I had a friend in law school, who I’ll call Adam. Adam was a smart guy. He raised his hand frequently in class and asked intelligent questions. He always seemed to know what the professor would ask and just what the professor wanted to hear. He wasn’t annoying, like some of the “gunners.” He was just genuinely interested in the cases we were assigned to read and he was motivated to do well.
The problem was, although he loved the cases, knew them well, and understood them – he couldn’t see past them. He focused all of his energy on the assigned cases. This, oddly enough, seems to be what is encouraged by law school professors. Professors frequently warn law students to carefully read all of the assigned cases and many professors focus their entire class around the cases assigned.
But if reading cases is super-important and if Adam spent all of his time on cases, why did Adam rank in the bottom of our class after his first year of law school? Adam was a smart guy and he worked hard. What was Adam doing wrong?
In truth, everything. On the surface, the primary problem with focusing on cases is that cases do not reveal the bigger picture. Cases show you pieces of the law in a jumbled fashion. Cases are helpful in that they teach students how arguments are made, how judges make decisions, and a lot about theory and policy. However, they are limited in their usefulness. A jumble of legal rules, policy analyses, and judicial opinions is simply not going to give you the bigger picture.
And what that means, is it’s not going to make you an expert on the black letter law.
And what that means – importantly – is that it is not going to get you an “A” on your law school final exams.
Why not? Well, look at what law school exams test. Law school final exams test whether you know the law and whether you are able to apply it to fact patterns. So to get an “A” on your law school final exams you need to do three things:
- Figure out the black letter law.
- Organize it in an outline so you can actually learn it.
- Practice applying it to fact patterns.
While everyone was surprised that Adam did so poorly his first semester, it really isn’t that surprising when you think about it. Adam didn’t even get to Step 1! He didn’t know the black letter law well, he certainly didn’t have a good way of organizing it or memorizing it and he never practiced applying it to any exams. He was on Step 0 – which is to become familiar with the basics of legal language, legal opinions, and new ways to think and argue. By virtue of just being in law school, you will get to Step 0.
So if you have been obsessing over cases, it’s time to move from Step 0 to Step 1. This will help you prepare for law school final exams. It will have the added bonus of helping you feel more confident when you go to class because you’ll be able to figure out how the cases fit into the bigger picture.
So how do you move from Step 0 to Step 1?
First, recognize that cases are not the end-all be-all. Each case is like a puzzle piece – by itself, it can tell you something but not much. Unless you take the time and energy to connect the pieces together all you will have at the end of the semester is a box of puzzle pieces dumped on the living room floor. And trust me, you don’t want to start building that puzzle last-minute. Because it will take a while.
Second, begin to figure out the black letter law. You might figure it out by going to class. But if your professor isn’t clear about what the law is, buy a supplement or something that is clear about what the law is. You cannot adequately prepare for law school final exams if you do not know the basics.
Third, organize it all into an outline. I don’t care if you’re not the greatest at outlining. Check out our posts on outlining (we have an in-depth guide to outlining, how to outline using diagrams, tips on how to learn your outline, where you can find outlines from your professor’s class online, and many more outline tips!) But then, just start writing your outline.
Fourth, practice applying it. Do as many practice problems as you can. You will not get better at the skill of taking law school exams without practicing. We have several blog posts on tips for law school exams (this includes an in-depth guide on how to take a law school exam, and how to take law school practice exams, but if you want to see all of our law school exam posts, you are better off clicking here!
The point to take away from this now is you do not want to wait until study period to do this. It’s best to start this process of condensing, organizing, and internalizing the law early on.