3 Tips for 1L Success (+ Opening Pre-L Course Registration)

We get asked a lot for advice on how to get ready for law school. Once students have climbed the mountain of getting admitted, they often find themselves looking up at a higher—and perhaps even steeper!—ridge when it comes to actually doing law school. So we’ve asked the Pre-L coaches on our team to share a few habits and mindsets to adopt to succeed as a 1L. These apply most to doctrinal classes, but don’t forget that 1L will often have a research/writing methods class and a host of career-related projects to undertake. So be sure to factor those into your strategizing and time management as you prep for success!

In addition to the below, we’re announcing the opening of registration for our Pre-L program. We offer 1:1 tips, strategies, and lessons before you get to campus, so you can hit the ground running. Send a note to info@spiveyconsulting.com to coordinate a call with one of our Pre-L coaches if you’re interested in learning more.

Three Tips for 1L Success in Law School

By the Spivey Consulting Group Pre-L Team

Prepare yourself for a more self-directed learning environment.

If you’re anything like many pre-law students, your undergraduate—and even graduate—study experience was likely characterized by familiar rhythms, milestones, and success strategies. Your homework assignments likely lined up well with class lectures/discussions, with those learning inputs then being tested in your assessments. That alignment likely helped you identify exactly what you needed to learn and when you needed to do so. More direction was likely provided by the fact that there were frequent assessments, projects, and assignments—all offering you opportunities to receive feedback, make learning more bite-sized, and—critically—provide structure to your calendar. You likely knew when to ramp up your studying, what would be tested, and in what format.

This is not how things typically unfold in law school! Instead, law school students generally face a more “self-directed” learning environment, where active strategies like self-testing are essential. (This is in stark contrast to the more passive strategies that got many students through undergrad.) Often there is only one exam (see below); it takes place at the end of the semester, which means you can’t structure your calendar around assessments. It may be quite rare to get direct feedback on work you’re doing—indeed, assignments may not be required of you at any point—and so it can be challenging to know how well you’re absorbing the material. With no clear markers of what to study and when (or how!) to prepare for the all-important exams, many students flounder at the vastness of what’s in front of them.

To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, it will be important to adopt a mindset that is more proactive than you may have had to be as an undergraduate. Be prepared to organize your time more deliberately (there’s a reason time-blocking is a staple element of our Pre-L and 1L Success Coaching!), generate your own feedback (see below), and develop skills and strategies that will go beyond the explicit curriculum to help you prepare for the exam. Also be sure to pace yourself over the course of the semester. Regardless of your experience as an undergraduate, the reading period in law school is NOT enough time to both outline and study for your exams. Treat your studying like a marathon, not a sprint, and begin outlining early in the semester (as soon as you’ve concluded a unit in your syllabus). Aim to have your outlines completed by the START of the reading period, so that you can spend that time studying your outline and using it to test yourself with practice exams (more on this below!).

Studying should involve writing out practice answers to questions.

This one may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how often this tidbit goes unheeded. In the law school environment—where your grade very often depends entirely on your performance on a single blind-graded exam at the end of the semester—your focus needs to be on how you can best apply all the doctrine you’ve been learning all semester on that test. Professors may differ on how much they stress doctrine and formal rules versus, say, policy; but what rarely changes is the weight that one exam holds for your grade. In other words, you can have the world’s best class participation, case briefs, and outlines, but if that doesn’t show up in your exam answer, you’re likely to be disappointed. What this means is that it is essential that you dedicate deliberate practice time to ensure that you bring your A-game on exam day.

How does this look in practice? A few things:

  • Prepare to go beyond reading and briefing throughout the semester. While reading cases (and related materials) is often the only assignment made explicit on the syllabus, many students appreciate that briefing those cases/materials goes hand-in-hand with the reading. What you may also be aware of is the need to outline... and perhaps how to do so. It’s important to combine these unassigned tasks with critical habits of testing your knowledge against the challenges of hypos, multiple choice questions, and other exam prompts. You’ll want to develop the habit of using practice questions—culled from past exams your professor has given, past exams from other professors, questions in commercial outlines and hornbooks, multiple choice prompts from similar resources and bar prep books, etc.—to make sure you actually understand all the information going into your briefs and outline, as well as coming out of lecture and office hours.
  • For instance, while you might THINK you understand the tort concept of negligent entrustment, you will find that simply understanding the doctrine at a conceptual level (i.e., because you learned about it in class and reviewed your notes) is VERY different than knowing how to actually APPLY it to specific facts on an exam. Not even reading practice questions and mentally thinking about how you would answer (while laudable) is as good as actually writing out your answers.You want to practice organizing your answer on the page, making the rule statement explicit, wrestling with key facts in your argument, and incorporating any additional layers of analysis (policy, philosophy, history) that your professor has highlighted throughout the semester. There is simply no substitute for taking the time to write the answer.
  • Learn from your practice. In addition to being great practice, writing out practice exam answers will also give you a sharper sense for how to edit your outline. Good outlines are more than mere summaries of cases and class notes—if that were all that was required you could easily use a 2L/3L outline and walk in on test day ready to crush it. But that’s usually not how it works. You want your outline to achieve a level of design that will instruct you on how to break down challenging problems that your professor will throw at you. When you use your outline to answer practice questions, you will expose any weaknesses in your understanding and approach. You’ll then know those weaknesses need to be fixed, and you can remind yourself of the lessons learned from the experience in your outline. Self-directed indeed!
  • Don’t let the exam remain a mystery for too long into the semester. Ask questions early about exam format and timing; try to unearth how many questions will be asked and of what type; know what materials—if any!—you can bring into the exam with you. Develop a strategy for working with any past exams that may be available.

Remember—you CAN do this, and you DO deserve to be in law school.

As you’ve probably gleaned from the above, law school is both challenging and VERY different than anything you’ve ever done before. Faced with this steep learning curve, many first-year law students start to doubt themselves and whether they “have what it takes” to be a lawyer. This can lead them to grow defeated, adopting a “why bother” approach, or become paralyzed by the seemingly insurmountable mountain of tasks to be accomplished. Don’t fall into this trap! Believe us when we tell you, YOU DESERVE to be in law school, and you can excel as a lawyer! Yes, it will be tough and you will need to work harder—possibly harder than you’ve ever worked before. But you were admitted for a reason, and you now have a roadmap of strategies to set yourself up for success.