Weekly Pearls of Wisdom: Archives
August 29, 2005
Consult a Dictionary
Keep a legal dictionary
nearby when you are reading cases. Mastering the definitions of
legal terms will aid in your understanding of the law.
Case books are loaded with legalese, specialized
words and terms of art used in the legal profession. These new
words and phrases often lead students to question if they are
actually reading English or deciphering Latin code. Yet, understanding
the meaning of these words and phrases is an important part of
legal education. Knowing the definitions and usage of these words
is often critical to understanding the case or legal concept being
studied. Don’t just skip over words that you don’t
know; take the time to look them up in a legal dictionary. If
you haven’t yet purchased a legal dictionary, consider buying
a smaller, paperback version that you can bring with you to where
you study. Write the definitions either in the margin of your
case book or in your notebook. This simple practice will help
you to be more prepared for class while also allowing you to begin
to incorporate these new words into your new legal vocabulary.
It will only be a matter of time before words like res ipsa loquitor,
estoppel, ex post facto, de novo, and in camera are familiar to
September 5, 2005
Reading and Highlighting Cases
Many students benefit
from the increased understanding they gain from actively reading
each case twice and being actively engaged in the reading process.
Most new law students face challenges reading cases
due to the strange format, difficult language, and often unusual
subject matter. Yet, students’ comprehension of case material
is critical to following the class discussion. Therefore, many
authorities recommend that students read each case two times.
The first read through is just to get the general picture of what
is happening in the case. The second reading is more detailed
and active. During this second reading, you should start identifying
the critical aspects of the case as outlined in a case brief and
think about what you are reading and how it fits into the big
picture. You could also consider highlighting the important parts
of the text.
Let’s talk a little about highlighting…
Highlighters should be used sparingly, and only during the second
read through of a case. Students often confuse active reading
with highlighting the entire page. After you’ve read the
case once, go back and highlight only the important aspects of
the case. By bringing attention to certain key areas of the case,
you will be able to easily find this information if you are on
the “hot seat” in class.
Don’t confuse your case book with a coloring
book. If the entire page is yellow (or green, or blue, or pink),
you’ve gotten carried away!
September 12, 2005
Visit Professors at Their Offices
Professors may be challenging
in class, but they are available after class or during office
hours to answer your questions.
Whether it is caused by the size of the class, the
assigned seating, the course material, or the formal professor-student
interaction, law school classrooms can be intimidating. When professors
employ the Socratic method, the endless stream of progressively
more difficult questions can leave many students confused. Even
the most simple and clear reading assignment the night before
can become a nightmare in class.
Don’t despair if you leave class more bewildered
by legal principles than when you entered the room seventy-five
minutes earlier. Many students blame this feeling on the professors’
hiding the ball or offbeat teaching style. However, this level
of ambiguity and classroom psychology are parts of the legal learning
process. This feeling is intentional and you are not the only
one experiencing it.
Yet, sometimes professors’ attempts to get
students to think in class can result in true puzzlement or uncertainty
about a topic. If you have a question or want to test out your
understanding of a subject, visit the professor in his or her
office to talk about the material. Come prepared with specific
questions; you can’t expect a professor to reteach the entire
course during an office visit. Most professors have a different
demeanor in their offices than they do in class. They are more
than willing to help you gain an understanding of the material.
However, don’t be surprised if the professor
still asks you a few questions…
September 19, 2005
Edit Your Briefs
When preparing for class,
briefs show your attempt at understanding how the court resolved
an issue in a particular case. To get the most out of the briefing
process, make sure to correct the information in your briefs either
during or after class. Corrected briefs are invaluable tools for
review and preparing for exams.
Brief your cases. Every first year law student has
received the advice, particularly from professors, that every
case should be briefed prior to class. You’ve all had extensive
instruction on briefing from your legal writing professor and
teaching assistant. Briefs are very helpful tools for sorting
out case information and organizing the substantive law derived
from cases – if they contain correct information.
Most law professors, especially those that use some
form of the Socratic method, begin class by asking questions about
the assigned cases for that class. Typically, the on-call student
must recite the facts of the case, state the holding of the case,
and explain the court’s reasoning in making such a decision.
