Okay you might be wondering what a post about law school is doing on a financial independence blog. Well I’m a lawyer and I survived law school so I thought why not? Besides, if you’re already in law school maybe you’ll appreciate this. If you haven’t gone to law school yet and want financial independence, I highly recommend (1) avoiding student loan debt and/or (2) getting a high paying job after law school. That means working for a law firm that has corporate clients.
Anyways, back to law school survival. Doing well in law school essentially means doing well your first year (before on campus interviews with employers). Of course, if you mess up your first year it’s not the end of the world. But you’ll save yourself a lot of stress if you get good grades and land a summer internship with a firm (which will in most cases lead to a full time offer after graduation) before even starting your second year.
So in this post I’ll give you a few tips on how to do well. These tips can be divided into three categories: how to survive the Socratic Method (as described in more detail below), how to study for an exam and how to take an exam.
How to survive the Socratic Method
The Socratic Method is a way of teaching by cold calling. A professor will typically call on a student to answer a question about the assigned reading. You may hear something like “Was there mutual assent in this contract?” or “What test did the court use to decide whether there was a First Amendment violation?” The Socratic Method forces students to read and analyze cases in depth before every class so that if called on, they can answer questions like these in front of the class.
But not to worry! There are two tricks to dealing with the Socratic Method, neither of which involve actually reading the case.
Use a good outline for class
First, find an outline that was done by someone who took the exact same class as you. That means the same subject and the same professor. Next, when you go to class each day, be sure to have the outline open on your laptop (or printed out) during the lecture. If the outline’s good, it’ll cover the topics that are taught in the correct order (since professors tend to keep the same lectures unchanged from year to year). Now when the professor calls on you to discuss a case, you’ll have the outline to refer to.
Of course the outline doesn’t replace actually reading the case. In order to ingrain the issues and rules for eventual application on the exams, you’ll need to read and analyze the cases. The outline just keeps you from being blindsided by an unexpected question in class.
In addition, keep in mind that cold calling generally doesn’t affect your grade (unless the professor counts points for good participation). Therefore regardless of whether the outline helps you during class, you’ll still need to know the material inside out in order to do well on the exam.
Preempt the question
If you’re worried that the professor will throw a curve ball at you during class, preempt it. In other words, when the professor asks an easy question, volunteer an answer for it. In my experience, professors like to call on quiet students rather than those who raise their hands and speak up. So once you’ve spoken you’re less likely to be called on for the harder questions later.
So to summarize, find a good outline and preempt. Pretty simple right? Now onto studying.
How to study for an exam
As previously mentioned, having a good outline from a former student doesn’t replace actually reading and analyzing the cases and making your own outline. As you outline, you digest the info that you’ll need in order to attack the exam, which will almost always require you to write essays.
But just as important as reading and outlining is taking an actual practice exam. While not all professors have practice exams, more likely than not the school will have old exams for first year subjects. In my experience, doing as many practice exams as possible can be even more helpful than having a complete outline. Because certain concepts are easier to test, those concepts are much more likely to appear again and again while other concepts will almost never show up. So by doing practice exams, you’ll become familiar with what issues appear often and how to tackle those issues. Those concepts can then be fleshed out more on your outline than other less frequently tested concepts.
In addition, one thing that I liked to do was retype the model answers given for old exams. Since the model answers are usually written by the professors themselves, these answers capture the logic, style and tone of the professors. My theory was that the closer you can get your answers to sound like the model answers written by the professor the easier it will be for the professor to read and grade your paper. So by retyping the model answers, I was able to remember the professor’s voice in my head when I took the actual exam.
How to take an exam
So you’ve studied as much as you can but it doesn’t end there. There’s a specific skill to writing a successful exam answer that largely involves what’s known as IRAC, or issue, rule, application and conclusion. If you know the material and follow IRAC religiously, your answer will be in an easy to read format that presents a well formulated answer. After all, the last thing that you want is to make it hard for the professor to give you points because your essay format is all over the place. Below I’ll go through each of the elements of IRAC and how to implement.
Each section of your essay should start with the issue(s) to be discussed in that section. And the entire essay should start with the overall issue (if there is one). For example if one of the essay questions is “What remedies, if any, does Bob have under contract law?” This section of your essay should start with something like “The issue presented is whether Bob has any remedies under contract law and if so, what those remedies are.” In the alternative, you can simply create a heading titled “Whether Bob has remedies under contract law” or “Bob’s remedies under contract law” and proceed with your rule(s), application and conclusion. Identifying the issue first not only gives the essay a nice structure, it helps as a starting point for a logically sound essay.
Right after each issue, you should identify all of the applicable rules to that issue. This is basically a recital of the law that you’ve garnered from cases and statutes. So now your essay might look something like this: “The issue presented is whether Bob has any remedies under contract law and if so, what those remedies are. Under Florida law, a plaintiff generally may not recover damages for breach of an oral contract for the sale of goods worth over $500.* A good is any object that’s movable at the time it’s identified in a contract. However, the plaintiff may recover on a theory of unjust enrichment. To show unjust enrichment, a plaintiff must establish [list elements of the cause of action].” Once you’ve recited all of the rules on point, then you can start applying those rules to the facts given on the exam.
This is arguably the most important portion of the exam where you can snatch the most points. Even if you’ve incorrectly stated a rule, you can more than likely get partial credit by applying that rule to the facts and offering a robust analysis that argues both sides. So a good answer may start to look something like this: “The issue presented is whether Bob has any remedies under contract law and if so, what those remedies are. Under Florida law, a plaintiff generally may not recover damages for breach of an oral contract for the sale of goods worth over $500. A good is any object that’s movable at the time it’s identified in a contract. However, the plaintiff may recover on a theory of unjust enrichment. Here, Bob’s contract specifies Florida as the governing law. Bob’s contract is an oral contract for the sale of wooden chairs at a total price of $1,200. Wooden chairs are goods because they’re movable. Thus, this is an oral contract for the sale of goods worth over $500. Under Florida law, Bob would normally not have any remedies. However, Bob can argue that he suffered unjust enrichment since [insert analysis based on facts and the elements required for unjust enrichment].”
Note that most arguments in the application section should be supported by a reason so you’ll want to use words like “because”, “since”, “thus”, etc.
After a robust application section you’ll want to state your overall conclusion. Normally, this can be as short as just one sentence saying something like “Accordingly, Bob can recover under a theory of unjust enrichment” or “For the foregoing reasons, Bob has no remedy under applicable contract law.” Again, whether or not you come to the correct conclusion, most of your points will be awarded for the analysis in your application section. As long as you can support your conclusion with sound reasoning, you’ll likely do well on the exam.
So there you have it, my personal toolkit on how to approach law school and law school exams. Stay tuned for a future post on how to study for the bar!
*Note that these rules are for illustration purposes only and are not necessarily accurate statements of law.