How To Catch Up When You’re Behind In Law School
You open your class syllabus and find today’s date. You scroll up the page to find the most recent reading you completed. Staring back at you is the suite of readings listed for a few days, or even the past several weeks, that you have yet to complete. Looking ahead, you see that the assignments aren’t going to slow down anytime before the final exam. You may feel overwhelmed, you may feel discouraged, you may feel anxious, and you may even think about giving up. Take a deep breath (inhale-exhale). Finding yourself behind in law school is not upcoming, and it can certainly be stressful. We’re here to tell you there is almost always still an opportunity to succeed, to help you catch up in law school and find a path back to success.
How To Catch Up When You’re Behind In Law School
In this post, we discuss
- Foundational strategies for time management and efficiently briefing cases;
- Strategies to help you focus your time; and
- A few quick-tip lifelines when you’re truly pressed for time.
A vital step for catching up in law school is to identify why you fell behind in law school. This step requires you to be honest with yourself and critically look at the study habits you’ve formed to date. This includes both your overall time management as well as how you’re reading and briefing cases.
Often, being behind in law school is a result of time management. For many students, law school creates the most demanding schedule they have ever had to navigate. Not only do you have your reading assignments for doctrinal classes, but you also have writing assignments, research projects, moot court, law review, clubs and organizations, and volunteering – just to name a few. Many students also have families to support, jobs to maintain, and mental and physical health routines to sustain. If you feel overwhelmed, it makes sense. You have a lot on your plate!
Before your time management skills can improve, it’s key to identify how you spend your time now. One helpful tip is to create a calendar for your week.
To start, fill in every minute of your day for the week to identify where you’re spending your time. Identify how many hours a week you’re actively in class and reading cases. Identify the time you’re preparing for class in ways other than reading. This might include the time you spend doing practice questions, synthesizing notes, etc. Fill in the time spent on extracurriculars related to law school. Identify how much time is spent on non-law school activities, including social media, television, hanging out with friends, doing chores, getting ready in the morning, and commuting to and from work and school. Don’t be afraid to get into the minutia of your daily patterns. That’s often where you can find the easiest places to reclaim more time!
This is not to say that you shouldn’t make time for anything fun while in law school. In fact, you should intentionally plan and prioritize fun and re-energizing activities! A regular yoga class, a bi-weekly gathering with non-law school friends, evening walks, monthly game nights – whatever brings you joy! Having that fun time may actually increase your ability to stay focused and motivated to keep up with and complete what you need to do because you rest in the confidence that the re-energizing activity is going to come up on your schedule soon. But, that energizing time has to be managed to allow you the time necessary to get caught up.
After you have finished your schedule revealing how you’ve been spending your time, look for areas that you can adjust. Can you become more efficient? How can you streamline your day? Where can you reorganize your daily patterns so that if you do not complete everything in the day, you still completed the most important readings and assignments? Once you’ve identified the areas you need to give more time and the areas in which you can reduce time spent, build a new schedule for how you are going to spend your time. For help creating your weekly schedule, check out our post: What should my weekly law school study schedule look like? The key is to protect your time and rigorously abide by your new schedule.
Reading And Briefing Cases
One challenge to time management is the reality that class readings and case briefs take significant time to complete. It is not uncommon to have several cases to read for any given day of any given class. This can amount to hundreds of pages of reading a week. The time compounds with interest when you factor into the equation the time required to briefcases.
Analyze whether this may be why you’re behind in law school. Are you spending too much time reading and briefing cases? Perhaps you have room to grow in your efficiency while reading cases: How to Read a Law School Case. Maybe you know how to identify all the right information, but it just takes you a long time to do so, and so the speed is your area of growth: How do I speed-read cases in law school? Are you able to comprehend while reading quickly, but your briefing is taking a lot of time? Check out our blog post, How do I brief a case?
The lesson here is to recognize that everyone has different strengths and different areas for growth. Additionally, when you begin law school, reading cases and having detailed briefs can feel so very important. It is… but the cases alone won’t prepare you for your final exam. If reading and briefing are coming at the expense of understanding the law, at the expense of reviewing class notes, at the expense of outlining throughout the term, or at the expense of completing practice questions and engaging with the material, it’s likely prudent to adjust your reading and briefing habits.
Focus Your Time
Now that you have a beautiful schedule, it’s time to look at how to use those hours most efficiently. The hard truth is that you may not be able to fully catch up when you’re behind in law school. However, this doesn’t mean your opportunity to succeed is lost.