Hidden beneath this somewhat-mechanical practice, the professor
is attempting to assist students in understanding the facts, the
rule of law, and how that rule is applied to the facts. Becoming
proficient in this legal reasoning process is critical to succeeding
on law school exams and learning the skill of “thinking
like a lawyer.” Either during class or shortly thereafter,
you should make sure to correct your brief for any mistakes, particularly
when it comes to critical facts, the issue, the rule of the law,
and the court’s application of that rule.
In particular, consider whether your statement of
the rule was worded in exactly the same way as the professor stated
it in class. This may vary from the way the court articulated
the rule. Even though both are probably correct, the professor
is grading your exam; make sure to learn the rules using the same
language as the professor.
September 26, 2005
To Begin or Not To Begin
Most student benefit from
starting to make outlines early, but not too early. Consider beginning
outlines once you have completed the first major section of the
Outlines are the result of summarizing the materials
from a class into a condensed, readable format that organizes
the law and its applications into a logical order. Outlines are
self-created study guides for a particular class. If done effectively,
the outline, and the process of making it, becomes the primary
resource for preparing for exams.
When should you start outlining? Of all the advice
provided to first year law students, this question may pose the
most controversy and debate. There is no specific date by which
you must start outlining, but it is possible to wait until it
is too late or to start too early.
Most students need to start outlining by the midpoint
of the semester. Everyone has heard stories of students who waited
until Thanksgiving (or later) to begin outlining and ended up
on law review. Remember that these stories are shocking because
success from this approach is so rare. On the flip side, it is
detrimental to start outlining during the first weeks of classes
because there hasn’t been time to develop a comprehensive
understanding of the topic.
Consider starting to outline for a class once you
have completed the first major topic on the syllabus and then
continue to add to the outline after the conclusion of each discrete
section. By outlining early, the information will still be fresh
in your mind. Set a goal for yourself of trying to have your outlines
completed early during the reading period prior to exams so that
you can use them while studying and taking practice exams.
For more information about formulating outlines
and flowcharts, please attend the ASP workshop on Creating Outlines
October 3, 2005
Ask a Reference Librarian
When struggling with legal
writing assignments, don’t forget to seek out Reference
Librarians for help and advice on your research strategies.
The Downtown Campus Library has an endless supply
of information and materials to help students research legal concepts.
However, when doing research, students often overlook one of the
most valuable resources, the Reference Librarians.
Quite simply, Reference Librarians help you find
information and sources in the library. They provide advice on
research strategies for both electronic and book research, including
digests and other reference books. As experts at legal citation,
they can decipher all those confusing numbers and abbreviations
for you. If you are unsure about how to even start your research
project, a Reference Librarian can give you ideas.
Reference Librarians are in the library every day.
Their hours are:
Don’t wander around the library confused and
uncertain about how to approach your legal writing assignment
or research paper. When you have questions, you can find a Reference
Librarian on the 9th floor of the library.
For more information about library resources and
services, visit the library website at http://library.kentlaw.edu.
October 10, 2005
Make Time for Reviewing
Around the eighth week
of the semester, make time to review all courses. This review
will be a great preparation for outlining and studying for exams.
Although we’ve all heard tales about students
who barely studied for law exams and did exceptionally well, this
is hardly the norm. Cramming may have worked as an undergrad,
but most students find that there is too much material covered
in law schools classes to learn it a few days before the exam.
If you haven’t already started reviewing your
course material, now is the time to begin. When you are planning
your schedule for this week, set aside time to review all your
classes. Look to a professor’s syllabus and see which sections
you’ve covered in their entirety. These are the sections
Some students find that rereading class notes and
case briefs is all they need to do to review. Most other students
need more structured review processes. For these students, it
can be helpful to create a list of topics (not cases) covered
in the class so far. You may be able to find these topics listed
in a course syllabus, the table of contents in your book, or your
class notes. After creating the list, see if you really understand
the nuances of each topic. Can you explain a rule and its elements?
Do you know the exceptions to that rule? Are there any important
cases that help determine the application of the rule? How does
this topic relate to the other topics on your list? (When you
write down the answers to these questions in a clear, concise
format, it is called “outlining.”)
Don’t despair if you come across concepts
that you don’t understand. This is an excellent time to
consult hornbooks and other study aids to see if those summary
explanations improve your understanding. If this doesn’t
work, seek out help from a professor, teaching assistant, or your
Doing the first comprehensive review of all of your
classes is often the most time consuming and stressful part of
studying in law school. If you complete an initial review for
all classes and get yourself up-to-date now, you will be able
to do shorter weekly or biweekly reviews for the rest of the semester.
