Advice on doing well in law school:
I decided to write up my general advice on law school because putting such advice in written form will hopefully make it less likely that I will forget something when asked in person for such advice and because this format makes it easier to provide students with links to additional resources. I also was motivated by the bad advice that I got as a progressive / self-righteous law student from other progressive / self-righteous law students. I was told by other law students to avoid doing law review and to not clerk after law school; I regret that I followed that advice. My advice here is more general and is largely focused on how students can do well in school and in class and the path they might take.
Class Prep – I am convinced that law school rewards hard work. Certainly my classes do. Those who do well are the students who do all the reading on time, who brief their own cases, who do not rely on commercial supplements, and who work to improve their briefing as the semester goes on and they come to understand the expectations of their professor. There is such a thing as too much preparation for class—once a student read three books on the rule against perpetuities even though I cautioned students about going too deeply into that hole—but most students need not be concerned about that.
Class Participation – I am also convinced that class participation is important and contributes to students’ success on their final exams. Even though 1L Property is anonymously graded and I only find out how particular students did after I submit their final grades, most of the time my predictions—based only on classroom participation—about who will be at the top of the class and at the bottom of the class are accurate. There are exceptions and it is a lot harder to make predictions close to the middle of the curve, but classroom participation is a good indicator that a student is soaring or crashing. Classroom participation means many things but in the large classes it means acting as if you are always on call: answering questions to yourself when the professor is calling on someone else; raising your hand to speak at least once per class; and eventually predicting in advance what questions the professor is going to ask. Personally, I do not have a laptop ban—having defeated SimCity 2000 in the middle of my 8:00-10:00 am tax class and I know that I think better when I type—because I don’t want to be a hypocrite. But it is worth noting that most studies seem to indicate that students do better when they take notes by hand because they are less likely to become distracted by the marvels of the internet and take notes rather than transcriptions (for more on laptops in classrooms see here and here). Finally, though final grades are very important, especially for 1Ls, another important “outcome” that students should strive for in their 1L year is to build at least a couple of positive relationships with professors for the purposes of mentoring and recommendation letter support. Class participation (supplemented perhaps by office hours) is crucial to creating that relationship. In large classes—my 1L Property class this Spring will have 100 students in the class and many years I have two sections of Property the same semester—it is hard for a professor to get to know the names of all students and almost impossible to write a strong recommendation letter for those who sit silently all semester long. Class participation, even when the grade is largely determined by a take all final exam that is anonymously graded, matters.
Preparation for Final Exams – It would be nice to be able to say to students that if they work hard, the final will take care of itself. And in many ways and for many students it does, but there is skill involved in taking a final exam as well. The most obvious point is that hard work pays off here as well. Students who do their own outlines, who do not rely upon commercial outlines or cut and paste from the outlines done by other students, tend to know the material better and are better able to demonstrate their knowledge on the final exam. The process of making an outline forces you to keep only the most important rules or materials and it also can help you see the bigger picture of a subject that can get lost in the day-to-day work. I also think there is value in creating a table-of-contents or a one page summary of the outline. In some ways this whole prep seems silly, after all, if you briefed well, you already have the right answers in your notes. But the process itself matters and it is through the process that the best students come to master the material. There is also tremendous value in looking over and taking past exams that may be available in an exam-like way (with time limits and no distractions). Finally, get a good night’s sleep throughout the exam period.
During and After Final Exams – Go in confident, even arrogant. Regardless of their actual ability or knowledge of the course, confident students tend to do better on final exams just like they do on standardized tests. Use the entire period and, at least for my exam, spend the entire period writing or working, not outlining a perfectly framed essay. (And it is much better, for me and for my students at least, if students type their final exams instead of handwriting them.) The professor can only grade you based on what is on the exam itself so it is best to get down as much as possible. This is why I think it should not matter if it is a closed book or open book exam: in both cases, you should be writing, not looking at your outline. After the exam, my recommendation is to forget about it as quickly as possible. Worrying about it won’t do any good and comparing answers with your classmates is likewise not productive or emotionally healthy.
Extra-Curricular Activities – Every year that I see my former 1Ls moving through the halls as tired and worn out 2Ls & 3Ls, my first thought is that they are doing law school wrong. Personally, I worked hard and did all the reading (and I do mean all the assigned reading), but I also spent a lot of time pursuing my wife. Elvia was and is both awesome and significantly out of my league, so when we were dating, I spent a lot of time being her suitor. And it was time well spent. However, as I have written about elsewhere, I did not do journal, a decision I regret. My main advice to students when it comes to extra-curricular activities is to focus on the more substantive activities and the activities that are valued by employers after graduation. Law review is one such activity, but so is being the best volunteer that a legal aid organization has had in long time. The mistake that I see students making is the same mistake that many professors (myself included) make: they do not know when to say “no” to an opportunity. But saying “no” is important and will permit you to do a better job on the things that are important. Students who want to do clinic, do law review, do moot court, and serve as a research assistant for a professor are asking themselves to be superhuman and their work in all these activities suffers.
