TAG | law school
On July 28, 2010, at around 5:00 p.m., I walked out of Roanoke Civic Center a happy man. I had just spent approximately sixteen hours—over the course of two days—in a gigantic room with strangers. We had frantically typed away at our laptops and meticulously filled in bubbles on a scantron sheet. We had to wear suits despite the sweltering temperatures in Roanoke. Mechanical pencils were banned. On top of all of this, the months leading up to the bar exam required quite a bit of studying, too. Ah, it was good to be done with the Virginia Bar Exam.
I am writing this post to try to provide some guidance to future bar exam takers, whether taking the bar in Virginia or in other states, and to share my experiences about the bar exam. I hope this post is useful and will help its readers have a realistic view of what the bar exam and the studying prior to the bar exam will be like.
First, a little background about myself so that readers realize that neither Albert Einstein nor Pee Wee Herman is writing this. In 2010, I graduated from a state law school (top 50 in US News, but not much better than top 50). As far as grades go, I did well in law school. I am clerking for a federal district judge, and I have a job at a firm after that. I consider myself to be a pretty conscientious student. However, I’m not some supergenius that can pass the bar after studying for a week. I didn’t pass law school due to brilliance, just a lot of hard work. I did not work during law school, and I entered law school immediately after college. I had a girlfriend/fiancee throughout law school as well as during bar prep. Now she is my wife. OK, enough about me.
To prepare for the bar, I signed up for Barbri as well as the PMBR three day prep course. I have heard that other bar courses are fine, too, but my firm was willing to foot the bill for these two courses, so I took them. If you’re paying for bar courses on your own, I’d recommend signing up for Barbri and skipping PMBR. More on these later.
Prior to taking the bar, I’d heard widely divergent stories from prior bar takers. Some people told me that they only studied for two weeks and passed. Many told me that they didn’t do anything except go to bar prep classes until July 4, and then started studying. Others told me they studied like crazy for two months and failed. Some graduates who finished near the bottom of their class passed. Some near the top failed. Some got up during the bar exam and ran out, never to be heard from again. And more.
I tried to extract some commonalities from all of this “bar-lore.” First, most people started studying much harder on July 4 than they did prior to this date. Second, most went to all of their bar prep classes (or watched them online). Third, most took Barbri as their bar prep course. Fourth, everyone studies in different ways. Fifth, the month of July, whether you studied hard in June or not, is pretty miserable, but June is not. Sixth, in general, if you take the bar exam seriously, you will pass.
BAR PREP COURSES AND MULTISTATE VERSUS STATE EXAMS
The first step in preparing for the bar is deciding whether you want to take a bar preparation course. I strongly advise doing so. Let me explain.
The choice between taking a bar prep course and not doing so is not like deciding whether to use a commercial outline for a course in law school. While you could decide not to use a commercial outline and get a high grade in a course (perhaps higher than if you used the commercial outline), that is because the amount of material you need to learn for a course is far smaller than what you need to know for the bar exam. The bar exam, at least in Virginia as well as a number of other states, will test you on a broad number of topics. For example, Virginia tests something like 22 areas of law on the bar exam. While you might remember your criminal procedure class from law school, do you know any Virginia law on the issue? Do you know anything about Virginia wills or domestic relations law? If you don’t, are you just going to read Virginia treatises and try to determine what is testable and study that? Are you going to study it all?
The bottom line is, it would be overwhelming for all but the smartest bar-takers to just learn all the law on your own. A bar exam prep course will help you by determining the law that is frequently tested or is testable on the exam and will teach you that. You’ll know that important information well, and you won’t be bogged down in stuff that is rarely going to appear on the exam. While there is of course a chance that something unusual could appear, since bar exams are curved, it’s not going to hurt you much not to know the answer to a totally random question.