Putting this time in early will make your life much easier come
October 17, 2005
Forming a Study Group
With the right combination
of commitment, planning, and organization, it is possible to
form effective and productive study groups.
A well-managed study group can benefit your legal
education. Many students use study groups as a support system,
motivator, and sounding board. Students in groups might discuss
materials before class, challenge each other with hypotheticals,
create outlines, or examine practice test questions. However,
some students find group study to be a distraction from really
learning course content. Whether to form a study group is really
up to you.
For students who want group study, the hardest
part can be finding other classmates to be part of your group.
Your study group does not need to be made up of your best friends,
but you do need to respect the members, be confident in their
commitment to the group, and feel comfortable sharing work with
them. The number of participants in your group really depends
on the purpose of your group. Some experts argue that the ideal
number of members is three. Yet, many students feel more productive
with just a study partner while other groups function well with
four or more members.
Once you’ve found some like-minded classmates
to work with, the keys to a solid study group are organization,
trust, and commitment of all the members. Your study group should
have ground rules, schedules, and agendas. Some questions to answer
during your first meeting are:
• When and how often will the study group meet?
• Where will meetings be held?
• Who will facilitate the sessions?
• Who will keep the group on task (i.e. make sure that the
meetings don’t become therapy sessions for unhappy and frustrated
• What is the attendance policy?
• What is the end goal or purpose of the group?
• What will be done to make sure the goals are reached?
Please remember that study groups are still only
supplements to individual learning and understanding. A study
group can never be a substitute for completing reading assignments
and reviewing the concepts on your own.
October 24, 2005
Taking Better Notes
You can simplify your
notes by focusing on five fundamental elements for each topic
discussed in class.
As you begin the process of reviewing class
notes and outlining, you may notice that your class notes
aren’t sufficient or coherent. Taking notes in class
is a difficult skill to master. Most law students are not
stenographers. And, even if you could write down every word
uttered in class, it is unlikely that you would find your
notes very helpful when it came time to study them. In-class
note taking is a three-step process: listening, extracting,
and writing. You need to listen to what is being said; extract
and evaluate what is important and relevant; and then choose
what to write down (or type) in your own words.
If you are a person who finds it difficult to
listen to the class discussion and contemplate the reasons
of the law at the same time, you might find the following
steps useful. For every legal concept covered in class, your
notes should include:
The rule of the case;
Elements that make up the rule;
An explanation of the court’s reasoning;
A list of facts or factors in the case that
prove the rule; and
Notes about the professor’s opinion
of the case or any public policy implications.
Make sure to listen to the professor. If a professor
has emphasized a particular element or policy, then make a
notation by it in your notes. Some students will write “prof”
or place a star in the margin by these statements. If you
type your notes, you can use a different color font or bold
Of course, anything that a professor writes
on a chalk or presents on an overhead projector should appear
in your notes.
October 31, 2005
Compare Outlines with a Classmate
Find out if your outline
is on track by sharing what you know with a trusted classmate.
Now that you’ve started creating outlines,
you might wonder what to do with them. The piles of paper
that make up your outlines are your personalized study aids
for each class. They represent your review and synthesis of
difficult legal concepts. Although much learning comes from
the act of creating an outline, continue using your outline
to review and study. As your main source of study material,
you need to make sure that your outline is accurate and complete.
There is a simple activity that you can do to
review and ensure the accuracy of your outlines. Once you
have completed a substantial section of an outline, find a
friend who has done the same work on his or her outline. The
two of you can then compare your information. Don’t
just swap outlines and do an evaluation on your own. To really
benefit from this process, work on it together and do a verbal
assessment of each topic in your outlines.
For example, if you are reviewing torts. Have
one person explain the topic of battery, including all the
details (i.e. black letter law, cases, policy considerations,
professor’s opinions, etc.) from her outline. After
she has finished, the listener can state what appeared in
his outline but was not mentioned in the explanation or any
information that he thinks was explained incorrectly. Keep
switching off speakers for each topic until you have discussed
your entire torts outline.