2L & 3L Classes – This advice section is probably the most narrowly focused on students at my school, so readers at other schools might want to skip this part. I think students should take many “core” classes and do a clinic, which might sound surprising coming from someone who teaches many “non-core” classes such as Indian Law, Poverty Law, Housing Law, and Land Use. But I think Business Associations (or Corporations at other schools) is important regardless of the type of law you want to practice, and the same can be said of Personal Income Tax and Evidence. Even Administrative Law arguably falls into this “core” category. All are areas that lawyers are expected to be familiar with and that cover matters that are relevant whether you want to work in legal aid or at a big law firm. A counter-pressure though is that I think students should have a mix of class types. Too many large lecture classes in the same semester is a mistake, as is a schedule consisting solely of seminars. I also think that actually “doing” law under the supervision of a professor is an invaluable experience which is why I think all students should take advantage of opportunities to do a clinic. If you are in a city with lots of great lawyering opportunities available through internships, take advantage of them. Finally, I think professor quality matters. Some people are not great teachers even if they are brilliant scholars and some people just do not care enough about students. So pay attention to student evaluation scores (ratemyprofessor.com does not seem to get enough responses to be as accurate as most school hosted evaluation programs) and if a professor has a notably low score it is worth thinking twice about taking a class or a clinic with him or her. [At my school, anything less than 3.0 overall on the 5.0 scale is cause for concern.] As a student, I followed my favorite professors. For example, I had three classes with Professor Roberto M. Unger, a class plus two independent studies with Professor Robert Williams, Jr., and clinic plus a class with Professor David Grossman. Taking multiple classes with the same professor can leave you predicting what they are going to say and you can get tired of their jokes, but you are likely to build a close enough relationship with the professor that he or she is likely invested in your success and will try to help as much as possible. This is not fail proof – Unger was always inspiring but not a long-term mentor while Duncan Kennedy became a fabulous mentor even though I only took one class with him – but, in general, I think it is good to have a few professors with whom you have multiple points of contact. My mentors have been incredible and I think most professors try to pass their mentoring experiences on to their favorite students as well.
Research/3L papers – This is a minor point, but I think law students should take greater advantage of the opportunity to write while in law school. At my school, students have to either write a comment for journal, if they are on journal, or satisfy the upper level writing requirement through other means. But most treat the requirement as something to meet, not as an opportunity. Journals do not publish that many student notes from their members, so most students go unpublished that way, and if the writing requirement is fairly short, student upper level papers are unlikely to actually get published. My view is that law reviews have a preference for length: I have never had a student who wrote a paper approaching 25,000 words and 250 footnotes who failed to be published. So my main advice when writing papers is to have two goals in mind. First, students should do what is required to meet the expectations of the class or journal or professor grading the paper. And, second, students should try to do far more than that, either for the draft that is graded or in subsequent semesters, in terms of length and depth so that they get published. It seems like such a waste to go to such work to meet the requirement but not do the extra work needed to ensure that the paper gets published. Finally, as a bit of practical advice, the Word template that Eugene Volokh created so that papers look like law review articles is very helpful.
Life – I am going to keep my advice here short because everyone struggles with their own unique set of challenges when it comes to law school. But I do think 1L year is a particularly special year. It is a rare moment in which being a nerd is not only expected but celebrated. It is a year in which the level of conversation in class often reflects the fact that all students are deeply engaged and doing the work. And for some students, it can be a year that serves as an incredibly fast economic mobility or opportunity elevator. Personally, I was an incredible nerd my 1L year. I was getting over my college girlfriend by throwing myself into my work and I had no heat in my apartment that December so I spent an amazing amount of time in the library. Overall, I feel that while balance in life is important, being a bit imbalanced as far as work versus social life is probably for the best during the 1L year. There will be plenty of time in your 2L and 3L years to apologize for being buried in books during your first year of law school. And it is worth keeping in mind that even the hardest working law student has it good compared to those people doing a whole range of other jobs. This is not to say that studying has to be a solo pursuit. Study groups are great for both studying and socializing, so long as they remain study groups. Ultimately, I think students who embrace law school, who find the joy in law school—in their classes, in their readings, and in their peers—not only do better but are better for it.