How to Survive Your First Year of Law School (USA)

Heading towards law school? Got the 1L blues? Here are some inside tips on how to stay on top of everything, and come out alive.


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    Do all of your own outlines. Reading outlines that other students prepared may convey information, and some of it may even be accurate. However, the act of doing the outline yourself helps you to understand the material as you write it and to remember what you read and why you wrote summarizing points. If you have questions or don't understand something, by all means take advantage of your professor's office hours. If your course is taught from a casebook, consider looking at a good treatise in the library; treatises present the information in a logical order, building from basic principles to specifics. Consider commercial outlines, like Emmanuel or Gilbert, as hints that may help you, but can be too terse on the one hand or too cluttered with detail on the other. Avoid outlines by other students; they probably didn't get it any better than you do. Also, if you write your exam answers based on mistakes in another student's outline and a few of your classmates write the same mistakes, your professor will not be amused by your following one another blindly.
    • If you have classes that allow the use of outlines, write your outlines in the same format that you would write an answer to an essay question. When an issue arises on the test, you would basically transcribe your outline, while analyzing the specific facts needed to answer the essay question. For maximum efficiency, your outlines should be color coded, tabbed, and in a 3 ring-binder.
    • In classes that do not allow using outlines during exams, concentrate on perfecting your outline and making it more concise, to help you internalize and understand more, so that you have less to memorize.
    • "Make your own outline" doesn't mean that you should never look at an outline made by someone else. By all means look at others' outlines before making your own. They can be useful as samples to see how others have done it. There are many of them posted on the internet.Listen, don't let anyone fool you, law school is hard. It will make college feel like nursery school. You actually have to study for exams, and cramming the night before WILL NOT work. However, the best advice I ever got was from an upperclassman. He suggested I bring outlines from previous semesters to class and work off them in case I missed anyone the professor discussed. Most professors don't change their lesson plans! Sometimes they're teaching almost word for word from previous semesters. I found a lot of helpful outlines for my classes at a website and then uploaded mine after the semester ended to return the favor. Good luck! But the outlines of others may have limited usefulness: (1) they may include material that your professor hasn't covered, and you'll end up studying material you won't be tested on, (2) they may be missing material that you WILL be tested on, and (3) they may cover the law of a different state, which may be different from your state.
    • The most important thing you can provide yourself is an understanding of how you learn most efficiently. For instance, many students make outlines, because it's a fairly efficient way to learn. However, if you are capable of memorizing quickly, you may end up spending too much time perfecting an outline, and not enough time understanding and memorizing the material.
    • Learn to summarize cases efficiently. Most of "learning the law" isn't memorizing statutes. It's more analogous to learning to apply "stupid fines": someone behaved badly and hurt someone else, and the court has to (1) figure out what happened, (2) look at similar situations that the court dealt with in the past, and (3) use those past similar situations to decide how much money will fix the hurt. You should learn to read a court case, figure out what happened (the facts), and how the past law in similar cases (precedent) was applied to fix things. Learn to spot how slightly different situations (fact patterns) result in slightly different applications of the law, and slightly different results. What they're trying to teach you in law school is how to analyze new factual situations and use what was decided in previous court cases to figure out how to deal with the new situation. THIS IS WHAT YOU'LL BE TESTED ON, both in law school and on the bar exam (and in real life).
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    Pace yourself. Rome wasn't built in a day and you can't expect to understand the law in a day or a week or a month. So you try to understand some crucial points in the development of the reasoning in each course of study, and to try to interrelate various concepts as they historically and currently are viewed.
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    Try to discover the big picture. The law is more a process than a set of rules. A panoramic view is about seeing broad social policies, principles that allow society to function, and a means of peacefully resolving disputes. Don't let all the specific rules and cases you are required to learn, important though they are, obscure what the law is really about. Some law schools (or law professors) stress learning the so-called black letter rules, while others focus more on the underlying principles. Even in "black letter schools," understanding the bigger picture helps you to answer exam questions when you don't remember a specific rule.
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    Use the library to fill in gaps. It isn't just a study hall. The library has books that can help you understand material that is not clear from assigned reading or lectures. Ask the librarian. Law school librarians are an excellent resource, and most enjoy helping students more than re-shelving books. Of course, don't overwhelm your brain or take on so much extra reading that it interferes with your required study. Using the library is more economical than buying extra books, especially before you know what books belong in your own collection.
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    Speak up in class. Participating actively in class is the best way both to "get it" and to evaluate for yourself how you are doing. If you aren't doing so well, it's better to find out when you still have time to improve than to be disappointed when you get your grade. Also, if you speak up on the days you are well prepared, the professor will be less likely to call on you on the occasional day when you have not mastered the material. But, be careful not to overstep the line and become a drag on the class. Don't be afraid to ask questions, but some discussions are better reserved for office hours.
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    Get to class early so you get a good seat. Closest to the professor is best, both for staying engaged and hearing well. The more rows you have in front of you, the more you will be distracted by students playing games, looking at sports stats, or watching YouTube. If you feel the need to hide out in back, you won't be alone, but you are asking to fail.
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    Have a tacit agreement with your small group members to "back each other up". If someone from your small group is struggling during the Socratic torture, another member of the group should chime in.
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    Don't expect the grade inflation you enjoyed in undergrad. Many schools enforce a B- curve. Some professors do not give A's. Some smart students go three years and never get an A. This can be a shock.
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    Realize that everyone will crash and burn sometime. It doesn't matter how smart you are, or whether you study 20 hours a day, you will eventually crash and burn in class. The next day, the sun will rise and you will say, "That was not so bad". It gets easier after your first flame out.
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    Look to your right, look to your left. If you see that you are answering the questions as well as your classmates, the confidence you gain will help you. On the other hand, if you are not, study harder and re-evaluate your study methods; don't wait until exams to discover what you need to do to succeed.
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    Utilize Bar Review materials. These materials have condensed outlines and sample exam questions and answers that are very similar to first year law school exams. Do as many practice exams as you can and you should be able to answer a law school essay reasonably.


