It’s that time of year again. Anxious 1Ls await the beginning of what will be the longest three years of their lives. Meanwhile, attorneys, law profs, and other legal professionals are eagerly sharing advice on how to survive. The weekend before the start of law school is overwhelming. With so much information, words of wisdom, and horror stories going around, it’s understandably difficult to make sense of it all. Even harder though, is figuring out how to translate it all into a personal success plan. I can’t create that plan for you. But in this post, I will at least attempt to clear up some of the terms and tasks I wish I understood going into my 1L year.
I’m a policy person, so I’m always looking for the “why” behind process. So, in this post, I will also try to also explain why we do these things in the first place. Understanding the why will help you tailor an approach that fits to your own study needs.
Caveat: I am the last person that should be writing this post. Or, as my manager often reminds us: I am not a role model. Academically, I did not do great my 1L year. I finished my second semester at a 2.8 and just barely kept my scholarship. When it came to exams, I never really cracked the code. But I also didn’t really bother to figure it out either. I spent about 90% of my law school career focused on networking, brand building, and career development. The other 10% was spent on academics. In the end, that worked for me (and in a separate post, I’ll explain how). But looking back and knowing what I know now, I could have done a lot better academically. Hence, this post will be less about what I did and more about what I could have done during my 1L year.
I’ll also note that I didn’t realize how law school “worked” until I started studying for the bar. So, a lot of this advice is drawn from things I discovered over the past two months. I’m not really sure what that says about the first year of legal education in general, but I did find it interesting (and a bit frustrating) that I was making these discoveries long after my 1L year.
A final note: while I won’t say that your grades don’t matter, I will say that your grades are not everything (you can use me as the example). Strive for building yourself in a way that makes it so that your grades are the least interesting part of your story.
Anyway, no regrets. Just lessons learned.
Reading, Briefing, & Quimbee
A core fundamental you must pick up during your 1L year is how to read a case. You will soon learn that it’s not enough to simply read a case from start to finish and call it a day. You will have to train yourself to become an active reader. This is challenging. It’s likely not what you’re used to from undergrad. That means it will take a lot of practice to master. Which means that you must resist the urge to follow any advice from 2Ls and 3Ls who suggest that you don’t have to read. What your 2L and 3L colleagues fail to realize when they’re offering this advice is that they can get away with cutting corners now because they built their foundations during 1L year. They’ve developed the muscle memory that comes with exhaustively reading and briefing every single case. You have not. But you will get there if you put in the work now.
Briefing is part of the active reading process. A good case brief will sum up the facts of the case in a few lines, highlight the legal issue(s) central to the case, note the rule(s) applied to the legal issue(s), and summarize how the court applied the rules specifically to the facts of the case. In other words, the infamous IRAC (more on this later). It’s tedious, especially after you’ve briefed 100+ cases. But you have to do it. Brief every single case during your first semester. This is how you develop the muscle memory.
I don’t believe there is a “right” way to do case briefing (in fact, I don’t believe there is a “right” way to do anything in law school). Your goal is to capture the above information in a way that makes sense to you. No one will be grading your case briefs. They’re solely for you.
So, what is the point of active reading and case briefing? What I didn’t understand during my 1L year was that at some point I was going to be required to regurgitate a massive amount of information in a very short period of time on the only exam that will determine my overall grade in the class. In order to do that, you have to find a way to compartmentalize important chunks of information. That starts with case briefing. The IRAC process will allow you to take away the important parts of each case and begin to help you understand why the case is important and how it shapes your understanding of each rule that you will learn.
In other words, you won’t be asked to explain what happened in a case on an exam. Rather, you will be given a hypothetical situation and you will be required to apply the knowledge you gained from all of the cases you’ve read over the semester to the hypothetical situation. That means you also need to be able to distinguish cases from each other. For example, the purpose of one contracts case might be to show how an advertisement is not necessarily a legal “offer.” However, another case might show when an advertisement could become a legal offer. Good case briefs will highlight these differences so that you can use them on the exam.
Additionally, when you go to study for the exam, you’re not going to want to want to re-read the cases in your case books. Rather, you’ll want to have good case briefs to quickly recall the important information from each case and memorize it.
So, where does Quimbee come into all of this? Quimbee is just a source for professional case briefs. I highly recommend getting a subscription if it’s within your means (for legal reasons, I am definitely not suggesting that you and your group of friends go in on one Quimbee account and just share it among yourselves all three years. 😉). When you’re just starting out, Quimbee is a great way to check whether you’re on track with your case briefs. I highly recommend attempting your own brief first before looking the case up on Quimbee. (again — you need to build the muscle memory before taking shortcuts). Quimbee is also really great for when life happens. You will have days where you simply don’t get to all of the reading. Don’t go back to missed readings as this will cause you to get further behind. Just look up the cases you missed on Quimbee and keep charging forward.
If Quimbee is not within your means, Casebriefs.com is an excellent free source for briefs as well.