Black Letter Law
In law school, typically, the final exam is the primary, if not the only, basis upon which law students are graded. Law school exams generally focus on the black letter law. As such, your time is likely better spent memorizing the elements of a rule as opposed to the history of that rule. Your time is likely better spent taking practice exams rather than sorting through the messy procedural history of the case to be discussed in tomorrow’s class. Practice writing or typing out the rules and practice breaking apart the elements of the rule to be able to quickly build your analysis structure during the exam. Unless your professor tells you otherwise, history and nuance can certainly be interesting, but it is rarely vital for success on exams.
Professor’s Key Topic
Professors rarely spend significant time on a topic they do not plan to include on the final exam. There is always the chance that a professor will want students to discuss that one, intellectually captivating and complex, nuanced holding from that stand-alone case. But remember, final exams are all about gathering the most points possible. The nuanced singular issue may earn you a few points, but if not knowing or understanding the core rules for the term is the cost of learning the nuanced minority rule, let the nuanced rule go. One example of this could be a Tort class where your professor spends two weeks discussing intentional torts, and one case on the issue of instructions and labels in product liability cases – prioritize mastering the elements and analysis for intentional torts, and secondarily review the product liability issue as time allows.
It is easy to focus on assignments when talking about being behind in law school. However, sometimes you may find that you are keeping up with the reading assignments just fine, but what you are actually struggling with is understanding the law. If this is the position you find yourself in, one of the best strategies you can implement is your professors’ office hours.
Most professors will have designated time available to meet with student. Others make themselves available for a meeting upon the request of a student. This is a time where you can dig into topic areas with which you may be struggling one-on-one.
The time spent during office hours will be most beneficial for you if you arrive prepared. Have a list of specific questions prepared to discuss with your professor. Perhaps try a practice question or two and discuss your response(s) with your professor. Identify the specific step in an analysis where you’re struggling. Then, ask your professor for tips to refine your application of the law to that section.
Each professor will handle their office hours differently and have different expectations for what students bring to the meeting time. But very often, when utilized well, office hours can save you precious time and help you catch up in law school.
Capitalize On Class Time
When students are behind in law school, it can be tempting to skip class and use that time to study. And honestly, if you’re behind in law school, the anticipation of being cold-called can cause a lot of anxiety. Sometimes students find that avoiding class feels like the easier path. However, being consistent with class attendance can significantly help students from falling further behind in law school.
Class time is time you already have allocated in your schedule. It is the one place where you can count on having the correct answer handed to you (even if it is through another student answering the professor’s questions). Class is where professors will highlight and explain aspects of cases they actually want you to know and learn. Class is where you can hear other students’ ideas and analyses and hear the professor’s affirmation or correction of those ideas and analyses.
Even more than being sure you attend class is being sure you actively attend class. In other words, remove distractions, take notes (in whatever format works best for you), and ask questions. It can be intimidating to ask questions in front of other students. However, the pain of misunderstanding will be exponentially worse during the exam than it is during class. Rather than spinning your whells in the library late at night alone, try gaining clarity from the very person that will be grading your final exam – your professor. Attending and actively engaging in class is a key strategy to catching up in law school because it helps prevent you from falling farther behind without requiring you to put in additional time.
Keeping in mind all we’ve discussed, we recognize that there are circumstances where students simply do not have time to revamp their time management. For example, professors sometimes cut off office hours leading into exams or classtime might not be meeting your needs when it comes to understanding course material. In times like this, there are a few final quick tips to catch up in law school. One could call these tips vital law school “lifelines”:
- Seek support from the academic resource program at your school. The very purpose these programs exist is to help students succeed and it will be better to seek help yourself as early as possible before participation in supplemental classes becomes a necessary element of your law school academic planning.
- Get notes from classmates. While law school can be a competitive environment, more often than not, students want to look out for each other and help each other succeed. Reach out to a classmate and ask if they are willing to share their notes with you. This can be incredibly helpful, especially if you’ve missed classes or are running short on time. Not sure who to ask? Find a friend who recently missed class and ask if they would like to swap notes!
- Ask students who already took the class to share their outlines. Ideally, you will be able to find another student that took the course from the same professor you had and ask them to share their outline. Some affinity groups also have outline banks that you can gain access to by joining the groups.
- Talk with students who have taken the exam from the same professor and get tips about how the professor tests. Every professor has their own testing style, their own favorite topics to test, and their own particular expectations about how students address issues. So often the exam can feel like a big black box. Talking with a student that has already taken the course’s exam can shed some light and ease some test anxiety. A caution though – exams change every term and what a professor tested one term may not be tested the next term. So whatever happened in the previous exam session should only be used as a rough gauge and general guidance, and you should still prepare for your exam as thoroughly as possible.
Finally, stay positive. Remember your value and potential for success are not solely based on any single assignment or exam. Take it a day at a time, key your eye on the horizon and your long-term goals, and remember how much you’ve already accomplished and trust your ability to succeed!