If you decide to go without taking a bar prep course, you should, at the very least, buy some old Barbri books on eBay or from a friend. These books will likely contain all of the information you need to pass the bar exam, so long as they are not more than a year or two old (cutting edge law rarely makes its way onto the bar exam). Just remember that buying the books is not enough – you need to put in the time and learn the material from them — be disciplined!
As for which bar prep course to take, I can’t say I’m an expert on the topic. Most people—myself included—take Barbri. One advantage of taking Barbri is that you’ll learn the same material as a large percentage of test-takers in the state. Since in Virginia, for instance, the pass rate is around 70% for summer bar takers, so long as you learn most of what Barbri teaches you, you should finish in that top 70% threshold. In other words, Barbri provides you safety in numbers. While Barbri is pretty expensive, failing the bar and potentially being unemployed for months while you study again is pretty expensive, too.
Some people also supplement Barbri with PMBR. Basically, the word on the streets is that PMBR is better at teaching the “multistate” portion of the bar exam than Barbri. After taking the three-day version of PMBR, which consists of one sample multistate exam and two days of video review (I only took the exam on the first day and reviewed on my own, which I recommend if you do PMBR), I did not find PMBR to be critical to my bar study. Personally, if my firm didn’t pay for it, I would not have signed up for it.
Speaking of “multistate,” let me quickly mention the difference between the multistate and state portions of the bar exam. In most states, such as Virginia, there are two portions of the bar exam. The first day is generally the state testing day, in which state law is tested in essay and/or short answer form. In Virginia, the first day includes two three hour blocks, separated by a lunch break. In the first block of time you have to answer five essay questions. In the second block of time you have to answer four essay questions and twenty short answer questions. You can take this part of the exam on a laptop (which I highly recommend). The second day is generally the multistate testing day, where you have two three hour periods to take a 200 question multiple choice exam on multistate law (generally this means the majority rule in most jurisdictions) on the following topics: torts, contracts, constitutional law, criminal law/procedure, and real property.
My law school graduation was in mid-May, just two days after I turned in my last final exam. Freedom – for a short while. However, according to Barbri, I was supposed to start studying for the bar exam two days after graduation.
Barbri (as well as most other bar courses) assigns students a study program that tells them what they should be studying at certain times during the summer. Barbri calls this the “Paced Program.” I don’t think it is necessary to follow the Paced Program exactly, though it is useful to follow most of it. For example, the Paced Program may ask you to write four sample essays and take two multiple choice tests on a given day as well as outline your previous day’s notes. If I became too busy with other stuff (e.g. COA clerkship applications), I would shorten this by only taking one of the multiple choice tests and only two or three of the sample essays.
Anyway, right after graduation, Barbri told me that I was supposed to spend five days studying on my own, with each day taking a practice test (without studying for it) and then watching a video about the practice test. The idea of this week was to help prepare students for the types of questions they would see on the multistate portion of the bar exam and to give them a benchmark of where they would stand without studying. I figured that would only take a few hours per day, so I decided to do it. While taking the practice tests and reviewing my answers was helpful, watching videos where a professor discussed every single question and answer possibility was not, in my opinion, worth my time. So I took the practice tests and ignored the videos. On the sixth day, Barbri told me to take a practice 1/2 day of the multistate exam. I took the practice exam and reviewed my answers. That was the end of my first week of studying.
Overall, I’d say that it’s not critical to follow Barbri’s plan for the first week of studying on your own. While it provides some exposure to multistate questions, you’re going to get plenty of exposure over the next two months. So if you have time to do some studying that week, go for it. If not, it’s not a huge deal. You’ll be taking plenty of multistate practice questions over the next couple of months.
INTO THE CLASSROOM
One week after graduation, Barbri classes began. While law school classes, in my opinion, were both fun but often confusing, Barbri classes are super-boring (with some exceptions) but far from confusing. To put it another way, law school professors often hide the ball, whereas Barbri professors spoon-feed you the law.
