Don’t lose the forest for the trees: an effective approach to nailing the first semester of law school

1L academic advice
By Eric J.

Law school is a real adjustment for many reasons, but one big one is that students are typically only evaluated based on one exam at the end of the semester. On any given day, it can be easy to stress about the reading you just didn’t fully understand or the cold call that just didn’t go your way. But remember that in the grand scheme, those day-to-day markers don’t really matter. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and don’t lose the forest for the trees.

The Exam Grade is Your Grade

The big mistake that too many first-year law students (and 2Ls and 3Ls, for that matter) make is adopting a day-to-day view of law school, rather than focusing on what will actually be asked of them at the end of the semester: completion of a final exam.

But first, you need to have put in the proper work beforehand. This work can be thought of as building blocks. To do well on the final, you need to have taken multiple practice exams throughout the semester. To take those effectively, you need to have constructed your outline piece by piece after completing each course unit. To construct one effectively, you need to have reviewed and revised your in-class and reading notes at least weekly. Skipping those steps entirely, or as most law students do, cramming them into the timeframe between Thanksgiving break and finals period, is simply a recipe for undue stress and avoidable underperformance.

Why do students make this mistake? Certainly, it’s not because they don’t want to perform well on their exams. Instead, it’s because they get bogged down in the minutiae of each day’s readings and attempts to prepare the “perfect” case brief for class. But ask yourself: What good will that minutiae do you when applying the law to new facts on the exam? Who will that case brief be turned in to for evaluation? No good and no one are the correct answers, respectively. I’ve heard this approach compared to spending all your time preparing for a marathon by choosing your running shoes, reading about running, and focusing on nutrition, then showing up on race day having never done any actual running. Don’t be that runner.

Do Not Fear the Cold Call

Easier said than done, right? But for a moment, suspend your disbelief. Realize that the infamous cold calls are not one of the building blocks referred to above. They have no true bearing on your performance in the standard law school course (notwithstanding the occasional professor who incorporates participation into your grade, but even that is typically based on a good faith effort and the regularity of one’s contributions—not on how perfectly you can recite the twin aims of the Erie doctrine on command).

To let go of our fear of the cold call, we need to adjust our preparation and our expectations accordingly. First, we need to read for class more effectively. Depending on what works for you, that may mean skimming or reading a case brief first to understand the context and speed up your ensuing reading. And second, we need to grow comfortable with being a little uncomfortable in the law school classroom. Recognize that no matter how much we prepare for class, we don’t know exactly what the professor might ask us. If our answer is good enough, that is okay. And even if it leaves much to be desired, that is okay too. I guarantee that your classmates, who themselves are thinking about their own cold calls, will have forgotten about your rough one within a few minutes.

In sum, spending all your time preparing for class because you might get called on is not a prudent strategy. Investing your time in synthesizing your notes, outlining early, and taking practice tests to simulate the final exam is a better one.

Make the Shift

To nail the first semester of law school, we need to lose our perfectionist mindset. For most, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything perfectly—and still rest and practice self-care (which you should be doing, by the way!).

This shift can be hard to make because for many of us, our perfectionist mindset has been our superpower. It’s how we got where we are. But in law school, the game is changed. The only question is: are you going to adapt and change with it?

Eric attended Harvard, concentrating in Environmental Science & Engineering with a Government secondary (cum laude). He is now a JD Candidate at Yale Law School, where he focuses on Energy & Environmental Law, Tax, and Data Privacy.

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