Studying for law school exams is a nerve wracking experience. I have been through it a number of times, and in this article I will explain my best strategies for studying for law school exams and obtaining good grades!
Studying for law school exams requires careful preparation, solid time management, and putting in the hours to ensure that you are thoroughly prepared for your exams. Reading the material, outlining, and taking practice exams is extremely important, but you also need to start studying early enough to give yourself enough time to synthesize the material.
In this article I will cover all the tips and tricks to studying for law school exams that have generated success for me when it comes to exams, and hopefully they will serve you well!
Do your readings during the semester
This first tip might seem intuitive, but whether you are a first semester 1L or a second semester 3L, your readings along with all of your other commitments can appear incredibly daunting. Law students tend to skimp on the assigned readings believing that they can catch up at the end of the semester.
Playing a catch-up game with your readings the last two months of school puts you at a significant disadvantage to everyone else that kept up with their readings. While you are furiously taking notes on assigned readings from two weeks ago, everyone else is starting their outlines. A full course load of law school readings is substantial, but putting them off until weeks in the future will have substantial consequences.
Stay away from Quimbee your first year of law school. Quimbee is an awesome and widely used tool among students throughout law school. I have to admit that the folks at Quimbee have made an extremely useful tool that substantially cuts down on the time I spend reading caselaw.
But the devil in Quimbee is that it is so easy to use and their case summaries are short. Many law students rely on Quimbee to reduce their readings, but it comes at the cost of having a limited understanding of your readings. I strongly recommend that you avoid this temptation 1L year because you will miss out on important issues and arguments in the casebook. Once you’re a 2L and time for readings is more sparse then I can understand using Quimbee more frequently, but as a 1L you should focus on reading the casebooks.
Focus on the main points when taking notes
Note taking is an extremely important part of your law school exam preparation because your notes will largely be the base for your exam outlines. There is a certain method that most law students use for note taking and I think it is extremely effective at fleshing out the important issues in any given case.
The note-taking framework that I have found most effective looks like this:
- 1) Facts- This is just a quick summary of the important facts in the case. Usually this is no longer than a paragraph.
- 2) Procedural History- How did the case get to the court? If it’s a Supreme Court case you will often have an initial district court decision and then an appellate court decision before it reached the Supreme Court. This is usually no more than a few sentences, however, sometimes the procedural history can be quite messy.
- 3) Issue- The question that the court is making a judgement on. There may be several questions in the case, but usually this is only one or two sentences.
- 4) Holding- Is the court upholding a lower courts decision or overruling? Oftentimes my holding section is only one or two words, although it may be a sentence or two if there are several issues presented.
- 5) Reasoning- This is usually going to be the longest section and is going to take up the majority of your case reading. What is the rationale for the court’s decision? This section often takes at least a paragraph or two depending on how lengthy the court’s rationale is.
- 6) Important dissents/concurrences- Sometimes you will have a dissent or a concurrence, sometimes you won’t. Concurrences and dissents can be extremely consequential, so it’s important to take a few notes on the more significant dissents and concurrences.
If this note-taking framework seems like a lot that’s because it is, but you don’t need to apply this framework to every case. Many cases in your casebook will be short excerpts that are no lengthier than a page. Don’t waste your time with this framework for these short cases. But if you use this framework effectively for the more substantial cases you will find your outlining process to be significantly more streamlined and you will understand the cases better.
Note taking on a computer vs. hand-written notes. It’s the 21st century and I understand that the vast majority of students want to take notes on their laptop. Nearly every professor at my law school allowed their students to take laptop notes and most students obliged. Studies have shown that students taking notes by hand tend to learn the material better than be computer, but I understand that most students do not want to take notes by hand.
If you are going to take notes on your laptop I strongly advise you to store your notes on google cloud or some other cloud service. Why? One of my friends took all of his notes during the year on his laptop and a week before exams he spilled coffee on his keyboard. His laptop broke down and it took several days and $500 for a tech company to get the data off of his laptop.
During the interim period while he was waiting for the repair he had absolutely no notes or outlines. This is why I strongly recommend that you store computer typed notes on the cloud.
