How to Succeed in Law School - by Kevin Kneupper

Below is a series of posts from several years ago with my thoughts about my law school experience and my advice for how to succeed there (compiled from writings I sent to a friend about to go). After a series of hacks on my site from Russia, I had to delete the old blog. I'm preserving the posts here because several people have searched for it since then.

How to Succeed in Law School, Part One – The Summer Before One-L

This is the first post in a series on how to succeed in law school. It’s based on a lengthy document I wrote out for a friend of mine who went to law school a few years after I did, in which I outlined pretty much every thing I did to do well. For me, these methods worked, and worked well. I got the highest grade in the class in 4 of my 6 1L classes (most of which had over 100 people). As I told my friend, though, the same study methods aren’t going to work for everyone. I cut corners in a lot of places to spend time thinking about a “strategy” for taking each class. I didn’t spend time doing things that some people might need to, just because different people learn differently. For example, an auditory learner is going to need to do things differently from someone who learns mainly visually through flashcards. The point of this isn’t to tell you that there’s some set in stone method to getting good grades in law school – it’s to show you how I did it, and hopefully give you something to think about when trying to plan out how you’re going to study yourself. If there’s any bullet-point condensation of what I learned to be said, it’s to try every study method you can think of at least once, and stick with what seems to work. Make sure to set aside at least some time to think about whether what you’re doing is actually working – it’s worth that time to get rid of inefficient study habits.

Now, to the question that’s on the minds of anyone who’s thinking about going to law school and was an overachiever in college (read: pretty much all law students). What should you be doing the summer before your first year? Most people seem to be pretty excited about getting started, and they want to get any leg up that they can. You’ll also find all kinds of advice on all ends of the spectrum on this. Some people say just to sit on your ass and take a vacation. Some say don’t do anything substantive, just read some John Grisham books to get yourself in the mindset. At the other end, there are people who buy the first year textbooks and jump right into reading them.

My approach was something in the middle. I didn’t go get the casebooks, but I did read just about every “how to do well in law school” thing I could find on the Internet – forums, articles, a couple of books. I also got one substantive book from the “Examples and Explanations” series – a hand-me-down from a friend who had just completed his first year. And yeah, I read Brush With the Law, One-L, and all the other books glorifying your first year.

In retrospect, I think it’s probably a good idea to do some of this reading during the summer if you’ve got the time. The key thing to remember is: you are just not going to get some kind of benefit by trying to “learn” the law ahead of your peers. You cannot do better by going out and trying to memorize everything about Property Law. That’s not how you do well on exams in law school – the law is virtually infinite. There is no way to memorize it all – and no way to know that your first year teacher will actually teach you what you were trying to memorize. The curriculum varies greatly from school to school and class to class – what will end up separating you from the pack on a law school exam is your skill at analyzing the law and finding legal issues that need to be addressed. The things you do during the summer need to be geared around improving your performance when you get to law school – not trying to learn stuff beforehand.

So what can you do? I would definitely read everything you can in terms of “stories” about law school. Those books and Internet forums were actually useful when I got there – mainly because I had a good idea of what the heck everyone was talking about. I knew what outlines were, I knew what all the recommended study techniques were, and I knew a bunch of different things I could try. Getting into your first few days of reading is going to be shock enough – you’ll be thrust into reading legal cases that are hard to understand and are basically in a different language (it’s English, but it’s a professional “lingo” with a bunch of different terms you’re going to have to look up and memorize). If you go to law school without any idea what to expect, you’re not going to be able to jump right into things as far as studying goes.

Next, go get the Glannon Examples and Explanations book on Civil Procedure. Of all the study aids or materials I read in law school, this is the easiest to understand. You don’t need any background in the law to read it and do the problems. It’s required reading in a lot of schools anyway simply because it’s such a good book. Order it on Amazon, and read and do the questions in at least 5 or 6 of the chapters. The point is not to memorize the material. It’s to get used to studying it. With this particular book, it’s hard to go wrong even with no experience or knowledge of the law.

