THE BLOG
11/12/2015 04:20 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2016

How to Prepare for Your First Law School Exams

The most common advice you will hear from lawyers about studying for law school exams is that you should use whatever technique works best for you. There, you have learned your first lesson about lawyers: Whenever possible, we would rather give an answer that technically is not wrong than give an answer that is in any way useful to anyone. I will try to suppress my lawyer-self and depart from the safety of the technically-not-wrong to give some advice, but be aware, that means it could be wrong. Different people's brains work very differently, so think of this as suggestions of things to try out more than a hard-and-fast list of steps you need to cling to.

The most important thing is to realize that there is no easy way out. This is not a "work smarter, not harder" situation. How well you do on your exams is largely going to be a function of how much effort you put into grappling with the material. The bad news there is that you are going to have to work hard. The good news is, as long as you are working hard, you can't go that far wrong. So, part of what makes for a good studying strategy is that it is something you're actually willing to do for large blocks of time. Variety is one key in that regard, so consider at least trying out all of the following techniques:

Make the time you spend reading for class useful

You need to do the reading to avoid looking foolish in class, so most law students do read most of the cases most of the time. But, if you're taking shortcuts on this step, you are probably getting a lot less value out of that large investment of time than you could be. For starters, do not use case briefs that you pulled off the Internet. If you are not struggling to make sense of the case yourself, you aren't getting much out of reading it. Brief your own cases and then, after you are done with your reading for the day, take a minute to consider why the professor grouped those cases together, how they intersect and what sorts of questions your professor might ask about them.

Use study aids

Study aids are invaluable. The Examples and Explanations and Nutshell series are probably the most widely used and are very helpful. I also recommend trying out one of the multiple choice collections, at least for courses where you have lots of small rules to get your head around (like civ pro or contracts). Your school's library might also have a subscription to CALI, which provides a bunch of online exercises that can be kind of a fun change of pace. The beauty of study aids is that they generally cover the same topics, and mostly the same cases, as your course did, but they approach the material from a different perspective and you often find that something that you did not catch in class becomes clear when you come at it from a different angle. You should read Getting to Maybe and at least one study aid specific to each 1L course. You can find a list of recommended study aids for each course here.

Make an outline

As with case briefs, under no circumstance should you rely on somebody else's outline. The point of an outline isn't the actual outline. In fact, in exams where you do well, you will find that you aren't even referring to your outline at all during the exam. The point of outlining is to force yourself to get the law straight in your head by organizing it and writing it out in a way that makes sense to you.

Take practice tests

In my view, practice exams are the focal point of exam preparation. They are useful for testing your readiness, but much more importantly, they help you organize all the information you have accumulated into a form that is useful in an exam. You should aim to do one full-length practice exam for each course fairly early on in your studying, and then do a couple more as you get nearer to the exam. If you can find some with model answers, they can be particularly useful. It also can be useful to skim through more exams just to get a better idea of the types of questions. Past exams from your own professor are ideal, but you typically will not get enough of them. You can find an archive of a bunch of others here.

Create an attack outline

Some people just make the one, full, outline. But, as you take practice tests, you will start to find that there are three or four types of questions that seem to come up very frequently. The odds are very good that at least one or two of those will appear on your actual exam. If you can draft out a structure for answers to those questions, you will have a huge advantage in the exam. Where your full outline might be 50 pages or even 100 pages, your attack outline should be a carefully-honed 5 or 10 pages laying out the skeleton of your answer, highlighting key distinctions, identifying branches in the decision tree, and referring back to the applicable sections of your full outline in case you need to dig deeper.

Come up with one other thing to do for each course

Each course is a little bit different and there are techniques that turn out to be useful only for particular courses. Try to think of one other sort of tool you can use for each course. For example, you might consider making flow charts for future interests in property or you might consider using flash cards of the rules in civil procedure. A little variety in your tactics can help you frame issues more clearly and it can also keep the boredom at bay.

Get feedback from someone

If you know someone who has been through 1L before, and they are willing to help, take a full practice exam and get them to review it to give you tips. It can be awkward to ask for help, but they have been through it before. They feel your pain. Just find a chance to help another 1L out yourself down the road.