Prepare for exams early
Preparing for law school exams is likely to be a unique experience compared with how you prepared in undergrad. Many readers can probably relate to my exam preparation experience in undergrad. I was a social science major so stereotypically I would postpone exam preparation until a week or so before the test date. At that point I would go into a red bull and nicotine induced fury where I would stay up into the wee hours of the night cramming every last bit of information. Finally, on exam day I would carry my beaten-up and abused body to the testing site where I would dump as much information as humanly possible onto the exam sheets. Once that was completed, I would trudge back to my dorm and sleep for sixteen hours.
I might be exaggerating a bit, but that was largely my exam preparation experience throughout college and it served me pretty well. In law school that strategy is a recipe for absolute disaster. You have to give yourself a significant amount of time to understand and synthesize the material
How early do I need to start preparing for exams? If you have a full course load, you should start synthesizing your notes and outlining 5-6 weeks before exams begin. Most law students have 15 credit course loads each semester during their first year in law school. That is a lot of classes to study for and you should give yourself enough time to understand the law, outline, and take practice exams.
For 2Ls and 3Ls it’s usually unnecessary to start studying 6 weeks out. Most upper-level law students take fewer credit hours and mix in a clinic, internship, and/or pass-fail classes. The fewer difficult courses that have an exam, the less time you will need to study.
Overall, the most important thing to remember here is that you don’t want to wait until your classes end to begin preparing for exams. Law school exams are extremely competitive and that requires you to bring your “A Game”.
Have an exam preparation strategy
Starting your exam preparation early is necessary, but it is insufficient to perform really well on your law school exams. You also need to have a strategy on how and when you are going to study, and what you are going to focus on. Do you have a class that is great for notecards? Which class offer practice exams and how many? You should consider these questions and prepare for exams accordingly.
When I begin preparing for law school exams the first thing I do is I start compiling all my notes from assigned readings and in-class notes and then I format them into an initial outline. I usually have a mix of notes that I have taken by hand and notes saved on my computer that I need to condense before I can start outlining.
After the notes are condensed, I proceed to creating my outline. I’m not really looking at any outlines in my law school’s outline bank just yet because I want to get everything I have onto the paper.
Once I have completed my initial outline I sift through the law school’s SBA outline bank. Your goal should be to find the most accurate and updated outline with your professor as possible. The longest outline is not necessarily the best and personally I disdain outlines that are sixty pages or more. Once I find my favorite outline I compare each section to my outline and if there are any serious inconsistencies I go back into my readings to double-check that I have not missed anything important.
We have a depository of law school outlines available for free!
Once I am happy with my outline it’s time to start taking practice exams. At this point you are probably at least one week from your first final exam. If your professor has them available, I recommend that you take at least three final exams for each subject matter.
After I take my first practice exam I begin to start constructing an attack sheet. Law school outlines are notoriously long and if you want to avoid flipping through 30-50 pages for every issue I suggest that you construct a short and concise 1-3 page attack sheet.
Finally, once I am done outlining, taking practice exams, and creating my attack sheet I get a good night’s rest before the exam. Get a solid night’s sleep before your exam, eat a healthy low-carb breakfast, and dominate your exam!
Pick a good place to study
Finding a suitable location(s) to study in for twelve hours a day is an important task and is frequently overlooked by many students during the first semester. You want to make the best use of your precious time leading up to your law school exams. Lots of students assume that the best place to study is at the law school, and that idea does have some merit. But on the other hand, humans are generally social creatures and the law school is a social gathering place. Even with good intentions to study, you might find it difficult to avoid long conversations with friends and acquaintances, and this will cut down on your studying time.
I quickly learned during my first semester that studying at school was not going to work out. I know that I am a chatterbox and studying with friends nearby simply did not work out for me. The other issue with studying at school was that I like to break up my studying every thirty minutes or so by jamming out to a song. Kind of an awkward thing to do in your law school library.
My advice is to try different places until you are happy with a spot, but if you feel like you are wasting too much time at the law school gabbing with classmates I suggest that you find another place to study. My friends study at all sorts of places: coffee shops, their apartment, public libraries, undergrad libraries, etc. Find what works best for you!
Consider investing in supplemental readings
Some people use supplements during the exam period to help them digest the information covered during the semester. Some supplements are better than others. During my 1L year I had a free subscription to Barbri so I used their videos to help with condensing information. Barbri is a good tool even though at times it covers information that is either 1) too basic or 2) not covered in your class.