Also, you should read at least a few classic legal cases before going. It doesn’t really matter what they are – but you are going to feel overwhelmed your first week if you don’t. With the older cases especially, they are written in a legalese that is hard for anyone to understand, even lawyers. Go read some of those – look up every word you don’t know. I spent a ton of time the first week of law school just trying to memorize unfamiliar words – you can get at least some of this out of the way. Check out Marbury vs. Madison, read Hawkins vs. McGee (a classic contracts case that is referenced in the Paper Chase):

Just get some basic familiarity with what it’s like to read a judicial opinion – because for the next 3 years, that will be how you’re going to learn. Law school teaches people through the “case method” – a method by which your professor doesn’t tell you anything, you are supposed to go read a bunch of judicial opinions and draw out what you need to know from them. The only problem is, about 90% of what’s in the opinions you don’t need to know. They aren’t written as a study tool, but they’re being used that way. So you need to get used to reading them and trying to figure out what they say. Most of the time they have a bunch of peripheral legal issues in them that you won’t have any experience with and won’t be taught in your class – but you have to get a basic understanding of them anyway.

Finally, read online about the different study methods people use. Outlining, highlighting, briefing cases, study groups – at least know what they are and the basics of them. Lots of people will be talking about them when you get there, and you need to know what’s up.

Don’t spend your entire summer doing this. There is a lot of truth to the idea that you shouldn’t burn yourself out beforehand. Give yourself a taste of what you’re in for, but don’t gag on it.

How to Succeed in Law School, Part Two: Your First Few Weeks

So you’ve gotten through your summer, and you’re finally arriving at law school. Likely, you’ve got no clue what to really expect. Many new law students are panicking at least at some point during this period. There’s a lot to take in – you meet a ton of new people, and you’re thrust into a new kind of learning that you probably have little experience with. Your classes will probably not be like your undergraduate classes. Professors may not lecture to you, and they may even spend the entire class period simply asking you questions. It won’t seem like they’re getting at anything. You’ll also be learning using an entirely different method. You’ll be reading a bunch of different judicial opinions on whatever subject you’re learning. The cases you read will use a lot of legal lingo that you aren’t familiar with. You’ve got a couple of things you’re going to need to get done during this period – you need to get in, get adjusted, try out a variety of studying methods to see what works, and get yourself into a groove where you can work well for the rest of the semester.

There are a couple of things you should be doing:

1) Guage the atmosphere of the people around you. You may not care about it, but people can be very hostile to their classmates during law school. A lot of people liken it to returning to high school. These are likely people you’ll be practicing with for your entire professional career, so you ought to at least make some effort to get along. The main thing to keep in mind along this vein is that there will be a large chunk of your class who will be “anticompetitive.” In law school, unlike most undergraduate classes, your grades are determined in relation to each other. You are competing with each other for the top grades, usually on a strict curve. When one person succeeds, somebody else has to fail. Different schools have different curves, and a harder one means more pressure. People’s reactions to this differ. Some can deal with it. Some people flip out and decide to start working 24/7. Others destroy study materials, hide books, try to mislead people, etc. Finally, some people decide to become extremely hostile to any form of competition whatsoever.

You can’t do much about the others – if someone is flipping out, you can try to calm them down or take them out drinking or whatever. If you find someone trying to subvert other people, you just ignore them or avoid contact with them. The people who decide to crusade against competition are the ones it’s best just to keep your mouth shut around about the work you’re doing. You’ll notice after a month or so that at least a few people in your section have been branded as “gunners” (people who raise their hands to say something every class period) or “podium trolls” (people who run up to talk to the professor for 20 minutes after each class). You’ll actually see some pretty outrageous behavior in this vein – I once tallied the number of times a guy raised his hand in a class, and it came out to an average of 5 times a day, every day, in a 50 minute period. That kind of stuff exists and will legitimately start to grate on people. Don’t be the one doing it, or you’ll find a lot of your classmates actively disliking you. The problem is that there are a lot of people who will interpet ANYTHING along those lines. We had a couple of people react venemously to a girl who won one of those prisoner’s dilemma-type candy games by making a move to stop cooperating on the last turn. Smart move in the game – but the people who lost were royally pissed and remained that way for the whole semester.