Bar prep classes such as Barbri teach you all of the subjects you’ll need to know for the bar exam—both the state and multistate portions. However, while you’ll learn something about all of the subjects on the bar exam, the quality of the professors is not consistent. Some professors are clearly better than others at teaching the testable material. However, despite the fact that some professors are not so good, I do not recommend supplementing your Barbri (or whatever course you’re taking) with outside material.
Why shouldn’t you supplement what you learn in Barbri with outside material? There is certainly a temptation to try to learn as much as you can before the bar exam. In law school, if you know more about the tested materials than anyone else, you’ll get a higher grade. Why not the same rationale for the bar? Well, first, the bar is a minimal competency exam. Your goal is to show the bar examiners that you are a reasonably competent lawyer, not show them that you know tons and tons of trivia about the law. In other words, you write the four-part test that you learned, you analyze it, and you move on. Don’t give legislative history, don’t explain why the rule is coherent with legal theory, don’t throw in extra stuff. Second, the bar is pseudo-curved, as I mentioned before. If you learn all of the stuff that Barbri teaches you as well as the average person that took Barbri, then you’ll pass the bar, since so many people take Barbri. In fact, if a lot of people miss a question on the multistate exam, the examiners will often throw out the question so you get no credit for it whether you got it correct or incorrect. Thus, if you just answer the questions in the way the average Barbri student would answer, you’ll likely get sufficient credit for your response. Third, you are going to have to memorize a ton of information to pass the bar exam. If you try to cram extra stuff in your head, it’s going to be even more difficult to memorize the information that is frequently tested. In short, don’t supplement your bar prep course materials (unless you’re taking a really sketchy bar prep course… but if you are, that’s another problem).
Should you go to (or watch online) all of your bar prep course’s classes? In my opinion, yes. While not all of the professors for Barbri (or other bar prep courses) are of high quality, hearing the information presented to you in class will help you start the memorization process. And if you can’t make it to the classroom for the course, Barbri, along with many other bar prep courses, allow you to watch the lectures online. During 2010, Barbri posted videos online for students to view at noon on the day they were to play in class. I’m sure this schedule might differ upon the state that you have Barbri, but that was how it worked in Virginia.
Also, if you’re watching a professor that really sucks, there is a trick you can use if you are on a Windows computer. According to this Abovethelaw post, you can watch lectures at 1.5x speed if you do the following:
1. Start the lecture.
2. Double click on the video to make it full-screen.
3. Hold down control + shift + G, and it will play at a faster speed. To put it back to normal speed, hit control + shift + N.
Although I have a Mac, I did use Boot Camp to run Windows for this trick on two particular lecturers whom I found to be less than effective.
UPDATE: In 2011, some have reported the Barbri 1.5x speed-up trick as stated above does not work. As I am no longer studying for the bar, I don’t know whether this is true or false. If you happen to know more about this issue, or how to fix it, please post a comment below.
In law school, I spent 1 to 1.5 hours after each class outlining the material from class so that I could comprehend how everything fit together and so I could really understand the law. The two main purposes of outlining, to me, were to deeply comprehend the material and to memorize the material (and, for open book exams, as a reference for the exam). However, in law school, when I really needed to memorize material, I made flash cards to drill the information into my brain.
For the bar exam, Barbri suggests that each student outline the material after each class. I don’t think that is a great idea, so I didn’t do it. This is because the material really isn’t hard to learn; as I mentioned before, it’s spoon-fed to you. Moreover, Barbri provides you with two outlines for each area of law, a long outline and a condensed outline, and for some subjects, a super-condensed outline. As a result, the main thing that you need to do for the bar is memorize the material. Thus, I went straight to making flashcards.
The first two days of class, I made physical flashcards on 3×5 index cards. That was a mistake. My wrist really hurt, and I used an entire pen worth of ink in making the flash cards (seriously). It also took four hours per day to make the flash cards.