Like with everything else in law school, there are so many different ways to approach taking notes during class. I struggled with finding the “right” approach for myself in the beginning because I kept getting distracted by what my peers were doing.
If your professor allows it (and mini tangent — they should), you could take notes on your laptop in a Google or Word doc. I tried that approach and found that I wasn’t retaining much of the lecture because I was so focused on typing every single word my professor said. Worse, I had trouble parsing my notes after class because they were more like a lengthy, messy, transcript. So, I tried not taking notes at all for a while and just focused on listening and comprehending the lecture. That worked in the short term but when it came time to study for finals, I had nothing to reference or go back to from each class.
I later figured out the my “sweet spot” for note taking was handwriting notes during class. The nice thing about handwriting is that I can’t write every single thing the professor says so I have to actively listen to the lecture and write down only the key takeaways. Additionally, I can’t check Facebook and Twitter with my notebook. Again, what worked for me may not work for you. It’s okay to do a little trial and error here. What I would avoid doing is switching up your approach only because your friend is doing it a different way.
So, what’s the point of note taking? The obvious reason is to supplement all that reading and briefing that you did. But another reason why you should consider taking notes during class is because all of your professors are super different and each one of them have biases. There are some topics that professors really like to dig into over others. Those topics will likely appear on the exam. Some professors like to explore the policy behind the black letter law (and yes, you may be asked to discuss policy on your exam). Note taking is an opportunity to capture these professor-centric nuances that you wouldn’t otherwise pick up from your casebooks or commercial outlines (more on that later).
And on that note, I also recommend visiting your professor during office hours and asking lots of questions.
Outlining & Commercial Supplements
The dreaded topic of outlining. I used to not get into this topic because I think it’s too much and too early to be thinking about during your first couple of months. However, I also remember how much anxiety I had over outlining when I was just getting started. This is a tricky topic and one that is incredibly individual-based. Everyone has an opinion about outlining and commercial resources. At the end of the day, the only opinion that really matters is yours. But allow me to offer some guardrails around this topic.
I didn’t realize the why behind outlining until I was studying for the bar. As discussed, your overall goal is to brain dump as much knowledge as possible on your exam. That just so happens to be the exact same strategy as the bar exam. For the bar exam, you have roughly 10 weeks to memorize 17 subjects. At about 60 rules per subject, you’re looking at memorizing around 1000 rules total. Granted you have much less to memorize your first semester, but it’s still a lot of material to cram into brain. Outlining is one way that you can compartmentalize all of that information (your reading, case briefs, lecture notes) into something that’s much more manageable and easier to memorize for the exam.
The traditional approach to outlining, as I understand it, begins with building a larger comprehensive outline per subject throughout the semester. A typical outline might be somewhere around 60+ pages. What you might do next is take that 60+ page outline and turn it into something smaller (i.e. an “attack outline”) with only the key subject headers and a few important buzz words for each rule. You then memorize the attack outline and then regurgitate that outline on the essay portion of the exam (removing any irrelevant topics). The attack outline is your roadmap for structuring your exam answer.
Here is an example of my contracts outline from bar prep. If I wanted to turn this into an attack outline, I would do something like the following:
I. Contract Formation
The attack outline is really just a rough skeleton of all the key topics.
Some students start outlining right away. I would suggest starting your outlines closer to October. The reason I suggest starting later is because (1) you have no idea how law school, your classes, or your professors work; (2) you’re already going to be inundated with information, so why add extra stress now; and (3) you don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, you aren’t ready to pick out the important exam-worthy headers and topics. You will start to get the hang of it later in the semester. There’s nothing wrong with starting the outline process now, but I’m willing to bet you’ll find yourself redoing most of it once you have a better understanding of how the game is played. My suggestion is to use these next couple of months to absorb. Worry about the outlines later.
You should also spend some time making friends with your 2L and 3L colleagues as they may have outlines they’re willing to share with you for specific professors. IIRC, the Women & Law student org also maintains an outline bank that you can get the password for simply by becoming a member of the org.
For those of you wondering, I didn’t outline at all my first year mainly because I didn’t understand the point of it. I did outline my second and third year and I noticed a significant improvement in my exam performance. Outlining isn’t the only way to break down the information. In fact, I switched from outlines to flashcards early on in my bar prep because outlines just weren’t working for me as far as memorization went. It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you’re finding a way to retain as much as possible.
Which brings us to our next topic: Commercial Supplements
Just like Quimbee, commercial supplements are just professionally written resources that are helpful for supplementing the material you’ve learned both from your casebooks and lectures. There are millions of commercial supplements out there. I list a few major ones below (non-exhaustive). [Note: at Santa Clara Law you can check out these supplements for free in the resource room located in the library. I link to the supplements specifically for contracts but these supplements exist for all of the 1Ls topics as well]. Be careful with FOMO. Most of commercial resources do the same thing. Don’t feel like you need to get them all.
Examples and Explanations: it’s exactly what it sounds like. The E&E breaks down core topics into easy explanations and provides you with lots of hypothetical examples of how to apply the rules.