My advice on this front is just to keep your head low. I came from a college with much smaller classes than my law school – the atmosphere there was that it was expected that you’d talk in class. With 10-20 people in a class, you sort of have to, and most classes were just a big, hour long discussion about the reading. In law school, people’s attitudes were different. Part of that was larger class sizes (it’s a lot more obnoxious if there are 150 people in the class to be talking every 10 minutes than if there are 10 people in the room). But part of it is also the atmosphere that people hate the know-it-all. Even if you do know the answer, it’s not a good idea to constantly be showing it, because people will resent it. I usually restricted raising my hand to situations where I was confused or thought the professor was wrong about something (which they will be – they’re human).

2) The next thing you need to be doing is testing out study methods. I’ll go into more detail on this in later posts – but you will come to law school and find that there are “accepted” standard methods of studying that differ from undergrad. Some of the common ones: outlining (making a big, roman-numeral based list of the material in each class to memorize), study groups (getting together with several people to talk or outline or whatever you do); briefing cases (writing a summary of the cases you read each day, usually according to a set format); book briefing cases (scribbling shit in the margins of the book because you don’t want to write out a full thing on the case); and practice exams (many law schools give you old exams beforehand, so you just take them or make outlines of what your answer would be).

You should try all of these at least once. Maybe one doesn’t work for you, maybe it does – but you won’t know until you try. The first couple of weeks are a great period to be doing this in because usually you haven’t gotten too far into the materials, you have a lighter work load, and you haven’t gotten set in your ways yet. You need to remember when you’re doing these that the point of any of these study methods is to HELP YOU LEARN. The point is not to do the study method as a hurdle or just something you’re supposed to do. Especially with outlining, people will treat it that way. Most people outline just because everyone says they’re supposed to. The reality is that this isn’t going to work with everyone, and you may also write your outline in a way that is totally useless to you. Experimentation is key, but part of that is that you have to remain willing to dump a study method if it’s taking too much time or preventing you from doing something you think is more useful.

3) You’ll also need to make an active effort to learn the language of the law. Buy a pocket Black’s Law Dictionary if you haven’t already. Get some notecards, and write each word you’re unfamiliar with down as you see it. Go through them and try to memorize them as you go – you don’t have to get every one, because gradually your legal vocabulary will start to increase. Some will be obscure stuff people don’t use often but you saw because you read a case from 1837. But if you get a good chunk of them down, you’ll be a lot better off. You’ll also avoid a common question from professors using the “Socratic Method” (a way of teaching in which they ask you questions without making declarative statements). Many professors will ask you what a word means in each case, ESPECIALLY in the first few days of class. The point of this is both to force you to look stuff up because you might get called on and to define words that you may need to know to understand the case.

4) Make sure that you get your assignments before class starts. Lots of people will make this mistake, because law school professors traditionally do not e-mail you or try to contact you with assignments. Instead, in most schools they just plop a notice on a bulletin board somewhere. ASSUME THAT YOU HAVE HOMEWORK FOR THE FIRST CLASS. If you haven’t found out about it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it means that you don’t know about it. Go ask the professor’s secretary or assistant if you can’t find any notice anywhere, and they’ll give it to you.