After that, I decided to make digital flashcards that I could review on my old 1G iPod Touch. The program I used was called iFlash. iFlash works on a Mac and an iPhone or iPod Touch. I’m sure that there are windows programs and programs that work for Android phones as well. iFlash cost $14.95, but it was well worth it.
iFlash allows you to type up flashcards on your computer, import them to your iPod Touch or iPhone, and review them on there or on your computer. iFlash is a gigantic upgrade from making paper flashcards for several reasons: (1) typing is much faster than handwriting, so typing up flashcards saved me over an hour per day; (2) you can share digital flashcards with others easily, so if you decide to study with friends, iFlash makes it easy; (3) digital flashcards are far easier to carry around than the 1,000+ flashcards you’d have to carry around if you made paper cards, and you can review them anywhere; and (4) you can make audio versions of your flashcards to review while you’re in the car if you have them in a digital format.
My recommendation for studying is to basically just try to follow the Barbri paced plan. Go to class, make flashcards for that class, try to do a couple state essay questions or Multistate Practice Question (“MPQ”) question sets each night. Then, every weekend, try to review all of your flashcards. I never actually got through memorizing all of my flashcards in a single weekend. I was able to scan through them all if I wanted, but if I tried to actually memorize each one, it wasn’t happening, even the week before the bar. Also, once again, while it’s important to try to follow the paced plan, it’s not necessary. I didn’t finish all of the assignments on it, but I still passed.
Although I think that reviewing flashcards is the most important part of the bar studying process, I think that reviewing essay questions is important. Some areas of law are hard to get a good grasp of without actually writing out an answer, so taking a crack at a number of essay questions can be helpful.
CRANKING UP IN JULY
No matter how much you study during the early part of the bar exam process, you’re probably going to be worried about your situation in July. Some of the sample essay questions you’ll do will include information that you’ve never seen before (that’s normal – learn it but don’t freak out about it), your MPQ scores might not be as high as you’d like, your friends might be freaking you out, whatever. In any event, July will become a much busier and more stressful month. While it’s not a bad idea to work harder in July to get ready for the exam, know that everyone is feeling freaked out just like you. Although you feel like you’re going to fail, it’s not nearly as inevitable as you might think (I wish I could say that you’re not going to fail, but there’s no guarantee everyone will pass the bar, but the chance of failing is not nearly as certain as you’ll think in July).
That said, DON’T PROCRASTINATE. If you skip a bunch of your classes and try to learn subjects on the bar exam from the ground up the week before the exam, it’s going to freak you out and hurt your studying on other subjects. At the very least, go to all of your classes or watch them online so that you have exposure to all of the subjects before the last days before the exam. I know it’s not “cool” to study hard for the bar exam, but it’s also not cool to fail. Just take it seriously and you’ll be fine.
Through the bar study process, in May, June, and even July, you should not give up your life for the bar exam. Throughout the process, I made sure to keep exercising six days per week for about one hour per day. I took time off each week to see my then-fiancee and to plan a wedding. I’d say that during May and June, I really only studied—class included—for about 40-45 hours per week. Of course, in July, that number increased quite a bit, but on average, I did far less studying than I did in law school.
I think that it’s totally possible to study way less than I did and still pass. However, that might also be a very good way to lose a lot of nights of sleep prior to the date the bar results come out. I’m much happier studying harder and being confident of passing than fudging my studying and hoping that everything works out. That said, I’m glad I didn’t live in the library during the summer. There’s no reason to put in 80 hour weeks when studying for the bar, unless you overly procrastinate and force yourself to do that.
THE EXAM EXPERIENCE
To be frank, taking the bar exam really sucks. If you take the Virginia bar exam in July, you’ll take it in Roanoke, Virginia, a town in southwest Virginia that’s not very close to the population centers of Virginia. It’s about four hours from Northern Virginia, for instance. Roanoke is not a terrible town, it’s just sort of out of the way.
