My decision to go to law school was not the most mature or well thought out decision. I chose to go to law school because everyone in my family was either a doctor or studying medicine and I wanted to do something different. I did not have any lawyers in my family and I thought law school would be interesting. I had absolutely no desire to practice law. And I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with a law degree.
But I did have one single goal: I wanted to graduate as the #1 law student. I figured I’d figure out the rest of my life later. And that if I graduated as the #1 law student, some doors would open up and I would be able to get a job I liked. I was fortunate to get a full scholarship to Wayne State University Law School. So at least I wasn’t getting into a lot of debt, even if I had no idea what I wanted to do after law school, I told myself.
Before I went to law school, I did not know any lawyers besides one.
My sister’s best friend’s husband was a lawyer who had gone to U of M law school and worked at a big firm. He was nice enough to answer all of my questions: What is law school like? What is the Socratic method like? What is law review? How do I do well in law school? We wrote Facebook messages back and forth and it made me feel much better knowing that I had someone to go to who could give me advice. If you are going to law school, I recommend you find someone to chat with – even if it is a friend of a friend of a friend (or in my case a relative of a friend of a relative). Most lawyers are happy to talk to you and give you advice. My mentor certainly put up with a lot of questions!
Besides having someone to talk to, I also wanted to have a plan to graduate as the #1 law student. When I was in college, I was a tutor for Chemistry, Spanish, and English, among other classes. When my students were struggling in a class, many times the reason was that they were not working efficiently. They worked hard but weren’t focusing on the types of things that would lead to high grades. So, I would often ask them: (1) What are you being graded on? and (2) How can we improve your scores on whatever you are being graded on? I tried to shift their focus so they could concentrate on whatever would lead to a faster improvement. Basically, instead of just working hard, I wanted them to work efficiently.
Figuring out how to capture the most points in a class was fun for me.
I graduated with a 4.0 in college because I enjoyed doing well in school. This did not mean I was the smartest student. Nor did I complete all the assignments. And I am sure I did not always learn as much or experience the material in the same way as students who were not so focused on grades.
But I took this mentality with me to law school. I knew graduating as the #1 law student would open up a lot of doors. And I viewed it as a personal challenge. So, I asked myself “What am I being graded on in law school?” And “How do I capture as many points as possible on whatever that is?”
Since I knew nothing about law school, I bought a few books that described the 1L experience. I also talked to my mentor. I figured out what law school was all about.
The basic points I picked up were the following:
- Classes are structured around the Socratic method. So while you will be expected to know the law, it might not be crystal clear what the law is solely based on classroom discussion. You’ll have to figure it out some other way.
- You will be assigned a lot of reading. Reading cases will be the bulk of your homework assignments.
- There is not homework that you turn in, and nor are there quizzes or midterms (for the most part).
- Besides legal writing, your grades are basically determined by one exam at the end of the semester.
- The exams in law school are different than undergrad exams. They are mostly essays which test critical thinking.
So law school was much different than undergrad.
In law school, you don’t have much feedback or direction. Classes seemed intimidating. Most of what was assigned outside of class was reading cases. But final exams were not set up to test cases — they tested critical thinking skills and whether one could apply the law to a tricky fact pattern in a short amount of time.
This was scary and yet exciting at the same time.
Over the course of the summer before law school, I developed my approach to law school. I asked myself the two questions I had become accustomed to asking my students:
What am I being graded on in law school?
Only the final exam. The final exam is all that matters. Nothing else matters.
How do I capture as many points as possible on the final exam?
Look at what the final exam tests. It tests two things: (1) Whether you know the law, and (2) Whether you can apply it to crazy fact patterns.
So how do I learn to learn and apply the law? The general strategy I had centered around these viewpoints:
- Cases are overrated. I will not read every case. And I will not brief any cases. Instead, I will skim cases, make uses of casenote legal briefs so I can follow along in class discussion. I am not going to get caught up in this cases-are-everything frenzy that every 1L seems to get caught up in. Knowing a case really well has little correlation to the final exam.
- Outlining right away is super important. I will start outlining from the very first day of class and I will memorize my outlines from the very first day of class and dedicate time to memorization each week. So, by the end of the semester I will know the law cold.
- Law school exams are different than undergraduate exams so I need to perfect the science and art of taking law school exams. I will begin to practice problems as soon as possible and practice them throughout the semester so that by the time I get to the final exam, it will seem easy (or at least not impossibly hard!).
My motto throughout the semester was “memorize and apply.” I would outline the law, memorize it, and practice applying it. I did this obsessively each week. I did not type notes in class. Instead, I scrawled them out then I typed up my outline after class. I simply carried a wide-ruled notebook around with me where I kept lengthy to-do lists–all focused on memorizing and applying the law. I worked hard, but mostly I was determined to focus on efficiency rather than just the hours I put in.
And it worked. I graduated as the #1 law student.
I was nervous that it would not work. Part of what I was nervous about was I only spent 10-15% of my study time on cases. I just did not see case-reading or briefing as being an efficient way to get high grades.
None of my friends started outlining early and most obsessed over reading and briefing cases. Most didn’t even look at a final exam until study period, if they even looked at one at all. They took the opposite approach as me. But while this made me nervous in some ways, in other ways it made me feel better. After all, if you do what everyone else is doing you will get the grades everyone else is getting. You will be average. But, if you do something different, you will get a different result. And that was my goal.
A few things myths about graduating #1:
“To graduate as the #1 law student, you must be the smartest person in your class.”
False. If law school grades were determined by intelligence, I would not have graduated as the #1 law student. You do not have to be the smartest person in your class to graduate #1.
“To graduate as the #1 law student, you must be a naturally good test taker.”
False. I was not a natural test taker. I did well on the LSAT but I was no expert at standardized tests. The good news is, you can learn to be a great test taker.
“To graduate as the #1 law student, you need to work nonstop and make law school your whole life.”
False. I took one day a week off every week in law school. There are a lot of people who study nonstop and do not graduate as the #1 law student. The key is to work efficiently and put in time. But you do not need to work nonstop or center your entire life around law school.
In some ways, you need a combination of all of these three things. You need to be smart (which you are or you probably wouldn’t get into law school). You need to be a good test taker or learn how to take tests (but you don’t need to be a “naturally” good test taker). And you need to work efficiently and put in the time. However, one of these things alone will not necessarily lead to graduating #1 in your class.
What was graduating as the #1 law student like?
It provided a great sense of accomplishment. I was not interested in a big firm job after law school. And though I did not have a desire to practice law, I ended up doing civil litigation in a small firm for a few years before starting this company, which is my absolute passion and dream job.
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