ou’ve just begun your law school journey, and already your head is spinning with the mountains of information you’re tasked with processing every day. One of the first things you will realize about law school is that not only are you learning a new way of thinking, you’re learning a whole new language.
You might have done some research on law school before classes began so you are likely familiar with the terms case briefing, outlining, and the Socratic Method, but you might not know what they all means. Let’s break it all down.
Socratic Method—Learning to Think Like a Lawyer
Perhaps the most terrifying element of law school for newly-matriculated 1Ls is the Socratic Method of teaching. The method itself is simply a form of teaching that places the onus upon individual students to arrive at a particular answer through a series of pointed questions from the professor. So, what is it about the Socratic Method that makes law students cower in fear?
For most students, Socratic Method classes are scary because they dread being put on the spot in front of all their classmates. What if I don’t know the answer? What if I make myself look stupid?
The truth about this form of teaching is that professors on the whole are not “out to get” their students, instead, they are trying to encourage students to begin to “think like a lawyer.” Though legal commentators might disagree about the actual benefits of this teaching style (click here for the pro argument and here for the con), the fact of the matter is that most of you will encounter some form of it in your law school studies, so here are some tips for handling that first time being “on-call”. The key way to alleviate anxiety and be as prepared as possible for class is to get into the habit of writing good case briefs.
Prepare for Class by Briefing Cases
Before I began law school, I thought a case brief was some long, convoluted document I would labor over for weeks before turning it in to a frightening Paper Chase kind of professor. I was surprised to discover that not only would I have to brief cases for each class, I would have to brief every single case!
New 1Ls fret incessantly about case briefing from the outset largely because they don’t understand its purpose. Case briefing is really just a simple way to organize key information for easy recall during classroom discussion. In your case brief, you will summarize key facts, issues, the court’s holding, and its reasoning for reaching that conclusion. (Click here for a primer on how to construct a good, concise brief.) It’s easy to distill the core components of any given case into brief form, as most of the cases you read are appellate arguments, and they are structured the same way, with facts first, then issues presented, the court’s holding, and its rationale for holding the way it did.
For me, briefing was insurance against being called on unprepared. Most professors will ask questions that follow the format of a case brief, for example, “What was at issue in this case?” or “What was the holding in this case?” These questions are easy to answer with the brief in front of you, and having done the preparation, you will be able to weigh in with your own opinions on whether or not the case was correctly decided and why, which is typically the bulk of class discussion. The good new there is that there is really no right answer, so you can’t go wrong!
Outlining for Final Exams
You’ve all created outlines for high school and college writing assignments, but outlining for law school classes is somewhat different. The first semester of law school is ground zero for law student anxiety, largely because no one really knows how to do it or really why they even should.
The purpose of creating outlines for each subject is to ensure mastery of all the materials presented in class. Your goal should not be to create a behemoth that encompasses every case read and every note you took in class, but to distill the material into a form that you can easily digest so you will be ready to tackle your final exams.
Most student organizations keep outline banks for every class, and commercial outlines are available for purchase. However, the most effective outline is the one you make yourself, as creating it forces you to organize your notes, draw out the black letter law from the cases you read, and help you understand how the law you have learned will apply to any given situation you might encounter on the exam. (For more guidance on outlining, click here.)
The outline is not an end in itself, it is a learning tool, a study aid that you make for yourself that is best suited to your own personal learning style. Just remember, outlining does not work for everyone and it is not useful for preparing for every type of exam. Flashcards might be more your style!
Law school is a high stress environment, so anything you can do to take control of your own learning process will help you reduce some anxiety and perform at your highest level. It’s never too early to start laying down good study habits, as these will stand you in good stead throughout your law school career.