kansas anymore.” You are in law school, a place very different from college or any other type of academic institution. During law school, it may seem like you are in the land of Oz or some foreign country, learning to speak a foreign language with foreigners all around you. Acclimate yourself.
Participate and listen carefully at your school’s Orientation program, which typically takes place before regular classes begin. The name of the program is self-explanatory. The purpose of Orientation is to “orient” first-year law students to the law school experience by giving you the basic information you will need to function once the whirlwind of classes begin. Also, participate in any mentoring or academic support programs that provide assistance to help you navigate your way.
Use the resources that are available to you when you have questions. For example, get a good legal dictionary to consult in defining all the legal terminology you will be reading and hearing about in your classes. Get to know and seek out help from your professors and administrators, such as the Dean of Students, the Registrar, and the Director of Financial Aid.
Although at times, law school can seem very isolating, remember, you are not alone. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who had Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, you have classmates, professors, administrators, and friends and family to help you. If law school gets too overwhelming, many law schools have free counseling services available for students. Keep in mind that, even though law school is different, you are not alone. Law school is like any experience in a foreign land: at first it can be confusing, stressful, and frustrating, but at the end of your journey, it should be a successful experience.
2. “Think Like a Lawyer”
One of the main aspects of law school is learning how to “think like a lawyer.” What does this phrase mean? Understanding this term of art may be one of the first steps to succeeding in law school.
“Thinking like a lawyer” may mean different things to different people, however, the general meaning is to develop sophisticated analytical skills. Throughout law school and your legal career, you will need strong problem-solving skills. Indeed, legal analysis is the fundamental skill that serves as the foundation and common thread throughout your law school courses and, in fact, your legal career. The importance of developing and refining your legal analysis skills cannot be emphasized enough.
Indeed, you will practice your analytical skills in many ways every day of law school and as a practicing lawyer. For example, some of the ways you will utilize these skills include: critically reading cases, discussing cases in class, applying the law to hypothetical situations, communicating your analysis in written memos and oral arguments, and writing exams. Most professors are not concerned with your conclusion to a question or problem, rather, they are interested in your reasoning that led you to the conclusion.
Few students come to law school with sophisticated legal analysis skills. Thus, you need to be aware of the importance of this skill and train your mind to analyze the law and develop a new way of “thinking like a lawyer.”
3. “Study Smart”
Although studying hard is important to succeed in law school, you also need to “study smart.” “Studying smart” includes many aspects: recognizing your learning style, determining your necessary tasks/responsibilities, organizing your time, reflecting on the best way to efficiently and effectively complete the required tasks, and staying focused on your ultimate goal.
When reflecting on your learning style, think about how best you have learned before law school. Not everyone learns the same way. Do you learn best from seeing, listening, or touching? Do you like to work in groups or alone? You may prefer to see notes on the board or read the cases while the student sitting next to you prefers listening to a lecture and another prefers using a handout from class. Just as every student does not learn the same way, every professor does not teach the same way. You will need to adapt to different styles. If you are a visual learner and your professor always lectures, knowing what type of learner you are may help you adapt to your professor’s style.
Remember to see the forest for the trees. Try to determine the context for what you are reading/studying. How does it relate to prior class discussions/reading and how does it relate to future assignments? Where does it fit into the big picture of the course? How does what you are learning relate to skills you have already brought to law school? How do those skills transfer to what is expected of you in law school? How does what you are studying in one course transfer to your other courses? Recognize what skills you are developing and transferring. In addition, make sure that the steps you are taking in your studies move you towards your overall goal for that particular assignment, course, and law school.
Law School is a marathon, not a sprint, so remember that you need to study efficiently and effectively by “studying smart.” You need to pace yourself so you do not burn out after the first week of class, the first month, the first memo, the first exam, or the first semester, etc. Studying around the clock will result in burning out rather than succeeding. Making a study schedule at the outset of a semester for each class will help you maintain balance and keep you on track to complete your assignments. You may be amazed at how much studying is required in law school as compared to undergraduate studies. For example, you may find it is necessary to study more in one day for a class in law school than you did in an entire week in college. Some advise studying eight to ten hours a day in law school (including class time). Others suggest studying 2 hours for every 1 hour of class time for a course. Develop a study plan or schedule that will help you stay focused while moving you towards success.