5) Get into a study routine, but don’t go overboard. You don’t need to be working 15 hours a day to succeed in law school. You need to be working intelligently and you need to have a plan. Find a place where you can work without getting distracted. This differs for different people, but at home common distractions are roommates, television, internet, etc. At the library, some people get distracted by social conversations, the internet, etc. Find a spot in the library, or at home in your room, or at a coffee shop, or even at the undergraduate library where you are least distracted. There was a guy in our first year class who never left the library, but also was never at his computer studying. His stuff was always there in the same spot, any time day or night – but he was always wandering around, on the phone, in the restroom, etc. This is pointless – if you spend 15 hours in the library, you have not accomplished anything just because your stuff was at a desk. A 2 hour study session where he actually did something would have been more effective. Use the first few weeks to set up a schedule and location to study, and stick to it.

The Case Study Method in Law School

So you’re starting out in law school. One of the first things you’ll have to understand is exactly how they’re trying to teach you. Most people completely botch this up. They end up studying the wrong things out of what they’re reading, mainly because they don’t understand what is going on. That means wasted time, which will make it much harder for you to do well in law school.

The case study method is how most law school classes are taught, especially first year classes. Essentially, what your textbook will consist of is a series of cases written by judges and selected by the authors of the book to teach you the basics of law in that class. Many textbooks will consist almost entirely of these cases, with only four or five brief points of commentary afterward. You read the case, your professor will ask you questions about it, and you end up learning the basic principles. Sounds simple? Wrong, of course. It’s law school. The textbooks will not tell you WHY they included the case. And that’s the single biggest time-waster for people in law school – they fail to figure out why they are reading the case in the first place, so they study the wrong things.

After you’ve read through any case, the absolute first thing you should be thinking is “Why did the authors put this here?” The answer is, they are trying to teach you some particular concept of law. This is usually answered fairly easily once you get the hang of it. Look to the chapter outlines. For example, in Civil Procedure, you might read a case that is placed under the heading “Personal Jurisdiction.” That case is, obviously, there to teach you something about personal jurisdiction. It may not be clear exactly what, but that’s your job to figure out. There is some point of law in that case which you are supposed to know. It sounds like it would be hard to miss this – but most law students, from my experience, do.

The reason why it’s so easy to waste time under the case method is that the editors do not confine the case to the point of law you’re trying to learn. They will give you enough details in terms of both facts and other points of law to let you understand the case – and for law students, that’s enough rope to hang themselves. The problem they get tied up in is studying all the other points of law that are there SOLELY to help them understand what was going on in the case. If a case is about personal jurisdiction, and it also has a paragraph on the elements of the tort of battery, you probably don’t need to go and memorize those elements. They have nothing to do with why you are reading the case. They don’t even have anything to do with civil procedure, the class you’re in. But many law students will spend a ton of time learning them anyway.

This lack of focus is also negative in that you don’t learn the rule you were supposed to. The case was put in there to teach you something. If you don’t stop, take a break, and think about what it’s supposed to be teaching you, you’re not going to learn. That case about personal jurisdiction is there to teach you a rule. Maybe it’s about the “stream of commerce” theory, and it’s there to teach you what rule to apply if you are in a certain situation where goods have moved across states. Maybe it’s just there to teach you the general principles of due process and of the minimum contacts test – if it’s at the beginning of the chapter in your book, and the case is International Shoe, that’s probably it. Maybe it’s there to “test the edges” of the theory or show you novel applications of it – if it’s about the Internet and how to apply personal jursidiction to websites, that might be it. You need to go through this process every time you read a case. Ask yourself what’s important about it. If you had to take away one rule of law, what would it be? What are the surrounding cases about? What do the endnotes seem to be talking about? If you can’t figure it out, ask the professor after class. They’ll probably just tell you, assuming you don’t do it 10 or 20 times. Always remember – even if it doesn’t seem like it, the cases are there and in that order for a reason. The book is supposed to be a lesson plan – the hard part of law school is that you’re now tasked with figuring out what you’re supposed to be learning.