The exam experience starts by driving to Roanoke. I advise listening to lots of relaxing or loud music, whatever is best for calming you down. Don’t just sit in silence or try to listen to audio study tools or anything like that; it will just make you nervous. I think you should just drive down and try to have the best time you can.
When you get to your hotel / bed and breakfast / etcetera, I recommend getting in, then going for a walk or something. Don’t sit around and study for the night. Studying the day before this exam is really just going to freak you out. I went to dinner with a few friends. I was too nervous to eat much. After eating dinner, I went for a short walk. The walk helped calm my nerves a bit, as did talking on the phone with family and friends. I tried to stay away from as many law students as I could except for calm ones. I advise not hanging around students who are going to quiz you on exam topics or be amazed when you haven’t memorized all of page 37 of Barbri’s civil procedure outline.
Try to go to bed early. You’ll be nervous, so it’s not a bad idea to take sleep medicine or drink some herbal tea if that works for you. I surprisingly slept very well the night before the first day of the bar exam.
In the morning, do whatever relaxes you. I went for a 45 minute run and showered. I tried to eat some breakfast, but could not get much down due to nerves. Then I drove early to the convention center so I would not have to worry about being late.
Once you get to the convention center, you’ll wait in a gigantic line before being “checked-in” and sent to your seat. Most people will be in a gigantic room with hundreds of other bar takers. When you get there, get to your seat, sit down, and get your computer booted up (assuming you’re using your computer to take the exam; I think you’d be a fool not to type it). Then, await your instructions, and get ready for the test.
The first day of the exam is essay questions. You’ll have half of the questions in the morning session, then lunch, then half of the questions in the afternoon. I was most nervous for the essay exam because I feared that there might be questions I knew nothing about. As it turns out, there was only one question I had never heard of. For the others, I answered them confidently, just like I had answered my Barbri practice questions. For the question I knew nothing about, I just made up the law, applied my made-up law, and came to a conclusion. E.g. “X should prevail in this motion. In the Commonwealth, to do A, X must satisfy (1) L; (2) M; and (3) N. Here, X satisfied each element [explanation]. Thus, X will prevail.” Note: YOU WILL GET POINTS for analysis if you do this. If you write nothing because you don’t know the law, you will get zero points. You want points, so if you get stumped, just make something up and provide good analysis.
Another note: Virginia is really proud of the fact that it is the “Commonwealth” of Virginia, not the “State” of Virginia. Don’t call it a state, refer to it as “the Commonwealth.” I’ve heard you actually may lose points for using the word “state” instead of “Commonwealth.”
After the first day is over, you will likely be much less nervous. Have some dinner. I pigged out a bit after the first day, as I was famished from not eating much in the morning or at lunch. Feel free to hang out with friends, but I recommend staying away from types that will quiz you on how you did on the essay questions. That will only shake your confidence and make you worried about how you did on the first day. Then, go back to wherever you are staying, go for a walk, and do whatever relaxes you, and then go to sleep.
Day two is multiple-choice, multistate questions (the MBE). Some people prefer the essay questions over the multistate questions. I’m not sure which I preferred, but I was much less nervous by the time I got to the MBE, so I enjoyed it more. Like the state essay questions on day one, the MBE is divided into two parts: one in the morning, then lunch, then one part in the afternoon.
The MBE is full of easy questions, and it is also full of trick questions. The only advice I can give on the MBE is as follows. First, you’ll likely be fine as long as you drilled lots of sample MBE questions during your study time. Second, DON’T freak out about missing one or two questions. You can miss nearly half of the questions and receive a passable score on the MBE. That means you should KEEP MOVING, and don’t spend lots of time on one question. Read the question, answer it if you know it, and guess if you don’t. You can mark your pages to come back and think about hard questions later if you finish early (I finished about 30 minutes early and checked over a number of questions I was uncertain about).
