Prepare for Law School:
How to Study Law to Succeed

There are many terrible guides out there on how to prepare for law school.

They are either written by people who never taught students, who never did well in law school, or who want you to work all the time.

This is not such a guide: I did well in law school, I teach students, and I don't want you to work all the time. (After all, this site is called Law School Hacker for a reason.)

In fact, this is the best free, concise guide on how to prepare for law school and how to study law to succeed that you find anywhere.

If this is not the best free, concise guide to law school success, I will eat a shoe.

That is how much I care about you, or how little I care about my digestive tract.

So here it is. My advice is based on received wisdom from friends (especially one friend, who talked with me for just one hour about a month before I started law school) and personal trial and error. I was first in my section first semester (three As and one B+--damn you, Eleanor Fox). I used the methods below to prepare for law school and excel--I graduated in the top 10 percent at a top 5 school without devoting all of my time to studying. Even my first semester, I drank heavily, worked out, and did many extra-curricular activities (later, I did way too much work on Law Review.)

I have confirmed the wisdom of this advice on how to prepare for law school and study law during the first year with other students who did well, and I have given these tips to other friends for free, and I currently use these tips to tutor students who want to get better grades in law school. Most who actually followed my advice on how to prepare for law school and study law got much better grades than they did before.

One last note: To be clear, by "succeed" I mean "get the best grades with the least effort possible."

My definition of success does not include "graduating first from Yale Law School" because I didn't do that.

I am friends with at least two valedictorians from my law school, I learned that they (a) really are smarter than everyone else (b) worked harder than everyone else and (c) were still a little lucky (that luck separated them from #2 and #3) I may yet interview these valedictorian friends who were Supreme Court clerks "How did you prepare for law school?" If they happen to give me their special sauce, I will publish these interviews for members of the community. But use these free tips for now. (Or sign up for my newsletter to the right to get a comprehensive, free 70 page e-book full of advice).

My definition of success also does not include "becoming an awesome lawyer" because, perhaps oddly, law school does not necessarily prepare you to be a good lawyer--practicing law makes you a good lawyer. But more on this later. You want tips on how to prepare for law school now, and how to be a good lawyer later.

Part I: Law school is a giant bait and switch

Before I tell you how to prepare for law school the right way, you have to really understand what law school is really about. Law school is a game in which no one tells you the rules before or during the game. Some people will mysteriously "get it" and others will not ever.

In other words, law school is a giant bait and switch. What you read in your case books and what your professor lectures or grills you on using the Socratic Method bears little resemblance to what you are actually graded on.

That is, you spend most of your time outside of class (less if you follow my advice below) reading cases and all of your time in class listening to a professor grill a student about these cases using the so-called Socratic Method. What are the facts of the case? Was this decided correctly in light of previous cases? Does judge's internal reasoning make sense? Is the judge's decision principled or driven by a desire to reach a certain result? Does the case accomplish the policy purpose of the law that it is interpreting? How would you decide the case if you were the judge? And so on.

Of course, none of these questions have anything to do with what you're tested on. You get none of these questions on your final exam.

Instead, your given a fact pattern full of strange occurrences ("Cain drinks five pints of scotch, gets in a car with a gun, and starts shooting at what looks like Abel, but is really his mother, and then hits a dog, narrowly missing a pedestrian who dies of a heart attack.") and asked a question like "Identify all of the potential crimes and defenses raised."

Huh? you ask yourself after your finals are over. What just happened? Did I not take this class? I did everything that the professor said: read all the cases, go to class, outline. Why did I get straight Bs? I tried to prepare for law school, what did I do wrong?

Here is the key: Law school is not like college or undergrad.

At least the way most people who studied social science or humanities treated college: you do all of the assigned reading, you write down everything the professor says, and if you memorize all of this, you'll get an A on the final exam. The exam tests precisely what you were asked to read and listen to during the semester.

This approach does not work in law school. You need to prepare for law school exams differently than you would for college exams. A law school final exam is like nothing you've ever seen during the year because the professor wants you to apply the law to a set of facts that will not be known to you before. You can memorize all of the cases and all of the professor's lectures, and this alone won't help you on the exam.

So what are you supposed to do? Not read? Not listen to the professor? That is where we get into part II...

Part II: A Hacker's guide on how to prepare for law school and study law

What follow is a list, which is highly generalized but (in my mind) complete) on how to prepare for law school.

What I write is based, as I said, not just on personal experience, but anecdotal evidence and research (i.e., classmates who got As generally followed this approach) and testing (i.e., I teach these techniques to the students I tutor to get them to study in a way that will get them As).