At a minimum, studying hard is required, however it may not be enough to succeed in law school. Always ask yourself whether you are “studying smart” in addition to studying hard. I’ll often hear students, who are disappointed with their results, say, “but we studied so hard.” Did they “study smart,” too? For example, spending ten hours color coding and laminating a case brief that consists of notes to yourself, that you are not required to hand in to the professor, is not “studying smart.” Instead, this example could be a reflection of a student who is apprehensive or confused about the substance of the assignment or case. As a result, the student spends too much time on the details the student can control about the assignment, such as the font, the color of the paper, its overall appearance, etc. Realize that the good study habits you bring to law school will be helpful, however, additional study habits may be required to succeed. Develop good study habits at the beginning of law school and you will be pleased and satisfied with the results.
4. Develop Good Time Management Skills
You need to effectively manage your time on a daily basis, a monthly basis, a semester basis, even an hourly basis. If you enter law school with good time management skills you will still be surprised at how you may need to refine them. If you have poor time management skills, the sooner you realize this about yourself and develop good time management skills, the better chance you have at succeeding. Just like a lawyer, as a law student you will have to juggle many things at once because you will have a lot of demands on your time.
Don’t get left behind. Once you get behind in a course, paper, exam, etc. it is difficult to catch up. Unlike undergraduate studies or other areas of your life, you cannot wait until the last minute to cram for an exam or stay up all night to write a paper. Although at times, it may seem like law school will never end, it will actually go by quickly. Thus, you cannot wait until right before exams to begin to effectively manage your work load. You cannot afford to waste any time because you need to be prepared for each class on each day, each exam, each paper, etc. It may seem like law school professors give you more to read and more work to do than is humanly possible but through effective time management, it is possible. After all, there are only 24 hours in a day. As stated earlier in this list, studying around the clock is not the answer and is not effective. Remember “study smart.”
Balancing your law school courses as well as your life is a delicate juggling act, but one you should continuously work on to achieve success. While law school should be a priority, it is still important to spend some time away from your studies and deal with your stress in a healthy way. Exercising, eating right, and taking breaks will help you be more focused and more productive when you are studying. Try to maintain non-law school relationships and contacts as well, that will help you remain balanced.
By managing your time, achieving a balance will help you succeed in law school. Often, academic support programs at law schools offer seminars and helpful advice about time management and tailoring a specific studying schedule for individuals. Before blindly beginning something, always ask yourself the following questions - what is required to complete this task?; how much time do I have to allot to this task?; what other tasks do I also have to complete?; how should I prioritize these competing tasks?; and what is the best use of my time to complete the task? Making efficient and effective use of your time will help you achieve success.
Make law school a priority and take it seriously, while keeping it in perspective. The cost alone, as well as the blood, sweat, and tears you pour into law school, should make this tip easy to follow. After all, it is a waste of effort, time and money if you are not going to make law school your priority. Students, however, sometimes get side tracked or overwhelmed along the way.
Making your legal studies a priority does not mean you should tune out everything else in your life. Try instead to at least keep down the volume on things that may distract you. Keep focused on your legal studies. With so many things competing for your time and attention, you may need to triage your tasks. The ability to triage and prioritize are skills lawyers use every day. Take ownership of your legal studies, prioritize them, and focus on succeeding in your endeavors.
6. Manage stress
Stress and panic, not lack of knowledge, are often the road blocks to students succeeding in law school. The first year is extremely exciting but also very stressful. Pace yourself. Throughout your law school studies there will surely be peaks and valleys: most notably the first few months of school, the last few months of school, before exams and after exams, before receiving a grade and after, etc. Also, don’t forget: after law school comes the bar exam. Thus, you will utilize the stress management skills you develop in law school again when studying for the bar and handling cases as a lawyer.
