If you’ve ever wanted to get inside your professor’s head and take a look around, we’ve got the next best thing! Two former law school Teaching Assistants (who together covered Contracts, Torts, and Civ Pro) share ten tips that would have made their students’ lives a lot easier. For more info on Lee and Alison, check out their websites: Amicus Tutoring and The Girl’s Guide to Law School, or their new online course for law students, Law School Toolbox. Our best tips:
- You’re making this more complicated than it needs to be. Law school is stressful and challenging, but it’s not impossible! So often, students would come to office hours in a complete panic about how much they had to learn, and how they’d never be able to remember everything. When we started talking about specific topics, however, it turned out they already knew most of what they needed to know. Moral of the story: You know more than you think. Just calm down and start with the basics. When you’re feeling overwhelmed about outlining, for example, get out a piece of paper and a pen and copy the headers from your course syllabus. Fill in the details from there, and you’ll be well on your way to success!
- You’re as smart as the rest of your class. Law school has a way of making smart people feel very, very stupid. The whole system is set up to make you feel that way, actually. Your professor, who may only be a couple of days ahead of you in terms of what he knows about a topic, uses the Socratic Method to appear to be an all-knowing sage. Your classmates, who barely understand the cases, pontificate on unrelated topics or go on about how easy the whole thing is. Don’t buy it. No one knows what they’re doing, and the people who talk the most probably aren’t getting the best grades. The Admissions Committee didn’t screw up when they admitted you. You can learn to be a successful law student, just like everyone else. It’s a process, and you’re still the same smart person you’ve always been.
- It pays to get to know your professors (and your TAs). When was the last time you went to office hours? If it was more than a couple of weeks ago, it’s time to make an effort to get to know your professors. Sure, they seem really scary, but most of them just have bad social skills. A visit to office hours can be awkward if you drop by just to chat, so try to bring something you’ve been working on. Do you have specific questions about a case that was discussed in class, or about a section of your outline? These are great topics to discuss, because they put the focus on the law (where your professor is very comfortable) and take it off of chit-chat (where they may not be as comfortable). Try to get to know your TAs, too, because they can share great study resources with you!
- Being polite and helpful can improve your grade. Yes, most law school exams are graded anonymously, so you might do well even if you never say anything (or behave like an obnoxious gunner). But most professors also include a class participation component, which can shift your grade up (in most cases) or down (in some cases). A little known secret is that your TA might be asked to weigh in on who should get additional points. If you were polite and helpful in section — volunteering answers, asking good questions, etc. — that’s going to be remembered!
- We know when you’re not paying attention. It’s pretty obvious when you’re not paying attention in class or section. You’re not getting away with anything. Some people take these things more personally than others, but just know that you’re making a bad impression. (Personally, I didn’t care if people paid attention, since I regarded it as their problem when they missed some great info I’d just handed out, but some professors take personal offense.) If you want to be on the safe side, and curry favor with people who can help you, get off Facebook and focus in class. You’re spending a lot of money to be there, so you may as well pay attention.
- Your outline shouldn’t be 100 pages. Just write down what you need to know. The purpose of an outline is not to capture every word your professor uttered over the course of the semester. Nor is it to record the details of every case you read. The point is to consolidate the law, and distill it down into something you can actually USE. You cannot use a 100+ page outline. Maybe that’s a starting point for your final outline, but you have to condense it. As a general rule, aim for “outlines” of 20-30 pages for 1L classes, and make a shorter “cheat sheet” with the most critical information (attack plans, flowcharts, etc.) that you can reference (for an open-book exam) or memorize (for a closed-book exam). Resist the urge to transcribe — it’s not going to help.
- Develop resilience. One bad grade will not sink you, your legal career, or your GPA, as long as you don’t let it. You can bounce back from anything, and most successful lawyers have at least one terrible grade on their transcripts. Even in job interviews — believe it or not — a bad grade can become a bonding experience. “Oh, what happened here? Reminds me of my first semester!” No one is perfect, and the important thing is to pick yourself up and keep moving forward. Obstacles only knock you off course if you let them. Lots of stuff in law school is beyond your control, but you do have a choice about how to react. Choose wisely!
- Write with confidence. Here’s the single best exam-writing tip we’ve got for you: Sound like you know what you’re talking about. Naturally, on a law school exam, you’re probably going to feel confused. This stuff isn’t easy. But you need to learn to write confidently, even when you’re feeling unsure. So, rather than saying “I don’t know if there’s a contract” you say “It’s a close question whether there’s a contract here. Paul will argue [blah, blah, blah] and Dan will argue [blah, blah, blah].” This second approach sounds better (you recognize that this is a close question, which is important) and it gets you moving down the path to an answer. Also think about organization. If your exam answer is disorganized and hard to follow, that’s two strikes against you. First, it suggests a lack of confidence, and, second, you’re less likely to get points (even if you discuss something), because your professor isn’t going to be able to figure out what you’re saying. Make it easy for the reader to give you points, and you’ll get better grades.
- Proofread. You’re in law school. You should know the difference between “its” and “it’s” and “they’re,” “their,” and “there.” You should know where the Bluebook wants you to put a closing parenthesis. You should know how to format footnotes. Are these things boring and picky? Yes, but that’s what lawyers spend time on every day. Having obvious typos and grammatical errors in your written work sets the wrong tone. Before you submit an assignment, read over it and make sure it’s as close to perfect as it can be.
- No one expects you to know everything. Ask for help! Finally, and this is a big one, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Law school can be very isolating, so you might feel like there’s no place to turn for assistance. This is NOT true! First, talk with your professors. They’re paid to help you, so take advantage. Next, talk with your TAs. At a minimum, they’re getting course credit (and they might be being paid), so put them to work for you (within reason, of course, since they’ve got their own work to finish). If that doesn’t work, see if your law school has resources for struggling students. If there’s nothing at the law school specifically, look at the broader university community. Is there a writing center you can go to for support? If you continue hitting dead ends, look online! Some law school discussion boards are nasty, but certain ones are helpful. Try these: Reddit School of Law, the Top Law Schools forums, or Law School Discussion. You’ll probably find people who are eager to help you. If you want more anonymity, read a book, or order a commercial supplement. Or look into tutoring. Do some research and get suggestions, or you can check out our new course, the Law School Toolbox, which includes a special bonus tutoring session, along with the standard online access. The bottom line is that there ARE ways to get help, but you’ve got to ask for it.
So, there you go! If you keep these ten things in mind as you go through your law school experience, it should be a lot smoother and less stressful. Finally, one bonus tip: Try to enjoy being in school! This is voluntary, right? If you really, truly hate it, you can always do something else. As long as you’re there, you might as well try to enjoy yourself. Pretty soon, chilling out for hours in a coffee shop “studying” will only be a fond memory. Carpe diem!
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Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl’s Guide to Law School, which helps you get into law school, get through, and stay true to yourself.
Lee Burgess is the founder of Amicus Tutoring, which provides private tutoring for law students and aspiring attorneys taking the California bar exam.
Together they’ve created the Law School Toolbox, a new website and online course that contains all the tools you need for law school success!