Another thing: lots of people thought it was just swell to leave the exam early. On the MBE, many people left the exam an hour or more early. I don’t understand why someone would find this to be a good idea. You can, and should, spend your extra time checking over your answers (or taking your time on the questions you are answering to avoid trick questions). Imagine if you fail the exam because you missed a couple of MBE questions that you did not read carefully so that you could leave the exam early. Are you going to be glad you had an extra hour to drive home? The bar is really important to pass – it’s worth one final hour of your time.
I wish you all the best of luck preparing for the bar exam. It’s a stressful experience, but so long as you don’t procrastinate, and you take the exam seriously, you will be fine.
I am proud to announce that I completed my first year of law school this spring at George Mason University. Without a doubt, it was the most intellectually challenging year of my life, as well as the most time consuming experience I have ever faced. Yet I certainly learned a lot, and I am glad I decided to go to law school. However, I recall that I was extremely nervous and uncertain the summer before my first year of school. I was extremely worried that I did not have a legal background, that I was not exactly sure whether I could handle the workload, and that I might be over-matched by my classmates’ intelligence. I was also worried that the stress and time commitment might take a toll on my relationship with my girlfriend. I am sure that these feelings of uncertainty are common amongst incoming 1Ls.
But, thank goodness, I made it out of the first year alive. My relationship was not wrecked – it became stronger. Although I met plenty of people who were extremely smart, I held my own and received very pleasing grades (at least for the first semester, still waiting to hear second semester grades) and a summer job at the US Attorney’s Office of DC. I was also able to continue running 40-50 miles per week during the year to stay in shape and relieve stress.
Of course, there were many times during the year that sucked. Big legal writing assignments always seemed to coincide with big weeks of reading for my other classes, which also seemed to coincide with other plans. But there are always going to be bumps in the road, and I made it through them, just as all of my classmates did.
Anyway, that is enough about me. I’m writing this article to offer some advice to incoming 1Ls. Please take it with a grain of salt.
The Summer Before 1L
Honestly, there isn’t that much you must do before your first year begins. Your school might send out a list of books they recommend you read. Mine told us to read three books, and “suggested” we read five others. I read the recommended three books. These books were: “Law School Without Fear” by Helene and Marshall Shapo, “An Introduction to Legal Reasoning” by Edward H. Levi, and “Law and Economics in a Nutshell” by Jeffrey L. Harrison. Honestly, I didn’t get too much out of these books, but some people think Levi’s book is really good. So if you have some time, and your school doesn’t recommend any reading over the summer, you might want to check out Levi’s book.
A book that I read and I think helped me a lot is “Law School Confidential” by Robert H. Miller. Essentially, the book walks you through all three years of law school and recommends how to do your reading, how to study for exams, how to apply for jobs, how to prepare for interviews, and more. It has been extremely helpful and I refer back to it every now and then when I’m in an unfamiliar situation. It’s not a bible that will get you A’s in law school, but it can be very helpful if used with a large serving of hard work.
Speaking of hard work, rest up over the summer. Don’t burn yourself out trying to learn everything about the classes you’ll be taking now. Relax and get ready to work in the fall.
Also, do yourself a favor and buy a nice, reliable computer if you don’t have one already. Make sure you’re comfortable with it before the semester starts. You don’t want to have to learn how to use your computer during the semester. And, if you get a chance, buy your books online rather than the bookstore. School bookstores will always rip you off – you can get your books much cheaper on bigwords.com.
1L: Reading Assignments, Briefing, and Outlining
The two most important things to be good at in law school, according to me, are briefing and outlining. Briefing is where you read a case and record it in a form that you understand and can use to help yourself remember important elements from the case later. Outlining is where you synthesize all of your reading and class notes into a form you can use on an exam.
There are two major ways to brief: note briefing and book briefing. If you note brief (example), you take notes on the case on your computer or on paper as you read, and then refer to that paper later to recall the case. Book briefing is when you highlight or take notes in the book you are reading so that you can refer directly to your casebook later to recall the case.