Q&A: The Q&A series provides you with tons of multiple choice and short answer questions to practice for the exam. Your professors may even draw some of their questions from Q&A or similar supplements.
Siegel’s: Similar to Q&A, Siegel’s provides multiple choice and short answer questions. I especially like the contracts version of Siegel’s.
Short & Happy Guide: Similar to the E&E, these supplements help break down complicated topics in an easy to remember way.
CrunchTime (my personal favorite): The CrunchTime series provides professionally written, black letter law, outlines. This is what I used instead of writing my own outlines (though I’m not sure I can totally recommend that approach). It might be good to check out a copy if you’re looking for some inspiration as you create your own outlines.
I also recommend the following bar prep resources that I think double as excellent study resources for 1L classes:
California Bar Exam Rules 2021: this book was a god-send during bar prep. This $11 resource offers simple, easy to memorize rule statements for every single topic on the California Bar Exam. That means that every important rule statement you need to know for all of your 1L topics is also contained in this book.
Critical Pass MBE Flashcards: this is another fantastic bar exam resource (though it’s a bit pricey). If you’re someone that prefers to learn and memorize via flashcards, I highly recommend checking out this set. [Note: SCU Law students, just DM me and I’ll loan out my set].
BarEssays.com: I believe SCU Law offers a subscription to students (you should inquire about this before signing up). This resource offers tons of practice exam-style essays which you will be required to do on your exams. I wish I used this resource when I was 1L. I didn’t realize its true value until I was studying for the bar. Like with everything else, practice makes perfect, and the more essays you do, the finer tuned your issue spotting skills will become.
As you can see, outlining and commercial supplements really depend on your own personal study preferences. Try a few things out and stick with what works best for you.
Whether or not you join / form a study group is entirely up to you (are you sensing the pattern here?). Study groups are helpful only if everyone in the group pulls their weight and keeps the session productive. As you can imagine, study groups can also easily turn into gossip/bitch-fests that can sap away your time and energy. So, choose your group wisely.
One major pro of joining a study group is having a group of people to discuss the information with. The more you talk about the topics and argue with each other over convoluted hypotheticals, the more you might retain. Within your group, you can also trade resources such as your outlines and commercial supplements. Plus, misery enjoys company.
I took a hybrid approach to study groups. I figured out that I learn best on my own. I had to give myself the time to memorize the topics on my own throughout the semester. I would make flash cards and practice writing the rules on my whiteboard at home. Once I felt like I had a good grasp of the material, I would join up with my study group closer to finals and we would run through practice problems together. We also took turns teaching each other different topics. This worked for me, but I was also blessed to find a really awesome study group so early on in my law school career.
Again — you know yourself best. Do what works for you. (Also, obligatory caution when it comes to COVID-19).
IRAC & The Exam
So now that we’ve talked a bit about how to study for exams, it might be worth understanding what the hell a law school exam even looks like. [Note: SCU Law students, you will receive practice exams during your ASP sessions]. A typical law school exam consists of multiple choice questions (usually MBE style) and a set of essay style questions. These exams are usually closed book or limited open notes. So, as discussed, you need to get comfortable with memorization. You usually have three hours to complete the exam (which is not a lot of time).
IRAC is a heuristic for answering essay style questions. It stands for Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. Some professors prefer other heuristics such as CREAC. Other professors don’t care what you use as long as your answer makes sense. Your professors will tell you what they prefer. Usually though, IRAC is a safe bet. Here’s an example of how to IRAC an answer:
(I): At issue is whether Harry’s statement to Steve “I will sell you my car for $100” is a legal offer.
(R): A legal offer requires the manifestation of intent to be bound by a contract.
(A): Here, Harry’s statement likely qualifies as an offer because it is a clear expression of his intent to enter into a contract to sell his car to Steve for $100. [notice I apply the rule to the facts of the hypothetical]
(C): Harry’s statement most likely qualifies as a legal offer. [notice I don’t make a totally conclusive statement. This is the art of getting to maybe]
Repeat for every issue you spot in the essay.
By following this heuristic, you now have a simple and organized approach to answering an essay question. If you’ve been paying attention, you may also notice that IRAC looks a lot like your case briefs!
A Quick Note About Student Organizations
As you may have started to see, Santa Clara Law has a ton of student organizations. I remember how overwhelmed I was during orientation when I thought that I had to join them all in order to be successful. Student organizations are great but they won’t make or break your career prospects. Join the organizations that you care about or that are within your areas of interest. On a resume, they help to tell your story. For example, if you’re really interested in practicing Internet law, you should consider joining the Internet Law Student Organization and the Privacy Law Student Organization. If you’re interested in joining an organization for rising female leaders in intellectual property, you might join ChIPs (Note: the org is open to everyone).
Bottom line, you get what you put into your law school experience. Do what works for you, enjoy your next three years, and try not to take it too seriously. Hopefully I’ve offered some clarity here.
Good Luck! You’ll be great!