If you do choose to purchase a supplemental book or service you are bound to be faced with information that you did not learn in your class. IGNORE IT and move on, it is a huge waste of time to read an Examples & Explanations book cover to cover and realize that half the information will not even be tested.
Create your outlines the smart way
I have noticed that everyone has a different process for how they create their outlines. Some people make extremely detailed and all-encompassing 100 page outlines and others make really short general outlines that are less than 30 pages. A lot of this is personal preference, but if you feel like you need to make a 100 page outline for Torts make sure that you have it structured well, the pages are numbered, and you have a table of contents.
I find lengthy outlines to be difficult to manage during a heavily time constrained exam even with a table of contents, therefore my outlines usually run between 30-50 pages depending on the topic. Last semester my Corporations outline was like 60 pages, but my Federal Income Tax outline was only 28. It really depends on the class and how much material you cover during the course of the semester.
Should I use commercial outlines as a supplement? I strongly suggest that you stay away from commercial outlines. Commercial outlines can be okay to compare to your own outline, but on the other hand classes are taught differently depending on the school and your professor. Therefore most commercial outlines will have lots of information that you do not need and they will likely be missing information that you covered in your class.
Should I rely on outline banks? I strongly suggest that you create your own outline. Some students at my school got into the habit of finding outlines on the outline bank and using them instead of writing their own. There are two major reasons for writing your own outline:
- 1) Writing an outline helps you digest all the information that you learned over the semester and connects the initially disconnected topics and
- 2) if you have any holes in your knowledge or notes you will quickly realize that as you write your outline.
Take lots of practice exams
Practice exams are by far the best way to prepare for a law school exam. They are an even bigger goldmine if your professor gives out model answers (my professors all did 1L year). But you can’t start taking practice exams until you have a good understanding of the information and that is why we outline before we take practice exams.
During my 1L year I preferred to take my practice exams under simulated exam taking pressures, that means under a time clock. If your professor does not allow you to bring notes to an exam take the practice exams without your notes.
If I have model answers, what I do is I take the practice exam and then I compare my answer to the model answer. My Civil Procedure professor even wrote the model answers for his exams so some of the wording and issues he covered I incorporated into my attack sheet for his exam.
Should I use commercial practice exams? I recommend that you stay away from commercial practice exams unless your professor does not offer any practice exams. Law school exams are often personalized to the individual professor’s style and they can vary substantially between professors. My Corporations exam was entirely multiple choice, but my girlfriend took Corporations with a different professor and it was entirely essay.
Create a concise and useful attack sheet
Most law school exams are under some time pressure. Some exams like my Torts and Contracts exams are extremely time pressured and every second counts. These types of exams are stressful, but one of the best ways I have found to make your exam-taking more efficient is to create an “attack sheet”.
Attack sheets are highly condensed portions of your outline. After you take a few practice exams you will probably see a pattern to your professor’s exam style. Most professors have a certain style and they often reuse old fact patterns by putting a minor spin on them. Use this to your advantage by tailoring your attack sheet toward certain issues.
If you have an extremely case heavy class like Civil Procedure it would be helpful to write down the names of cases along with one or two line summaries of what the holding was. This is not enough info to make an argument on an exam, but it is enough to job your memory of a case name.
I usually do not write my attack sheet until a few days before the exam and I edit it after I finish my last practice exam. I usually do my attack sheets last minute because it’s hard to know exactly what you want in your attack sheet until you have reviewed your outline a couple of times and taken some practice exams.
Take your law school exams with confidence
Your exam will probably be on your laptop and if you have never taken a computer exam with lots of other students you will quickly realize that the keyboard typing can get very annoying very fast. Get yourself some earplugs, some law schools give out free pairs in the library but if yours does not go and pick some up.
I had never taken an essay exam on a computer before law school and I did not think to get some before my contracts exam. Thirty people typing loudly on a keyboard caused me an undue amount of stress during that exam and I have not failed to use earplugs ever since.
Get a good night’s sleep before the exam, any studying you get in at 2 in the morning before your 930 AM exam will be offset by your drowsiness.
Bring some water, a small snack (crackers or something), and an energy drink if you go against my advice about getting a good night’s sleep.
I hope this Guide has helped you in preparing for your law school exams! Good luck, with these tips I know you will conquer! In case you need some additional help, check out this article on what to do if you are failing your law school exams.