Practical Advice for Managing Law School
Congratulations to the University of Alberta Faculty of Law Class of 2021! Each and every one of you has done the hard work to get here, including writing an extremely intimidating entrance exam in the Law School Admission Test, and going through the tumultuous process of applying to different law schools. Since I’m sure you are all ready for another big challenge, let’s talk about what it takes to succeed in law school!
Law school is an extremely enriching experience that not only acts as a gateway to becoming a member of the legal profession, but also as an opportunity to grow as a person. With so much information about special events, clubs, and classes being shoved in front of first-year law students, it can be difficult to sort out a strategy to tackle them all. Here is some practical advice on how to make the experience much more manageable.
Forget Your LSAT Score. Forget Your GPA. Everyone Starts from Scratch.
It took a lot of effort and obstacle climbing to get accepted to law school, which every first-year student should take pride in. That being said, every 1L should also be cognizant that the work they do going forward is what is going to define their legal careers. Prospective employers won’t ask you about your LSAT score, nor will they give too much weight to your GPA before you entered the Faculty of Law. Everyone starts on a relatively equal footing and the onus is on 1Ls to make the most out of their time here.
Your Mental Health is Important and Finding Balance Will Help that Cause
First year is a time of adapting to a unique environment, a process that can be stress-inducing at times. It can feel like you have to keep your nose to the grindstone 24/7 in order to succeed, but the importance of finding balance can’t be understated. Whether it involves going to the gym, grabbing a drink with some friends, or capitalizing on the numerous opportunities to socialize, taking mental breaks will keep you fresh and focused on the road that lies ahead.
Practice, Practice, Practice When It Comes to Case Law
Part of adapting to the entirely different animal that is law school is developing a strong foundation for analyzing case law. With stare decisis being such a prominent legal principle, being able to skim a case and take away its essential details is one of the most critical skills to being successful as a law student. Specifically, always look to identify the following things:
- Basic Information: Style of cause, jurisdiction, year of decision, key facts
The “Meat” of the Case: Legal issues, decision, reasoning behind the decision
Detail Work: Why did the judge reference “X” case? What does a dissenting opinion say about how contentious the legal issues are? What is this case supposed to tell me (the ratio)?
Keep in mind that when I say to identify the above information, I don’t mean spend unnecessary amounts of time creating incredibly detailed summaries about each individual case you read. Becoming good at efficiently summarizing case law is a matter of time and patience, so pace yourself and reap the benefits when those same skills become essential on final exams.
Use CANs as Supplements, Not Substitutes For Readings
It’s easy to assume that once you get your hands on someone’s condensed annotated notes (CANs), you don’t have to pay as much attention to textbook readings. From an information standpoint, CANs are particularly useful for clarifying certain key concepts and 1Ls should absolutely seek out one for each class. However, as their name implies, CANs are condensed insofar as a student can quickly reference them to spark his or her memory, not provide all the nuances of a given legal topic.
There will come times in the year when keeping up with readings is an extremely daunting task. Law students are frequently tasked with choosing which readings they will have to skim and do use CANs to fill the gaps, but those who can afford to do it would do well to realize that a CAN’s purpose is to supplement the readings you are doing for each course, not teach the content in full.
Situate All of the Course Content into a Roadmap
Law students who are able to recite encyclopedic knowledge about any given topic for a specific class will do alright on a law exam, but those who see where each topic fits into the grander scheme will take that next step.
Most law school exam questions will require you to read through a set of facts, determine the pertinent legal issues, and apply the law in a flexible manner. Every class will attempt to teach you how individual lessons fit into a broader context, and drawing roadmaps can reveal which items your professors will want you to address on a given exam. In short, don’t zero in on any one specific part of any area of law you are studying so that you fail to see the forest for the trees.