Harness the stress and turn it into positive energy. Visualize success. You are not the only one who feels stressed. Deal with stress in a healthy way - exercise, go to a movie, talk to someone, etc.
Don’t waste energy worrying about things you cannot control. Do not worry about what the student next to you is doing. Unfortunately, stress is a part of law school and the legal profession, however, it is how you handle that stress that can make the difference in the degree of your success.
7. Realize that law school is difficult but not impossible
Who said law school was going to be easy? Make peace with the fact that law school requires a lot of hard work. Although law school is difficult, it is possible. Look at the millions of lawyers that have already successfully graduated from law school and passed the bar exam!
Do not waste your energy on negatives things. Don’t spend energy making excuses such as, “this isn’t fair,” “this is too hard,” “I don’t like this professor, class, etc.” It will only drain the energy and enthusiasm that you will need to succeed. Meeting the challenges you face in law school will help you become a better lawyer. If you make a mistake, learn from it and move on. Do not dwell on it or look for others to blame. Be mature when receiving constructive criticism. Be thankful that a professor cares enough about your work to give you honest feedback. The more difficult the challenge the more rewarding and proud you will feel when you have succeeded. Accept responsibility for your studies and actions.
Stay motivated by remembering why you went to law school. While staying motivated throughout law school is not easy it is important. On the first day of class write down the reason why you decided to go to law school and put it in an envelope. Open it whenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed. Then, open it again on graduation day - it will help you get through the grueling months of studying for the bar! Take it out again on the day of the bar exam and the day you get sworn in as a member of the bar and the legal profession. When you feel that law school is too difficult or impossible, maintain your motivation and your focus will help you succeed.
8. “Listen Up”
Succeeding in law school requires good listening. Listening may seem like common sense, but many students seem to forget it or underestimate its importance. Just listening to your professors in class and following the directions will not guarantee success, however, not listening makes your law school studies unnecessarily more difficult and could have detrimental effects. For example, listen to the directions to any assignment or exam extremely carefully. Often a professor will give substantive tips on exam questions in class, but they go over many students’ heads because they are not listening. Sometimes, you may feel that professors are “hiding the ball” in class. Often, however, professors are telling students what they need to know, but, if you are not listening, you will miss it. Take careful notes in class and make sure to listen.
9. Act Professional
The first day of law school is the first day of your legal career. Treat it that way. Often, students think that the first day as a lawyer in the legal profession is after they pass the bar and get their first job. This view is misguided.
From the first day of school you should act professionally, civilly, and ethically towards not only your professors and administrators and staff, but also to your fellow classmates. Keep in mind that the person sitting next to you today may be an opposing attorney or judge in one of your cases. Additionally, you will need your professors to write recommendations for jobs, the bar exam, etc.
Treat law school like a job. Just as you would work eight hours a day, you should study and attend class for a total of at least eight hours a day. Just like you cannot sustain working around the clock, it may not be wise to study around the clock. Study and go to class, take a break, eat, exercise, then study some more.
Understand the ethical rules. Be familiar with the school’s academic rules and regulations, the honor code, plagiarism policy, etc. Also, you should take a Professional Responsibility class in law school, in order to learn about the specific rules of ethics.
Although law school is stressful and the stakes are high, it is never worth it to compromise your professionalism. The legal profession is smaller than you may think. An attorney’s reputation takes years to develop professionally but only takes one mistake to destroy.
10. Filter All Advice
Notwithstanding all the great advice in this list, keep in
mind that you need to do what works for you. While it may be helpful to listen
to advice, keep in mind who is giving it to you - was it someone who graduated
first in their class or someone who is on academic probation? Is it
someone whose opinion you value or someone you barely know? You know
yourself best. You know how you study, work, learn, take exams, etc.
Therefore, filter all advice and do what works best for you - not the
person sitting next to you. Remember: the habits (both good and bad) that
you develop in law school will carry over to your legal career. Thus,
developing the correct habits that will lead to success in law school, will be
the same habits that will help you become a successful lawyer.