Adviser: Ensuring Your Success in Law School

Vol. 39 No. 3

By

Amy L. Jarmon, assistant dean for academic success programs at Texas Tech University School of Law, is a professor and coeditor of the Law School Academic Support Blog. She has practiced law in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Students can avoid academic problems in law school by implementing some practical strategies. A new perspective on academics is needed because of the differences between law school and prior education.

Realize that law school prepares you for your profession and not just an isolated set of exams. Undergraduate courses that fulfilled general education requirements may have been unrelated to a student’s future goals. In addition, students may have chosen majors as a means to an end rather than for any practical use in future employment or graduate study. Consequently, students may have seen no long-term benefit to learning the material deeply. They may have been tempted to rely on cramming and short-term/working memory; “brain dumping” provided them with information at the exam point, but information was lost for any future reference.

In law school, most courses are directly applicable to later success on the bar exam and in practice. Information that becomes part of long-term memory rather than just short-term/working memory is available for such future use. Consequently, students should study for retention and not just immediate performance on a set of exams.

Go beyond rote memorization to understand the law and then apply it to new situations. Professors in prior educational settings may have lectured and given students everything that needed to be memorized and spouted back on exams for high grades. That type of rote memorization task unfortunately did not prepare students for the exam tasks ahead of them in law school. Knowing the “black letter” law is an essential foundation for any law exam, but will not be enough. The students who excel on law school exams understand the law, are able to “spot the issues,” and can apply the law to new fact scenarios with in-depth analysis. Completing multiple practice questions throughout the semester hones skills in these important exam tasks.

Take responsibility for your own learning. Students excel in law school when they accept personal responsibility for learning the material and being the best law students they can be. They avoid excuses such as “the professor isn’t a good teacher” or “the tutor didn’t tell us that tip” or “I don’t really like the course.”

Expert learners exhibit behaviors that emphasize their commitment to learning. They ask questions of themselves when reading. They stay focused in class and think critically about note-taking. They outline every week to condense material. They discuss topics with other students. They self-monitor their learning with practice questions. In short, they work consistently hard on aspects of each course.

Plan study time carefully each week. Law students should study 50 to 55 hours per week outside of class to achieve higher grades. It is more productive to repeat a routine schedule every week with specific time blocks for each task in each course: case briefs, outlines, project time, exam review, and practice questions. By adding a few time blocks for “flexible use,” tasks can be shifted if an emergency disrupts the schedule.

Students should realize that even relatively short periods of time can be productive. An hour slot can be used for reading several short cases, outlining a sub-topic, completing a practice problem, or editing a paper section. A 30-minute slot can be used to review class notes, complete memory drills, or discuss several cases with a classmate.

Study for exams throughout the semester rather than cramming near the end. The amount of material covered in each course cannot be learned successfully during the last few weeks of the semester. By spreading studying over the entire semester, a law student is able to monitor her understanding of each topic, complete practice questions after each topic, and comfortably memorize material in smaller increments. Reviewing material shortly after it is covered in class is far more efficient than having to re-learn it weeks later in the semester.

Begin projects and papers when they are assigned rather than waiting. It is easy to procrastinate when the deadline is weeks away. However, paper and project tasks often take much longer than expected. Students who are savvy studiers will begin assignments as soon as they have the instructions for the first tasks. Good task management will ultimately be less stressful and result in a higher quality work product. 

A time management schedule with consistent hours each week will ensure that assignment tasks are not overlooked. Depending on the complexity of the assignment and the individual’s research and writing abilities, six to eight hours every week may be a good estimate. Setting artificial deadlines for two days prior to any actual deadlines will allow time for unexpected problems that arise.

Avoid distractions and multitasking. Many law students waste enormous amounts of time each week. They socialize in the student lounge between classes rather than study. They spend hours on e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls, text messages, or other electronic distractions.

Law study requires undivided concentration and depth of focus. Today’s students often do not realize that multitasking is a myth when it comes to legal education. They IM and play computer solitaire in class and watch television, chat with friends, or surf the net while studying. As a result, important class information is missed––and every study task takes longer than it could have. 

Find balance in your life, but make law school a priority. Students who are dissatisfied with their grades often confide that they did not make law school a priority. It is not healthy to become totally consumed with law school studying, but you must make it more than just one more pursuit among many. There are 168 hours in a week. Even with the above estimate of 50 to 55 hours per week for studying, the math still leaves ample time for sleep, exercise, meals, family time, and relaxation. A routine time management schedule can allow for all study tasks plus guilt-free downtime. 

Use the resources that are available to you for improving your academic performance. Most law students have succeeded easily on their own without turning to professors, deans, or others for assistance during prior educational experiences. However, law school comes with new and often overwhelming demands. Students need to give themselves permission to seek appropriate help. Whether it is academic counseling, personal counseling, or medical attention that is needed, students should not “tough it out” because of pride. All law schools now have multiple resources to assist law students. Law schools connected with universities tend to have additional resources on main campus that are covered by law student fees.

Be realistic about outside commitments. Law students have previously been members and leaders in numerous campus organizations. They may also have worked full time or part time during their undergraduate studies. Some have been involved in service to their local communities. During all these activities, they maintained excellent grades.

Thus, they assume that they can be equally involved during law school. However, law school comes with more difficult workloads, greater competition with equally accomplished classmates, and one-grade assessment. Law students would be wise to start small in their obligations until they receive their first-semester grades. You can always add organizations and leadership positions later, but you cannot ameliorate bad grades due to over-involvement too soon.


 

Amy L. Jarmon, assistant dean for academic success programs at Texas Tech University School of Law, is a professor and coeditor of the Law School Academic Support Blog. She has practiced law in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

 

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