Are you a law student looking to do well on your next round of finals? Then buckle down because what you do now matters much more than what you do in the days immediately preceding the exam.
By the end of the semester, my 1L Property students will have read more than 600 pages and have almost 70 hours worth of class notes. Together all those pages and all those notes are an enormous intellectual mountain. The most effective way to climb this particular mountain is to constantly reduce its size.
You whittle away at the mountain by following these steps:
1. read and brief each case Before Class
2. Take careful notes during class
Don’t transcribe every word the professor says.
Instead, listen carefully to the questions she asks and identify what points she emphasizes. That‘s what you should be writing down.
3. Create a preliminary outline
Each weekend, sit down with the readings from the past week, your case briefs, and all your class notes. Combine these three sources of information into a document that we’ll call a preliminary outline.
Chances are that your case briefs included some information the professor never mentioned. Chances also are that your professor emphasized aspects of the case that aren’t in your brief. Take out what she didn’t emphasize and put in what she did. Also correct any relevant mistakes you made.
All the information that appears in the notes after the cases in your textbook? Probably your professor drew your attention to a fraction of it and never mentioned the rest. Include the information she talked about; leave out the rest.
4. Periodically revisit your preliminary outline
Depending on how your class is organized, revisit your preliminary outline about every three weeks or at the end of every unit.
No doubt you have written down more information than you actually need. Sometimes you will have included something you thought was important but have since come to realize is not. Other times you will have written something that now seems so obvious you no longer need it in print.
For example, early in the semester, most of my Property students would have included that trespass involves being on the land of another. Now they all just know that, in the same way they know 2+2=4. They no longer need to see it written down in order to remember it.
5. Reduce the preliminary outline
A week or two before reading period, turn your preliminary outline into a final outline. You’re aiming for a document about 30 pages long.
Much of your whittling away probably will involve the cases. You only need the rule and the most salient facts—the ones that have to do with the court’s application of the rule. These are the facts you would use to compare the case to the hypothetical facts that will show up on an exam. So, again using Property as an example, let’s say a case involves the implied warranty of habitability. What made the apartment unfit for human habitation? These are the facts you want to include in the outline.
With almost the whole semester under your belt, you’ll also find more material that seems so obvious you can’t believe you bothered to write it down. You’ll also find information that no longer seems as important as it once did. Get rid of it.
6. Take practice exams
Once reading period rolls around, take as many practice exams as the professor has made available. Do these with a group so you can discuss your answers. Also eat well and get a lot of sleep. (You’ve earned it!)
7. Create a checklist
The night before the exam, take a single sheet of paper and make a checklist. List all the issues and ideas you anticipate will be on the exam. If the exam is open book, bring this sheet into the testing room. (You can bring your final outline too, but if you’ve followed these seven steps you know that outline so well that you won’t even look at it.)
Is all this an extraordinary amount of work? Yep.
Does it kill every weekend and leave almost no time for the things you truly enjoy? Yep.
Is it effective? Yes!
Really effective? Yes!!
By reducing 600 pages of reading and your class notes to a single page, you’ve whittled the mountain down to its essence. Now you own it, and the students who do best on law school exams are the ones who own the material.
P.S. If you read this and are feeling behind, Spring Break is for playing catch up. And when you're ready, use the link below.