Briefing Cases in Law School

One of the other big things you’re going to have to figure what you want to do about is briefing your cases. “Briefing” is basically any process you use to summarize the information and holdings in the cases you’re reading. Because nearly every case contains a lot of superfluous information, this is one of the classic study methods in law school. You try to boil down the information that is absolutely necessary into a short page or two. Often these briefs are used entirely for the purposes of preparing for socratic questioning during class, and they are made so you can look off them and try to remember the basics of the case under fire. There are basically two methods that people have recommended: 1) a full brief of the case or 2) book briefing. A full brief can follow any of a number of formats, but they’ll usually follow some format such as: Name of Case, Summary of the Facts, Issues, Holdings, Rationale, and Analysis. There’s no real set, traditional format, but that’s the basics. Book briefing, on the other hand, is basically just scribbling shit in the margins of your book. Personally, that’s what I did.

Why could that possibly be a better study method? It comes down to time management and the question that you should be asking yourself about anything you’re doing to study: WHY am I doing it? For most people, briefing is about preparing for class. They do not want to look like morons in front of their classmates if and when the professor asks them some obscure question about the case. They therefore produce detailed, extensive notes about every possible question they could be asked, and learn the cases cold. My advice: it’s a better idea to just suck it up and look like a moron if you have to.

The reason for this is that preparing for class is not the most productive use of your time in law school. The most productive use of your time is to prepare for EXAMS. The single biggest mistake law students make is to assume these are the same thing. In virtually every class, they are not. Why? I’ll go into more detail on what the exams are going to be like in later posts – but in most cases, they have very little to do with what you talked about in class. They do not ask what the facts of the cases you read were. They do not ask who the parties were or expect you to have memorized any information on the cases you read. In most exams, you don’t even get very many points for knowing the rules of the cases. You don’t even get points for referencing cases in most classes, and if you do they usually give them to you if you say “that case where the guy let the wolf out of the cage and it ate those people.” The vast bulk of your points comes from applying the rules of the cases to NEW situations. The professor just makes up some random fact pattern that is vaguely similar to what you’ve had, and you are expected to state the rules and then apply them to a situation in which there is usually no clear answer. You have a single exam at the end of the semester that will determine your grade – and it has very little to do with what you are doing in class.

Preparing for class obviously has a focus that does not help you much on this kind of exam. All that time you spent summarizing the facts of the cases? That gets you minimal benefit – at best, it helps you recognize which cases your professor based the fact patterns on. Knowing the party names? The fact that the case came up on a summary judgment motion? The definition of “pro se”? Nope, none of those get you any points. They’re the kinds of things that your professor will want to know about if you get called on. But they will get you zero points on the thing most law students care about – their grade.

I tried lots of different methods. I tried the thing with the 5 highlighter colors – I did it for four cases, and it took forever and didn’t help me that much (though this may be useful to you if you are a visual learner). I tried briefing in a notebook for a while, and eventually quit that too. What I ultimately ended up doing was briefing entirely based on my expectation for what would happen if I was called on in class. In two classes, it was only volunteers or if you were called on only general questions – I didn’t do anything for these and basically only volunteered rarely if no one seemed to know the answer or if the professor said something I thought might be wrong. In Criminal law, two people were called on randomly – one had to summarize the case, one had to “prosecute” the person under Texas law (list all the offenses in Texas, go through elements, etc.). I did book briefing in this class – I wrote a list of all the crimes in the left hand page of the first part of the case, and a short summary on the right of the facts, issues, and ruling of the court. I then made a separate summary of the dissent on the page that started, if there was a dissenting opinion. In my fourth class, we knew when we would be called on, but had to be able to answer obscure questions on the case we read. Here, I briefed all the cases we could potentially get to on my day, and did really detailed work on everything. However, that was only for one day. I probably read each case two or three times.

A lot of people are probably thinking to themselves “But I learn better that way!” That’s probably true. Many people would learn about the cases much, much better by doing a book briefing method. In fact, I knew several people who could and did tell me the exact page things were on by the end of the year. The problem, as discussed above: THAT’S NOT WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE LEARNING. You are supposed to be learning skills, not facts. Ultimately, there are better tools for learning in law school than preparing for class – practice exams being the primary one.