This process takes time, but can be invaluable
to gaining an understanding of the material and guaranteeing
that your outline is perfect. Make sure to take notes on your
outline when you find a concept, important case, or issue
that you have missed. You’ll be able to incorporate
these ideas into your future study sessions.
Remember, even the best looking outline is useless
if unused and unchecked.
November 7, 2005
If you have to swallow
a frog, don’t stare at it too long. – Mark Twain
Everyone procrastinates at some time during
law school. There are those days when you feel as though you
absolutely can’t read another case, outline another
section, or even consider another legal concept. Sometimes
you just need to take a break, but as the end of the semester
approaches, it becomes more and more imperative that you don’t
let procrastination get the best of you. Here are five tools
you can apply to transform the habit of procrastination.
Make a List of Things to Do and Do the
Least Appealing Things First: When you are feeling
uneasy about all of the work you have to do, just grab a piece
of paper and write down all the tasks you need to complete.
Include everything you need to do for school, but don’t
forget general life tasks too – cooking, laundry, vacuuming,
calling your mother, etc. Make sure to cross off the items
as you complete them so that you can see your progress. Although
it is tempting to do the “fun stuff” on your list
first, this is often just a mechanism for putting off what
you really need to do. Start with the items on your list that
either pose the most challenge or are the least appealing.
For example, if you are struggling with understanding negligence,
you should start with the item on your list that says, “read
Work for 10 Minutes: If you
can’t find the motivation to do a particular task, try
working at it for 10 minutes. Grab a timer and get to work.
If you can tolerate doing the task for 10 minutes, try to
do it for another 5 minutes. In all likelihood, you’ll
eventually get into what you are doing and won’t mind
Rewards, Rewards, Rewards:
Many people need more motivation than just a sense of accomplishment
to complete an unpleasant task. One way to self-motivate is
to create goals and external rewards associated with finishing
a particular assignment. For example, if you read 40 pages
of criminal law, you can watch your favorite TV show that
night. Or, if you complete the intentional torts section of
your outline, you can take a break and go buy a new CD. Try
to find rewards that provide a small break from your routine,
but won’t completely disrupt your study schedule.
Let Your Friends Help You:
If you are really struggling with accomplishing what you need
to do, tell a friend or family member about it. Ask that person
to check on your status regarding the particular project.
These friends and their reminders should work as motivators
to get you moving on what you need to do.
Do Things You Like to Do: You
must finish everything on your list, including the enjoyable
jobs. Take the time to do these easy or pleasant tasks, but
slip the unpleasant assignments between them. Another way
to look at it is that for every hour you spend on a favored
chore, spend 20 minutes working on one you dislike or dread.
November 14, 2005
Practice, Practice, Practice
Make a conscious effort
to set aside time in your study schedule for tackling practice
exams. Whether you take the tests in exam-like conditions
or just spot the issues, try talking about your answers with
Law school exams differ from almost any test
you took as an undergrad. It is not enough to just memorize
the law and repeat it to the professor in the form of an essay.
Although you need a solid understanding of the law and must
be able to explain the rules in a concise manner, law school
exams call for you to recognize where the rule of law is applicable
and then apply it to a new set of facts that you haven’t
previously seen in class. Memorization is not enough; you
have to analyze and problem solve during your exams. Quite
simply, law school exams are testing your ability to “think
like a lawyer.”
The best way to master law school test taking
skills is through practice. When you are creating your study
schedule, it is important to set aside time to take practice
tests under test-like conditions – timed, in a quiet
location, write complete answers, etc. If your professor provides
a sample answer or checklist of issues, make sure to consult
Creating your answer to exam questions is a
solitary exercise, but checking the answer can be done in
a group setting. Seek out friends or a study group with which
to compare answers. (Even if you have chosen to work alone
all semester, now is the time to find classmates to confer
with.) Actually discussing your thought process will help
solidify your learning. You will also benefit from hearing
how others processed the problem and which issues they found
in the question that you missed. By going through this process,
you’ll gain a better understanding of what areas you
know and which you need to continue to study.
If you are not able to set aside the hours it
takes to complete multiple practice exams, you can outline
the issues you spot and then compare that list with those
of a friend.
You can find copies of professor’s old
exams on the Chicago-Kent Law Exam Database at http://exams.digitallib.kentlaw.edu/.