  • Prepare for law school 1: pre-law school preparation by course or self-study That is, read commercial outlines or hornbooks for each of your classes before you start law school. To understand what your professor is talking about and what you need to write down, since he or she will not be clear about it, you need to be somewhat familiar with the basic rules of each substantive area of law before you start law school. You don't need to be an expert, but you do need to have read a short treatise or commercial outline (I'll point you to some in my section on law school books) on all of the first-year subjects: contracts, torts, property, civil procedure, criminal law, and sometimes constitutional law.

  • Prepare for law school 2: Look at old final exams. The first week of law school or even earlier, find a copy of previous final exams given by each of your professors in the subjects they are teaching you. I suggest some helpful law school books here.

  • During the Semester 1: do not write case briefs, just write notes in the margins of your case book. As you prepare for law school, you will hear something about briefing cases, or maybe you will even be taught this. Basically, it involves identifying all the operative parts of a case (facts, procedural posture, holding, dicta, etc.). Do not waste time writing one for each case that you read. Now, I have heard of exceptions--you will hear of people who briefed their cases and got straight As--but this is the exception and not the rule. I do know two people personally who did very well briefing cases. But more on this on my separate page on law school case briefs.

  • During the Semester 2: Do not let fear of humiliation in class push you to over prepare for class by briefing cases (see above) or re-reading cases. Just focus on taking notes. It does not matter at all to your grade if the professor makes a fool of you while subjecting you to the Socratic Method because you can't answer her questions when called on. Class participation can sometimes give you a half-grade bump (B to B+ for instance), but usually nothing more.

  • During the Semester 3: Listen carefully and take careful, meticulous notes on what the professor says. Do not volunteer to talk to much to class, even if there is someone incredibly good-looking you want to impress. Because that's a pretty lame way to impress someone. And when you talk, you don't listen: you mentally prepare your comment and tune out the professor. Also, a corollary to taking careful notes: do not supplement your notes with outside materials, like a hornbook, etc. Your professor is giving the exam at the end of the semester, not the author of a hornbook you happen to buy.

  • During the Semester 4: Meet with a study group, but only for fixed periods and for specific purposes. You should have a study group of 3-4 other people to discuss three things (1) specific concepts one or more of you did not understand in class; (2) your outlines, when you crate them; and (3) your answers to practice exams just before finals. Anything more and you risk becoming a coffee klatch or talking shop that wastes time.

  • Exam Prep 1: Do your outlining early. Start any time but no later than 6 weeks before exams start. If you start too late, you won't finish everything in time before finals. If this is too terse, read more about law school outlines here.

  • Exam Prep 2: Create law school outlines the right way: condense your class notes and creating a network of rules that you can apply to a set of facts you've never seen; compare the results with your study group.

    "Outline" is a terrible name for what should be called "creating a useful combination of checklists and list of rules organized by subject so that you can easily look at a set of facts and figure out how to apply laws to facts. Actually, I am positive that this is too terse, so go read more about creating an outline here.

  • Exam Prep 3: Take practice law school exams and compare the results with your study group. That is, find old exams for your class, set a timer, and take exams under exam-like conditions. This is what you prepare for: outline so you can take a practice exam and see how you do in spotting issues and organizing your thoughts in a limited amount of time. After you finish, compare answers with your study group so you can see what issues you might have missed, or how your friends approached the exams.

While I already included some "do-nots" in my awesome list on how to prepare for law school, I think it worth reiterating these points:

  • Do not waste your time writing up case briefs. Some of my students have done this and, in retrospect, diagnosed this as the single thing that killed their semesters. They were smart, super diligent students, but it was so much work that they did not outline or do practice exams before finals.

  • Do not let your study group become a coffee klatch or knitting circle or MMA arena. Use your time effectively, and limit your time to 2 hours once a week during the semester and no more than twice that during the 6 weeks you spend outlining and taking practice exams.

  • Do not read too many outside hornbooks, supplements, commercial outlines, etc. One reliable outside source per class is enough. You won't have time for more, frankly. You need to understand the black letter law well, but this alone is not sufficient to do well on exams. Again, pick one commercial outline or supplement per class, and move on.

  • Above all, do not panic. I have seen many people intimidate themselves and lose a lot of energy just worrying. Follow my advice on how to prepare for law school and how to work during the semester, and you should be fine--largely because you know you are following a tried and true method. If you don't do fine, life goes on: there are other ways to get to where you want to be, and I discuss them elsewhere.

    For instance, if you don't get great grades your first year in law school, you can still get great jobs by getting on law review or law journal.

    Or you can drop out of law school for a while (I am not kidding) and think about what to do.

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Manny Recommends:

Here are my personal recommendations for products and services that I have reviewed that can improve your results in law school.  This list is short because I include only my top picks.  

LARRY LAW LAW - Get top grades in law school.
Planet Law School - The best book on understanding the law school game.

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