What you’re going to have to ask yourself is whether your grades in law school are more important to you than what other students think about you. Nearly every person who goes through the first year of law school finds that many of the people who seemed the smartest, talked the most, etc. do not end up at the top of the class. Lots of them do – but a big chunk of the people who get the best grades will be people who don’t or who you’ve never heard of. The smart thing to do is to suck it up and look stupid a couple of times in class. Instead of wasting your time trying to learn the answer to every potential question your professor could ask you, you need to be spending it where it is most effective: studying things that give you points on exams, and not things that help you do well in class.

How to Succeed in Law School: Practice Exams

This is the fifth post in a series about preparing for your first year of law school. Part One dealt with preparation during the summer before you arrive. Part Two dealt with what you should do in those stressful first few weeks. Part Three dealt with the case study method, and what you should know about the very different way in which law professors teach. Part Four dealt with briefing cases, and how you should be studying. This post, part Five, deals with practice exams.

I should start out by noting that I consider this the single most important thing I did during my first semester. It’s also the one thing that virtually no one focuses on until the last minute – but I recommend starting to take practice exams once you are a few weeks in. Law school exams are VERY DIFFERENT from what you are used to in your undergraduate classes, and your final grade will depend on how well you are able to adapt to the changes.

For those who are unfamiliar with what a law school exam is like, they generally focus on what’s known as “issue spotting.” Certain classes focus on this more than others – a torts exam will probably be heavily devoted to it, while a constitutional law exam may be closer to something you took in an undergrad poli-sci class depending on your professor. In general, however, exams will ask you to spot legal issues and then comment on how they should be resolved. The issues will be hidden within a fact pattern designed to allow arguments on both sides. Many exams will consist of a giant, page-long description of a series of events and simply ask you who has claims against who. A brief example from a Property professor at Kentucky here:

“OWNER was in the hospital to have an operation performed for a brain tumor. OWNER told DEAR FRIEND who was visiting him that OWNER had buried one hundred gold coins in OWNER’s garden under the azalea plant. OWNER said to DEAR FRIEND, “If I do not survive the operation, the gold coins are yours.” The operation was performed successfully but a week after the operation, while OWNER was convalescing in the hospital, he had a heart attack and died. DEAR FRIEND then dug up the coins. OWNER’S ADMINISTRATOR filed suit to recover the gold coins for OWNER’s estate. DEAR FRIEND’s answer claims that the coins belong to her because OWNER gave them to her.

How should a court resolve this law suit and why?”

You’ll notice first off that this question does not tell you anything about what it is asking. The question requires you to know about a specific area of law - gift causa mortis, or gifts made in contemplation of death. But it won’t say “Please explain the gift causa mortis doctrine.” It requires you to look at the fact pattern, realize that the person is attempting to make a gift in ancitipation of death, and remember that you learned about this area of law. You will have to know the elements required to make the gift valid (intent to donate, adequate mental capacity, constructive delivery of the gift, acceptance of the gift). That’s straight memorization, and you would get some points on most exams for listing these – but not many.

Here’s another big difference between an undergraduate exam and a law school one: an undergraduate class would stop here. It would be sufficient to just say “Here’s what a gift causa mortis is, and here’s what he has to prove.” But in law school, all your classmates will know this, and virtually all of them will see the issue and write out those four elements. Because you’re graded on a curve, you don’t get points for doing what everyone else is capable of doing. You get your points in the next step – the analysis.

