The first semester of 1L year is hard. It’s full of long readings, interrogations in class, writing assignments, and high expectations. And after each class, you get to take a final that points out just how little you know. Law school is full of work, stress, anxiety, and more work. And the first semester is particularly rough because you don’t quite know what you are doing yet.

To make matters worse, you are competing against other smart students. Nearly all law schools in the United States grade on a curve. So to do well, you have to outperform the other students in your class. And that can sometimes feel impossible.

I felt like the deck was stacked against me my first semester of law school. Unlike most other students, I had a wife, daughter and step-son at home. This meant that I couldn’t spend endless hours in the library. I had a family that expected me to come home at a reasonable hour. So I left school around 5:00 almost every day. This put me at a disadvantage, and I worried that my grades would suffer because of it.

But when the first semester grades came in, I was well into the top 5% of my class. I was ranked eighth out of 299 students. Plus, I received a book award in my legal writing class.

So how did I do it? To put it simply: I decided to approach law school differently than the other students. You don’t get exceptional grades by acting just like everybody else. Here’s what I did instead.

Focus On The Final

For most law school courses, 100% of your grade comes from the final exam. Even in a course that factors in participation, the final is still the overwhelming majority of your grade. This means that the final should be your primary focus from the beginning.

When I start a course, my first goal is to obtain a copy of the professor’s past exams. If I can find a copy, I immediately read through the exams. The goal here is not to memorize the content. In fact, you should barely pay attention to the content tested. Instead, look at how your professor tests. Is it a single, long fact-pattern? Are there multiple, short fact-patterns? Are there multiple choice questions? Take note of what your professor’s testing style is.

If you cannot find past exams from your professor, go to office hours and ask about the exam. Most professors will say something along the lines of “Oh, you don’t need to be worried about that yet.” But often they will still give you some valuable information anyway. Also ask your TAs about the exam; they are likely to give you a lot of good information.

Once you’ve determined what the exam will be like, you need to prepare accordingly. If your professor likes essay questions, begin writing essays as practice. If your professor likes multiple choice, begin doing multiple choice questions. And always practice under timed conditions, just like exam day.

You can find prompts for essays and multiple choice questions in supplements like the Examples and Explanations series, the CrunchTime series, and the Questions and Answers series. Work these practice questions early and often. This should be your primary focus in the library; nothing will help you more come exam day.

Get Good Outlines

You need good outlines. I had multiple professors tell my class not to worry about getting outlines from 2Ls and 3Ls. One even said, “They won’t help you.” I can say now with confidence that those professors were wrong. You should get as many good outlines as you can for your classes.

To be clear, a good outline is one made by a former student for your professor’s class. Generic bar prep outlines are not worth your time, and outlines for other professors aren’t any better. You want outlines made for the exact class you are being taught.

Keep an outline in front of you during class and use it as a starting place for your notes. This let’s you pay more attention to the material without having to write down every little thing. You might also find that the outlines actually answer many questions your professor asks the class, meaning you can get raise your hand with an easy answer to avoid being on call later.

Outlines are also useful because they let you cut down on your reading time, as explained below.

Read For Understanding, Not For Class

The reading in law school is a trap. You can spend hours reading and briefing cases every night and still not make it through all your assigned reading. If you play by the rules set by your professor, you will spend far too much time trying to understand cases and not enough time preparing for your exams. So don’t play by those rules while preparing for class.

Start by using the outlines for the class. Read the portions of the outline that cover your reading for the day. This will give you an idea of what your professor is looking for and what you are meant to get out of the reading. This will also speed up your reading of the actual material.

Once you know what your professor is looking for in general, read your cases with that in mind. Usually, you will want to be looking for a general rule used by the case. Ask yourself, “What rule can I take from this case that I might apply to a fact-pattern later?” Once you have the general rule, pay attention to the court’s reasoning. How does the court apply the rule to the facts?

Once you’ve read the outlines, know the rules, and understand the court’s reasoning, you are done. There is no need to read anymore. Do some practice questions instead!

Note that my method does not involve briefing cases, paying close attention to the facts, or caring at all about whether you might end up on call in class. Most of the time, you won’t be on call. And even if you do end up on call, you can probably get through the questions just by understanding the reasoning of the case. And if you can’t, look to the outlines for help. Also, you need to keep in mind that everyone gets embarrassed on call at some point. Just accept that up front and stop worrying about the moment when it inevitably happens to you.

The important thing is not to let fear drive you to bad study methods. No one wants to be embarrassed, but I would rather suffer a moment of embarrassment than suffer terrible grades at the end of the semester. That should be your priority as well. So, while everyone else spends hours re-reading cases, spend your time learning how to ace a final exam. That approach pays off in the end.

How to be in the Top 5% in Your First Semester of Law School
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