I began law school by note briefing, because I don’t like using highlighters. But after realizing how slow it was to note brief, and realizing that I had to keep referring back to my book anyway, I attempted to book brief. It actually worked really well for me. I used the method described in “Law School Confidential,” where you buy five different colored highlighters which all represent different elements of the case. For instance: Red (court, judge, holding), Green (facts), Blue (precedent), Yellow (reasoning), Orange (concurrence/dissent). So, if you’re reading a case, and you see the sentence: “Defendant’s cow was fertile,” this would be a “fact,” and if you found it important, you would highlight it in green.
I really don’t think book briefing works for everyone, nor does note briefing. You just have to try both and see what you like best and what helps you recall the information more effectively. I really enjoyed doing note briefing, and I think it saved me a lot of time, but I know lots of people that did just fine note briefing. Do what works for you.
Another important note about reading. Every professor I’ve had says “Don’t use commercial outlines – or you’ll get a bad grade.” The statement should read: “Don’t [exclusively] use commercial outlines.” You can and should use a commercial outline to supplement your reading if you don’t understand something or want to verify something about a case. Commercial outlines aren’t “wrong” even though many professors imply they are written by bozo the clown. In fact, the major commercial outlines are written by extremely smart, well-known groups of law professors. Furthermore, most professors who bash commercial outlines end up agreeing with the outlines on most or every issue. The lesson here is to take caution to go to class and listen to your professor to see if he or she deviates from the commercial outline on an issue. If so, follow the professor. Otherwise, when in doubt, the outline is useful.
A final note about reading and preparing for class. Some people come to class much more prepared than they need to be. Yes, you want to avoid being humiliated by your professor if you get cold called and don’t know the answer. But it does not follow that you need to read every case six times, look up trivia facts about each case on Wikipedia, and make flashcards about that day’s readings. There are some people that will do this early on, or even for much of the semester. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you’re preparing out of your mind for each class, you’re missing out on time you could be studying for other classes, making your outlines, or working on a legal writing assignment. To prepare for class, I generally read each case once, then go back through each case and highlight, and then on the day of class, I skim through the reading before class begins. Sure, I can’t make witty remarks about the background stories of the parties to the case that has nothing to do with the point of law at issue, but if I get cold called, I can get through without humiliation, while still having time to prepare my outlines and study for other classes.
The other extremely important thing to know in law school is outlining. Outlining is essentially where you condense all of the information you learned from reading your casebook and going to class into a form that will allow you to write quickly and accurately on an exam. Most exams in law school are open book and timed – so if you have a handy outline that helps you quickly recall all of the important information you learned over the semester, you should be in good shape. The key here is quickly and important. A 200 page outline for a class will not necessarily do you much good if you haven’t set it up so you know where to find pertinent information in the outline quickly. If at all possible, make your outline as short as possible by cutting out repetitive and/or useless information. My shortest outlines were about ten pages, and my longer ones were 20-30 pages.
For some examples, here are my outlines from my first year of law school (disclaimer: use at your own risk):
[I had to delete these because someone hacked into gimme-five and made them malware – contact me if you want them]
So… when do you outline? How do you do it? Here’s the classic law school answer: it depends. I, personally, preferred to outline after each class. That way the material was fresh in my mind, and I forced myself to keep up with outlining. Some people prefer to outline after covering a “block of material,” for instance, after covering cause-in-fact for Torts. The danger of this “block of material” method is that some blocks are much larger than others, so you might have a lot on your plate when you have a big legal writing assignment due or other classes to outline for.
Strangely, a large majority of the students I knew preferred to outline completely at the end of the semester. This is troublesome to me for several reasons. First, you don’t have the material fresh in your mind, so it is hard to write the intricacies of your knowledge of the law into the outline – and those intricacies are what are going to get you a good grade. Second, it takes a heck of a lot of time to outline, so along with the general stress of finals, you have to stress to get your outline done. Third, there are many important things you should be doing to study that don’t involve writing your outline. But this method seems to work for some people, so don’t count it out.