You’ll have to figure out all the arguments that either side could make. You’ll need to get good at putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and not just picking a side and advocating for it. For example, let’s look at the mental capacity issue. You should be thinking, what would I say if I were the attorney for either side? If you wanted to prove he wasn’t competent to make a gift, you’d point to the brain tumor. That’s a flashing red light – most facts mean something in a question, and this one wasn’t put in there randomly. The law professor could have given him cancer, diabetes, etc., but he chose a brain tumor. Why? Because a brain tumor calls into question his capacity. It could have affected his functioning or understanding of what he was doing. A second fact might be the situation itself. Gold coins buried in a backyard under a plant? Sounds a little nutty. You’d probably get points for writing about that, maybe a few more for noting that it doesn’t have that big a likelihood of success unless it was buried recently. Burying it years ago is eccentric, burying it recently indicates a mental breakdown possibly associated with the tumor. But what would the other side say? They’d say that a tumor isn’t proof of a lack of capacity – just because it’s in the brain doesn’t mean it has affected his mental abilities. And maybe he was just concerned about theft and inflation, which is why he got gold coins. And they were under a plant – how recently could they have been buried?

It’s this back and forth that gets you the points. You should generally state at the end which argument you think is more persuasive – but you’ll find that getting things right often accounts for very little of the score. In fact, in my first year contracts class I got a very high score on a question while giving a completely wrong answer. I earned the points by making arguments on both sides, and even though I stated the wrong legal conclusion, I still did very well.

To get really good at issue spotting, however, you have to practice. Nearly every book I read on doing well in law school gave the advice that a few weeks before exams, you should start looking at the old exams. Nearly every school has them, and if not you can get the exams of other schools online in all your first year classes. The books advise you to take the exams, and maybe do an outline of what your answer would be, just so you can get used to seeing what the issues are.

I think this is bunk. You should start doing practice exams 3-4 weeks into law school. And I don’t mean looking at it for 20 minutes and writing down the issues you see. I mean a full, timed exam question where you write it exactly as you would under real conditions. Many people are probably thinking of a few objections:

But you don’t know everything! How can you take the practice exams? You can’t take all of them. Many practice exams will be impossible for you to do 4 weeks in – a general rule of thumb is that if a page-long fact pattern, you’re not going to know enough to do it. Many, however, will be like the one that I just talked about. That was a full, short question about a discrete area of law. If you had been through a gifts causa mortis unit in your property class, you would be able to do that question without learning a single other thing about property. In fact, I found that some classes, like Property, were very well-suited to doing practice exams early – everything is essentially unrelated in that class. Other classes, like Contracts, are poorly suited to it – you’re forced to wait in most cases because all the concepts relate to and reinforce each other. But you can still find some questions to do – once you finish a unit on something, go try to find practice exam questions that are obviously on it. You don’t have to do a full exam – just do one question.

What’s the point? I should be learning the law, not messing around with the exams this early. Wrong. Dead wrong. First, in the premise that you are better suited learning the law by sitting there with some flash cards. How exactly? I gained a much better understanding of what the elements meant by trying to apply them to practice questions. It’s all good and well to memorize a list of elements, but working with them is a much better way to see what they mean and how you would use them on a real exam. Second, do you want to get a good grade, or memorize the law? The grade will stick with you for life. You’ll forget the stuff you memorized next semester. Being a lawyer is about looking things up, not having things memorized. You’ll get more practical benefit from learning how to apply the law well anyway.

But it’s really hard! Why not just do the outline thing you were talking about? Well, duh – law school is hard. And you’ll be taking the same exams eventually anyway – outlining your answer instead of writing it is just a rationalization you’re using to try to avoid grappling with the problem. Trust me, the first practice exam you sit down to try to write will be extremely frustrating. You will sit there, 10 minutes into a thirty minute question, certain you have utterly no clue what you’re doing and sure that the best idea is just to close the book and go read what the answer should have been. DON’T DO IT. The only way to get over that hump is to suck it up and write for thirty minutes. Do you want to get over the frustration now, or put it off until actual exams when sitting there costs you real points?

Fine. What do I do then?

1) Go get a study group to take practice questions with you. Many practice questions won’t have answers published - do the questions in your group that don’t.

2) Don’t just take one or two. I would set a goal like a question a day. I don’t think I met that when I was doing it, but I came close.