November 21, 2005
Controlling Time in an Exam
Even if you have never
taken a law school exam before, it is possible to create a
test taking strategy that will ensure your success. A primary
component of your strategy should include a plan for keeping
track of time.
Before you enter the classroom for your first
law school exam, you should already have a strategy of how
you are going to approach taking and completing the exam.
Taking a test without first considering how you are going
to process it can cause panic, anxiety, and time to be wasted
as you figure out what you are going to do. You may be wondering
how you can create a plan of attack about an unfamiliar problem,
especially if you have never before experienced a law school
exam. The answer can be found by doing practice tests, doing
practice tests, and then doing even more practice tests until
you find a system that works for you.
One important element of any test taking strategy
is to address the issue of time. Before you write an answer
or even read a question, scan the whole exam and make a schedule.
See how many questions you have to answer and what time estimates
have been assigned to them. (If you are lucky, the professor
will share this information with you a few days before the
exam. In this case, you should come to the test with your
time allocations already prepared.) On a piece of scratch
paper or on the exam itself, write down at what times you
should finish with each question. Don’t just mark “45
minutes,” but actually write down “9:20”
or “2:45.” If your professor has not provided
time estimates or weighting allocations, assume that you should
spend an equal amount of time on each question.
Make sure to actually stick to these time allocations.
When the clock approaches the time you set to finish, stop
writing that answer and move on to the next question. This
will guarantee that you will complete the entire exam; and
therefore, you will be eligible for the most possible points
in your score.
November 28, 2005
Purge Your Memory
As part of your exam
taking strategy, consider creating a checklist of issues to
use a reference for issue spotting and analyzing questions.
For open book exams, you can create a spark sheet as part
of your preparation. Closed book exams call for a “memory
Part of your exam taking strategy for closed
book exams can include a memory purge or memory dump. After
the proctor announces that you can begin the exam, take a
minute or two and write a free form list of topics covered
in the course. While studying for closed book exams, some
students will memorize a checklist or spark sheet that they
can then recreate during the exam. Many students jot down
such a list on a piece of scratch paper or on the inside covers
of their blue books. The list does not need to be well organized
or a perfect recitation of the law, but just something to
jog your memory as you approach analyzing test questions.
The memory purge process serves many purposes.
First, it gives you some time to collect your thoughts before
launching into the test, which may help alleviate some anxiety
and set your mind at ease to think about the subject matter.
Second, by writing down a brief skeleton of everything covered
in the course, you have created a great resource to aid in
issue spotting. Simply use the list as reference to recognize
issues hidden in the fact patterns. Finally, this process
ensures that you will not lose vital information in a moment
of panic because it is all laid out in front of you.
Learning from Last Semester’s Exams
Even though fall
semester has long since ended, you still have a lot to learn
from those professors and your performance. Doing exam reviews
with professors, although intimidating, is the best way
to evaluate your actual performance.
You’ve had some time to reflect upon
your grades from last semester. Whether you are happy or
unhappy with the results, it is likely that you are wondering
what you did right and what you did wrong. There is really
only one way to get answers to these questions – review
your exams and go over them with professors, they are the
exam grading experts. Now that second semester has started,
many students just want to move on and put the past behind
them. Although this is a necessary approach to be able to
focus on your new classes, you need to do these types of
reviews in order to know what you did well and where you
can improve for this semester’s exams.
Be very clear about the professor’s
requirements. Some professors have structured dates and
times when they will hold exam reviews with students. If
you are unsure of a professor’s availability, send
him or her an email.
Before meeting with the professor, try to
carefully review your exam. Come to the meeting with only
one thing in mind: learning from past experience and gaining
from a professional critique of your performance. Don’t
expect that this meeting will lead to a grade change.
Above all, take an active role at this meeting;
do not expect a packaged answer from the professor, pinpointing
your precise strengths and weaknesses. The following questions,
if you ask them consistently, can identify trends in your
• Did I spot the most important issues? Did I miss
important issues entirely?
• Did I clearly explain the law or sufficiently describe
the legal standard?
• Did I adequately explain exceptions and/or counter
• Was my answer well-organized?
• Did I thoroughly develop the analysis and application?
• Did I explore the facts of the question
in light of the legal principles and issues that I identified?
• Did I merely state the “answer”
in a conclusory manner?
• What aspects of my exam were strong?
• Did I show sensitivity to policy considerations
and other underlying issues?