Tips Before Starting Law School

Young law students in a classroom looking stressed over a problem they are assigned.

Jim Sugar / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images

If you're beginning your first year of law school you are probably feeling a good deal of stress. Perhaps you are wondering if you made the right decision. Luckily, there are tips available to help you prepare for and survive your first law school year—also known as L1.

There are many challenges you must overcome quickly in L1. These include demanding academic and heavy course loads, tons of reading, and gaining an understanding of the unique grading system.

Improve Your Reading Speed and Comprehension

Law schools teach students to “think like a lawyer” through the appellate case method developed by Christopher Langdell of Harvard Law School in the late 19th century. The appellate case method of instruction—embraced by nearly all U.S. law schools—encourages students to review appellate court decisions. The student will analyze the judge’s reasoning and findings and deduce general legal principles from specific cases.

During the course of your first year of law school, you will be required to read and brief—or summarize—hundreds of cases. Students are typically assigned about 30 pages per credit hour, which amounts to approximately 450 pages per week. To tackle this large volume of reading, you must learn how to read quickly while comprehending complex material.

Comprehension is as important as being able to read through all the pages. You have to be able to pick out the pertinent information and connect diverse pieces together. Then you must be able to take this information and communicate it to others. Comprehension requires you to pull from your experience and language as you read to form new meanings and understandings of the written text.

Experts say that the brain is a complex information processor capable of processing and comprehending complex information at greater speeds through practice. Before you begin your L1, you may want to complete exercises or take courses that will help improve your reading speed, comprehension, memory, and problem-solving abilities.

Sharpen Your Writing Skills

Exceptional writing skills are essential to every first-year law student. A large part of the law school grading process rests on your ability to craft a well-written essay. You must be able to:

  • Analyze and gather information
  • Identify issues
  • Organize your data
  • Draft a well-reasoned argument
  • Sum it up with a conclusion

Moreover, your response must be delivered in clear and concise prose under tremendous time constraints. Like any skill, essay writing takes practice. You can brush up on your writing skills by taking pre-law writing courses, completing practice exams, or reading resources on the craft of writing.

Create Solid Note-Taking Habits

The last-minute crammer strategy to study for exams will not work well in law school. It is nearly impossible to learn or memorize a large amount of information covered during the course of the year in a few short days. You should complete the required reading and create notes as you read that condense the primary points. These notes will make it easier to review the subject matter later, before an exam.

Time management is essential to success in law school. The tremendous volume of reading will require you keep up with course materials and assignments. You must pace yourself and learn to outline and study the substantive and procedural law on a consistent basis.

Studying as a Full-Time Occupation

Studying will become a full-time occupation. Some advisors will tell you to expect to spend two hours of study time for every single hour of class time for each subject you are taking. In most schools, you will have about 15 hours of class time each week, so, you will need 30 hours of quiet study time—a total of 45 hours each week.

Another rule of thumb states three hours of study time for every hour of class. However, every course will vary on the amount of time you will need to devote to it alone. Create a study schedule at the beginning of each term and adhere to it. Join study groups to brainstorm ideas and gain input from your peers.

Purchase Commercial Study Aids

Briefing cases and outlining black letter law—well-established laws—can be tedious, time-consuming, and confusing. Fortunately, a variety of commercial study aids are available to help you master complex concepts, supplement classroom notes, and aid in preparing for law school exams. Study aids can be helpful if you use them appropriately, but they should not replace your own efforts in preparing course outlines. A few of the most popular study aids are:

The Emanual outlines include editions that focus on contracts, criminal law, civil procedures, corporate and business law, and many other topics.

Stock Up on Important Resources

A number of important tools can increase your success in your first year of law school. These include:

  • Black’s Law Dictionary is the “bible” for lawyers defines legal terms and provides pronunciation—so you don’t look like a fool in class.
  • Strunk & White Elements of Style is the classic manual on the basics of English usage that can help you ace legal writing assignments and essays.

Incoming and first-year law students may want to read up on issues surrounding law school. You may want to read about how law school works, the fundamental workings of our legal system, the Socratic Method, and the law school experience in general.