  • If it is available, take the civil/criminal clinics. Many students say they are the best, most practical part of law school.
  • If you have a very incompetent professor, you might have to self teach legal research. No one is going to take you by the hand later anyway. Ask your friendly law school librarian for help finding stuff in books (and take notes so you remember), and for electronic resources, look for Westlaw and Lexis courses.
  • While not working on weekends seems like a good idea, the amount of work will probably not allow you to do this. Take either Saturday or Sunday off, but not both.
  • If your professor allows it, tape difficult lectures and listen to them later
  • After first year try to clerk. There is no substitute for real world exposure. Clerking jobs are posted with your schools career services, on the state bar website or on bulletin boards at the school. You can also contact firms directly and forward them a letter and resume, if you are lucky they will need someone now and appreciate being able to avoid the hassles of posting the job and interviewing a bunch of people.
  • Many CLEs (Continuing Legal Education) seminars are free or cheap to students, check with the state bar association and see if you can attend a CLE in an area that interests you. Meeting practicing attorneys will put the law in much better perspective.
  • Don't be tied into only the practice of law as seen on T.V. Consider working for an agency to gain experience in your field of choice and then going into private practice if you want to do so. Also often organizations offer scholarships to attend conferences at very reduced rates. This can allow you to view what a particular legal area is like before you finish school. Try to attend at least 1 conference in a subject matter area of interest to you.
  • Even if your moot court (research and writing) class is pass/fail, do a good job. Don't slack off, these practical classes are extremely important come write-on, moot court and interviewing season.
  • Consider visiting another law school. Most schools allow you to study for up to two semesters at another school and transfer those hours to your home school. This is a great way to improve your perspective on the law and law school. It also breaks up the tedium.
  • If you have an idea of what area you hope to practice in, start a file right away of important cases, statutes, etc. and start to become an expert. If you can speak with authority about your practice area, you are much more likely to land a clerk or attorney position.
  • Treat it like a job. Get there at 8:00 and leave at 6:00 with a lunch break. Avoid working on weekends if possible. The structure keeps you focused and the weekends rest your brain.
  • Join your state bar association as a student member and connect with practicing attorneys and students from other schools.


  • If you need to take some time away from your course (family emergency, major illness), speak to your professor and/or someone in student services or dean of student life. Explain the situation. They should be able to tell you the work you are likely to miss out on which will allow you to catch up when you can.
  • Experiment with study groups to see if working with other people helps you. If you get the right chemistry in a study group they can be very helpful. If you get the wrong chemistry, they can be a waste of valuable time. If you just want to socialize, go to the clubs instead. If you are going to share outlines, demand drafts by mid term in order to ensure everyone is sharing the load. Some people thrive in study groups and others find they are better off choosing one study partner for each class. Take turns teaching each other important principles.
  • Do not expect law school to teach you to be a lawyer. It will teach you how to think like a lawyer, the rest is up to you.
  • Law can be an easy subject to fall behind on if you don't keep up. There is just too much information to try to wing it late in the term; that is why outlining is important.
  • Avoid a few common pitfalls: excessive drinking (as drinking is involved in many law school related activities), sleeping with other students, and drama. Law school is a very intense and stressful time. Being well organized and reducing distractions like the common pitfalls will help you succeed.

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