How to Study: Tips and Tricks for Acing Law School
Everyone approaches studying in their own unique way. You’re by no means expected to reinvent the wheel or conform to what everyone else is doing when you get to law school. Rather, the density and complexity of the material, and the way in which it is presented - often through lectures, tutorials and seminars - might require you to tweak your style ever so slightly. Don’t panic! It takes a great deal of time and patience to figure out what works best for you. Make sure you’re clued in on how the material will be assessed, as this will dictate the information you should focus on when reading.
What is the format of law school assignments?
Problems questions are the primary form of assessment at law school. You’ll be presented with a factual scenario which could raise various legal issues or causes of action. Paying close attention to the facts of cases you’ve learnt over the semester will help you identify the issues, determine the relevant rule, as derived from case law and/or statute, apply it, and then come to a conclusion as to a party’s prospects of success if they were to pursue that action. The first letter of each of those words, in that order, altogether form ‘IRAC’, which should be your go-to formula for approaching problems.
You may be asked to write an essay which critically evaluates the law. When it comes to essays and problem questions, the best responses point out the similarities and differences between the given scenario and the cases; even a small factual difference can impact the outcome of the action! Often, the conclusion you come to isn’t so important as how you got to it. To that end, you should consider and dispute counterarguments to help strengthen your line of reasoning. Survive Law’s Critical Analysis Checklist distils the key considerations for writing convincing assignments, and we highly recommend you give that a read!
You may even be asked to present to the class on a particular topic, or you may be assessed on the quantity and quality of your class participation. This reflects the importance of oral communication skills to lawyers, who are often required to convey information not only concisely, but persuasively, whether in discussing a matter with colleagues or submitting arguments to a judge at court. For tips on how to ace tutorial participation, check out Survive Law’s Class Participation: In It to Win It.
How do I take notes in lectures and tutorials?
Some people prefer to type their notes, and others prefer to handwrite them. Either method has its merits. One benefit of handwriting notes is better retention: a study conducted by the University of California found that those who wrote notes by hand had to paraphrase their notes, leading to improved retention, while those who typed their notes tended to type every word, learn by verbatim and scored lower on retention level. Most of your exams will also be handwritten, so putting pen to paper during semester helps to build stamina. The difficulty of keeping up with a speedy lecturer might encourage you to take down only the most salient ideas. If you prefer to type for speed and formatting ease, make sure to handwrite practice answers under exam conditions.
Scaffold and supersummarise
Even the most complex issues in law can be broken down into colours, diagrams, and a few scattered words. All the more incentive to mix up your study routine.
You’ve attended lectures, done the readings, and applied your knowledge in weekly tutorial discussions. With so many cases and concepts to process, don’t be dejected if everything is still unclear to you. Consider condensing your notes into a ‘scaffold’ which breaks topics down into a series of flow charts or questions that guide you step-by-step through answering a question. This can give you a holistic understanding of how topics interconnect and a formula for answering problem questions. You can and should be as creative as possible with your scaffolds: keep in mind that the brain processes images and videos 60,000 times faster than text!
How do I prepare for exams?
“The trick is to know when to stop with preparation – when you stop consolidating and condensing and tabbing your notes, and start reading, summarising into one page flowcharts or summaries, and finally doing practise exams. Generally, the final week or two before the exam should be spent summarising notes and completing practice papers.”
The main way to prepare for an exam is to practice. You can do this by thoroughly preparing for tutorials throughout semester, which will save you from a lot of stress later on. If you have time, write the answer out in full. If you’re time-poor, sketch a brief outline of how you would answer the question. This enables you to test whether your flow of logic is correct, or if you’ve actually missed an obvious issue. Problem questions are deceptively easy when, in a tutorial, the issues and discussion points flow seamlessly one after the other and you’re lulled into thinking: “Oh, I knew that!”. Study vacation (the week with no classes, scheduled before the exam block) is your opportunity to complete past papers and miscellaneous sample problems, such as those included in LexisNexis Question and Answer Guides.
Are open-book exams easier than closed-book exams?
In open-book exams, you can take certain materials into the exam room with them, such as an annotated unity of study outline, your summaries and/or textbook, whereas in closed-book exams, you’re equipped only with your memory.
It’s a misconception that open-book exams are easier than closed-book exams. Do not spend less time preparing for them! The problems in open-book exams usually test a deeper understanding with the material, and involve more familiarity with the factual context of the cases - not just the principle derived from the case, but how judges arrived at it. They examine contentious issues where the decision on a point of law is either very narrow or unsettled, and could be open to change if decided today.
What do I do in the exam room?
Once you get the panic out of your system, read the question carefully. Twice. Underline key phrases that suggest certain issues or evoke the facts of particular cases. Then plan your response in the form of bullet points outlining what your issues will be, supported by cases, with a conclusion. Plan again if need be. This should not take longer than 5-10 minutes. Write your answer, applying the law to the facts, not repeating them. Use headings. Highlight your authorities. And if you’re short on time by the very end, write in bullet points: it’s better to have something down on paper than nothing at all.
While law is intense, make sure that it doesn’t totally consume your life. Make an effort to switch off and refocus. Your brain will thank you for it, and your studies will improve.