Additionally, there are many people that don’t outline at all. Once again, this works for some people. But if you’re going to do this, you’d better be really good at organizing your class notes and book notes, and have a really good memory.
Also, if you get a chance, ask 2Ls and 3Ls if they have their old outlines from classes they took with your professors. Don’t just re-use their outlines, but use them to check accuracy on your outline, and to see if you missed any important information.
Studying For Exams
I did a couple things to get ready for exams, which I think worked pretty well. First, I would go through all of my outlines and refine them – take out the useless and repetitive stuff and make the writing easier to understand. Also, review what you said in your outline to get your mind fresh on the topics.
Second, go to any review session your professor offers. Sometimes these are worthless, but generally they are pretty valuable. Come prepared with a few questions, because generally it will just be a Q&A session.
Thirdly, try pre-writing your exam questions. For instance, on a contracts exam, you know you’ll be asked what an offer is, and what acceptance is. Write down the exact words you’ll use on an exam and make a document you can carry with you into the exam. That way, rather than turning in a hurried, poorly written answer, you can turn in a polished answer for questions you know you’ll have on the exam. The professor will appreciate that.
Fourthly, get any sample exams or old exams your professors have on reserve in your school library or from other sources. The more sample questions you can answer before the exam, the more comfortable you’ll be taking the exam, and the better you’ll do.
Fifth, I highly recommend buying an Examples & Explanations book for your class, and reading the examples, answering them, and reading the explanations to see if you got the question correct. Once again, the more example questions you can try, the better. But, please take the “explanations” with a grain of salt, and always defer to what your professor thinks is correct over the explanations.
Your career center will – and should – bombard you with information. Bask in it. I haven’t quite figured out the whole career process yet, so I won’t offer advice on it. I will say that you shouldn’t expect to get paid a lot your first summer unless you’re going to a top-15 law school. Although I’m psyched to be working at the US Attorney’s Office of DC this summer, it’s unpaid, which is sort of painful.
Classmates, Friends, Life & Relationships
It’s not true that everyone is a jerk in law school. Although some people are jerks and cutthroats, there are plenty of genuine, awesome people in law school. Don’t get bummed out if you meet a jerk first, just keep meeting people and you’ll find some new, awesome friends.
Don’t put your life on hold just because you’re in law school. Although I’m really busy, I’ve maintained my long-distance relationship with my girlfriend and continued to run 40-50 miles per week. And I think keeping my life in-tact during law school was helpful in relieving stress. Running, obviously, relieves stress and produces endorphins. Plus, if you run in the morning before you start studying or going to class, it really helps sharpen your mind. If I study first thing in the morning, I always feel groggy and unproductive. But after I’ve gone for a run, I usually feel great, and I feel like I get a lot more done in less time. I highly recommend staying passionate and doing something other than studying during law school (not just drinking…).
Not all relationships work in law school. Some couples are just not prepared for the stress and time commitment. If you have a relationship and you’re about to begin school, make sure you talk it over with your significant other and tell them that you’re not going to get to see each other as much as you used to, and that you’re probably going to be a bit more on edge during the semesters. If you’ve found a keeper, they’ll understand, and they’ll support you. They’ll also provide a much needed ear to talk to, and they can be a wonderful non-law-school person to tell you what’s going on in “the real world.” My relationship is long-distance (4 hours away), but we made it work during this first year, and I’m extremely happy we did. My girlfriend was extremely supportive and understanding when I was stressed out and busy.
One caveat: don’t expect that because you’re busy you can just walk all over your significant other. Having a relationship during school still requires a commitment from you! So many people break up over stuff like this, so please be careful if you value your relationship.
If anyone has any questions about entering law school, please post them in the comments. I’ll try to answer every question I receive.
Update: I have posted a guide to the Virginia bar exam here.