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Weekly Pearls of Wisdom: Archives

Consult a Dictionary (8/29/2005)
Reading and Highlighting Cases (9/5/2005)

Visit Professors at Their Offices (9/12/2005)
Edit Your Briefs (9/19/2005)
To Begin or Not to Begin (9/26/2005)
Ask a Reference Librarian (10/3/2005)
Make Time for Reviewing (10/10/2005)
Forming a Study Group (10/17/2005)
Taking Better Notes (10/24/2005)
Compare Outlines with a Classmate (10/31/2005)
Overcoming Procrastination (11/7/2005)
Practice, Practice, Practice (11/14/2005)
Controlling Time in an Exam (11/21/2005)
Purge Your Memory (11/28/2005)
Learning from Last Semester's Exams (1/24/06)

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 you.

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 course.

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 this week.

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:

Monday-Thursday 8:00am-9:00pm
Friday 8:00am-5:00pm
Saturday 9:00am-5:00pm
Sunday 10:00am-6:00pm

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

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 to review.

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 study group.

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 December.

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 law students)?
• 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:

  1. The rule of the case;
  2. Elements that make up the rule;
  3. An explanation of the court’s reasoning;
  4. A list of facts or factors in the case that prove the rule; and
  5. 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 those sections.

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
Overcoming Procrastination

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 torts assignment.”

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 continuing.

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 friends.

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 it.

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

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 purge.”

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.

January 24, 2006
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 exam-taking:

• 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 arguments?

• 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?


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