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Law School vs. Undergrad: Differences in Legal Education Require Differences in Study Strategies

Amy Louise Jarmon

Law School vs. Undergrad: Differences in Legal Education Require Differences in Study Strategies

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Law professors expect students to understand the basic concepts through their own class preparation. Undergraduate professors typically lecture and tell students everything they need to know. Law professors rarely explain everything in cases because they expect students to have thought extensively about the material prior to class. They discuss only the main points and then use hypothetical examples to illustrate legal nuances. A student needs to read for depth of understanding before class in order to benefit from class discussions and take meaningful notes. If a student is still unsure of the material after class, then a study supplement or study group might be helpful.

How to Tackle Case Readings

Case reading requires extra time and effort rather than skimming. Unlike typical textbooks, cases are not always readily understandable to students. They are densely written with legal terms of art for an attorney audience. A student needs to read a case on two levels to understand it fully: one level for the specifics of the case; a second level for how the case compares to other cases and fits into the larger course topic. The first level forces the student to analyze the case in great detail. The second level forces the student to identify the tools available for solving new legal problems for that topic.

Socratic Method in the Classroom

The use of the Socratic Method requires students to anticipate the classroom discussion. Law students whose prior professors only lectured or called on volunteers are often shocked by the Socratic Method. By carefully analyzing what happens in class, however, students can determine what questions each professor tends to repeat for every case and any subset of questions used for a particular topic. Students can then prepare for class with these questions in mind. Some students benefit from actually answering the questions aloud during their preparation. Many students, if they read and prepare carefully, can also field questions that are unique to a case and not part of the professor’s usual pattern.

Considering Both Sides of the Argument

The ability to argue both sides of a question is essential to legal analysis. Law students often come from academic disciplines that expected a right answer. However, no right answer exists for many of the legal problems presented in law school. “It depends” is a phrase that students hear over and over. Professors expect students to present logical arguments for both parties in a legal dispute. When reading cases, students need to pay careful attention to the reasoning of the court to learn how legal arguments are framed and weighed. Legal research and writing assignments help students learn how to delineate different positions. Practice exam questions encourage students to consider both sides of a legal scenario.

Long-Term Versus Working Memory

The student needs to use long-term memory to advantage and avoid mere working memory. Many undergraduate courses were merely general requirements or part of a major never intended for practical use after college. Consequently, students had no desire to remember the course information permanently. However, material covered in law courses will likely be on the bar exam or used in future legal practice. Retention of information beyond an isolated exam scenario becomes important. Working memory is like cleaning everything off a messy desk into the trash can after a project. Long-term memory is like having a filing cabinet with file folders for easy reference later. For long-term memory to occur, one has to review material throughout the semester so that it becomes deeply learned over time. Course outlines are the master documents for this review and deep learning.

Preparing for Law School Exams

A single exam at the end of a semester requires different learning than multiple exams throughout the semester. When there are multiple testing points on limited amounts of material, the “cram and dump” study technique can be successful if no long-term retention of the information is desired. However, with a cumulative exam dealing with approximately 15 weeks of material, cramming will not work. Research shows that 80 percent of learning is forgotten within two weeks if there are no regular reviews. Thus, starting to cram six weeks out for cumulative finals would result in nine weeks of material being re-learned while the professor is teaching six weeks of new material. The smart law student will review every week in order to understand material deeply and take advantage of long-term memory. Course outlines are the master documents for this regular review.

Law school exams require application of the material and not mere memorization. Because of past undergraduate experience, law students assume that memorization of the blackletter law will get them good exam grades. However, law school exams expect students to solve new legal problems. A student must memorize the blackletter law and know it precisely. However, that is only the first step in preparation for exams. The student must also apply that law through solving practice questions. The most prepared students will not only think about the practice questions, but also write out answers to those questions. Whether a professor prefers IRAC (Issue, Relevant law, Application to facts, Conclusion) or some other format, the student must become adept at organizing and concisely writing answers before the day of the final exam. Practice makes perfect.

Study Hours and Strategy

Law school requires many hours of consistent studying each week. Research shows that college students typically study less than 20 hours per week and that today’s students receive more A and B grades than past generations of college students. Because of the differences in legal education, law students find they must work harder to have the same level of academic success as in the past. Law students need to study 50 to 55 hours per week in full-time programs and 35 to 40 hours per week in part-time programs to excel.

Proactive law students can avoid costly mistakes in their study strategies. Academic support professionals and professors can provide assistance in choosing strategies appropriate to legal education.