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Surviving Your First Year of Law School

Surviving Your First Year of Law School

So, you're a first-year law school student - now what? You know you have to earn passing grades to survive your first-year, and you need to figure out how to do it - fast. 

Put simply, you survive your first year through the law school process, which requires two separate and distinct steps. Step 1 - You have to learn the law. Step 2 - You have to learn how to apply the law to law school exams in a time-driven testing environment. One without the other will not achieve your law school objectives. 

That's what you need to know to survive your first year in law school, and this is how to do it.

Step 1:  Learn The Law

You must put in the time to learn the law in each course in which you are enrolled. There are no shortcuts. Learning the law begins with memorization. Your individual retention skills determine how much time and effort this step takes. By the time of your law school final examinations, you should have full command of the legal rules associated with the subject matter, and you should be able to quickly and easily recite them.

You must be a self-starter. Use your class syllabus to identify the topic areas of law you have to know. If you know the law in those areas by the time of final exams, you have done your job in Step 1. By making the time and putting out the effort, you can learn the law and recite it with ease by exam time.

Do not rely on your professor to teach you the law. Do not rely on your professor to cover everything in class that appears on the course syllabus. It is your responsibility to learn all of the course material, irrespective of whether your professor discusses it in class or not. If your professor falls behind on the subject matter in class, it is still your responsibility to know the material.

Legal resource materials available for learning the law include casebooks, hornbooks, commercial substantive law school outlines, flashcards, and audiotape, CD, or DVD instruction. These law school study guides and resources are all available in law libraries, in your local legal bookstores, and through private legal resource vendors.

Very few first-year law students fall short on Step 1 - to stay ahead of your competition, you must excel in Step 2 of the law school process.

Step 2:  Apply The Law As You Learn The Law, Using Practice Law Exams

Step 2 tests not only your command of the law, something law professors assume you have by the time of law school midterm and final exams. Rather, Step 2 is the means through which law professors evaluate your reasoning skills, often referred to as the ability to think like a lawyer. Step 2 assesses your ability to analyze law to the fact in a time-driven testing environment during which you must demonstrate your expertise on timed law school exams. 

Of the two steps in the law school process, Step 2 is the most difficult because it requires sound reasoning skills that can only be perfected through diligent practice. Step 2 is the major requirement used by law professors to grade law exams, and law exam grades dictate your success in law school.  

To excel in Step 2, you must demonstrate your understanding of the law by recognizing the legal issues raised by the exam facts, and knowing what rules relate to those issues, followed by your ability to show how and why the relevant rules apply to a prescribed set of facts on your final examinations (both essay and multiple-choice formats, which are test exercises specifically designed to evaluate this unique skill.)

Consider the case of Palsgraph v. Long Island Railroad. When Ms. Palsgraph got hit with heavy scales on a railroad platform and sought recovery for her injuries, the court had to analyze the facts of the controversy, decide what legal principle to apply, and discuss why. That is what you must do to succeed in law school and survive the cut in your first year.

Consider the case of Li v. Yellow Cab Co. When Li was injured by Yellow Cab and wanted to recover, the court had to analyze the facts of the controversy, decide what legal principle to apply, and discuss why. That is what you must do as well.

In the case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephenswhen the Commonwealth prosecuted sailors who killed and ate their comrade to save their own lives, the court had to analyze the facts of the controversy, decide what legal principle to apply, and discuss why. Again, that is what you must do to survive your first year in law school.

All of these examples demonstrate that knowing the law and applying it are separate steps. You cannot have one without the other. Demonstrating both aptitudes is how you survive your first year in law school.

We have legal resource materials available for learning to apply the law include casebooks that illustrate fact patterns to which the law was applied with the supporting rationale. You should also make use of previously tested law school examination hypotheticals, which are available in most law school libraries, in your legal bookstore, and through private legal resource vendors.

Study Techniques For Law Students

Of course, you must start by learning the law in each of your first-year subjects. You must establish a study schedule outside of class and come to every class well prepared to discuss the topics to be covered. Also, you must incorporate past law school examinations into your study schedule to develop and perfect your test-taking skills before the time of your law exams.

Law professors generally use class time to cover the case materials assigned for each session. They do not generally use class time to teach law school exam skills, so that is up to you and you alone. Thus, you should include practice exams in your own law school process because they provide you with the most helpful study technique for law exam preparation.

When you practice previously tested law school exams, you will find that they contain fact patterns that raise a variety of legal issues you study in each of your classes. They are also similar to fact patterns in your cases.

Using past law school examinations for pre-test exam practice will allow you to improve your ability to spot issues in the facts and apply the relevant rules of law to those facts, just as the court did in your casebooks. This is how you most effectively prepare to take your law school examinations.

It is also important that you practice your analytical and legal exam writing skills under timed conditions. By doing so, you develop not only your testing expertise, but you will have an appreciation of the time constraints that you must manage before taking your midterm and final examinations. Practicing your exam skills is how you really learn to think and perform like a lawyer when it comes time to take your law examinations. 

Too many students spend too much time on Step 1 and too little time on Step 2. That approach rarely allows one to survive the first year in law school. Law students who embrace the concept that Step 2 dictates success in law school and include law exam practice tests in their daily study schedule as a means to develop reasoning and test-taking skills survive their first year in law school.

When you commit to following this law school process, you'll survive your first year in law school, too.

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