3) Put off doing your professor’s old exams until the end of the semester. Do the exams from other professors early on, then switch over. The reason is that your professor’s exams are closest to the real thing – you want to get them right and you want to do them when you have a little experience under your belt.

4) However, do go LOOK at some questions by your old professors. I saw people botch exams big time because of this. Our criminal law professor taught traditionally, but asked questions that focused entirely on the Texas Penal Code. People who memorized the Model Penal Code stuff he taught got very bad grades. People who looked at the exams beforehand could realize that they were going to need to study stuff that he wasn’t discussing in class.

5) Start with discrete questions. Look for units in your classes that have very narrow sets of rules unrelated to anything else. For example, in Civil Procedure, you can often find old exams online focusing solely on personal jurisdiction. It has nothing to do with anything else, and nothing you learn elsewhere in civil procedure will affect the analysis. These are what you should be doing early on.

6) Start making “buzzword lists.” I did this for some classes with space or time constraints – what is the quickest way you’re going to get across that you understand a concept to the professor? For many areas of the law, there are short phrases that they will be looking for. You should know that many professors grade the exams in a very rigid, mathematical way. They have a list of things they want to see you talk about, and they read through looking to see if they find one. If you use a buzzword (“due process,” “minimum contacts,” “stream of commerce”), they can latch on easily and give you points.

7) Get used to writing quickly and not spending as much time on outlining. Do the back and forth in your head as you’re going. More time spent writing means more points and more chances to get points.

8) Look over the exam for any facts that seem significant – if there’s anything you haven’t used to support an argument, it’s probably there for a reason. Think about WHY they picked a brain tumor instead of cancer for what the guy has.

9) Use the exams you practice with to figure out how you’re going to study. They should be helping you figure out what you DON’T understand, and what you need to spend more time on. Use exams with answers. What issues did you miss? Study the law on that. Get the mistakes out of the way on the practice exams so you don’t make them on the real thing.

10) Use the practice exams to supplement your actual studying. Have you just finished the portion of your Civil Procedure outline on personal jurisdiction? Well, it’s time to do some practice questions on that. Whatever you get wrong, you can make sure it’s in the outline. If your exam is open book or open outline, get used to looking things up under exam conditions so you can do it more quickly.

11) Take multiple questions on the same thing. Remember that for some questions, you can write out beforehand the elements of a tort, etc. and use them verbatim on an exam to save time. Put it in your outline word for word how you’d write it on the real thing. Don’t go overboard with this – but anything that is simple like a list of elements, you don’t want to waste time rewording when you’re writing the real exam.

12) Take LOTS of practice exams. Focus on getting better at doing them. Spend time thinking about what you did wrong. If you think up a better answer or an issue you missed later on, don’t just kick yourself. Write it down, and review it later. Missing the issue now means you’re more likely to spot it later.

13) Spend time thinking about strategy. Do your professors favor certain questions? Many of them act like clockwork – they will repeat questions every few years, put in the same facts over and over in big fact patterns, etc. Many always try to come up with something new – which, in the end, is predictable if you think about it as well.

14) Remember that what is on the exams is what counts. If your professor has been giving an exam for 13 years that always asks “What crimes were committed under the Texas Penal Code on these facts?,” he’s probably not going to shake things up and suddenly start asking about the Model Penal Code, even if he spent a month talking about it. Get ready for it, but spend most of your time on what he has already been PROVEN to ask about.

15) If you start getting pressed for time and think you don’t have time to do practice exams, CUT SOMETHING ELSE FIRST. Practice exams are your highest priority. Use an old outline in another class. Read stuff only once. Cut something else, ANYTHING ELSE, before you cut the practice exams.

Taking practice exams can’t guarantee you a good grade – but no one does it. It’s the one thing where I found it easy to gain a huge advantage over other people who blew it off, worried more about outlines, or just didn’t want to do all the work involved.  

Some online sources of old exams: