1Ls certainly receive their fair share of unsolicited advice. Not wishing to break from tradition, I humbly offer some more. My advice will concern the timely topic of exams (and if you don’t think this topic is timely please see below regarding when to begin studying).
First, however, I will describe my approach to exams 1L fall, as an example what not to do. I began outlining over Thanksgiving Break, although if I’m being honest, really I did very little until I got back to school. I brought a lot of books home with me but barely cracked a single one. This was a mistake. There is in fact a lot to learn, and it takes time, so I should have started studying earlier. But when I look back at my preparation for 1L fall exams, what I regret more than when I started studying or what methods I employed is my attitude toward exams.
I had been indoctrinated in the notion that the results of law school exams are, if not completely random, then at least very unpredictable in the sense that what law school exams fundamentally test is your ability to perform well on a law school exam. Because I of course had no data on which to assess my potential law-school-exam ability, I figured that how well I did would be an interesting surprise. I might be good at exams or I might be bad, I thought, and in any case, there wasn’t too much I could do about it. I had heard countless stories of students who shut down the library every night only to be gravely disappointed with their fall semester grades, along with those of slackers who aced their way through law school despite rarely opening casebooks and only sporadically attending class. Upon reflection, my basic 1L fall studying strategy seemed to be what we could call a “wait and see” approach.
I was right to some extent; it is hard to predict how well you’ll do, particularly with regard to individual classes. But I now think the view that law school exams test some sort of innate ability is overblown. You do, in fact, have a great deal of control over your performance. Shockingly, as much as you might hear otherwise, hard work is highly correlated to law school success. Even though exams do test your ability to demonstrate legal reasoning, they are largely a test of whether you have learnt the material, just like any other test you have ever taken. Yes, law school exams are structured differently than exams in college, but they’re really not all that mysterious, and those who know the material well tend to perform well.
So my startlingly unoriginal advice then to 1Ls who, like many 1Ls are shooting for the stars and aiming for a solid collection of H’s, is to work hard and begin studying early. In fact, if you’re hoping to do very well, you should start now. Even though exams are still many weeks, you should begin outlining, even if you don’t know what an outline is. I don’t really know what an outline is either, and yet I make them for every class; they are quite useful.
All that being said, the other crucially important point to keep in mind is that you don’t have to start outlining in October in order for your law school grades not to be a complete disaster. In fact, if you’re not dead set on “DSing” all your classes, then you can really relax. Start studying over Thanksgiving or later; you’ll likely end up with some happy combination of H’s and P’s. You’ll get a job; you’ll graduate; everything will be just fine. A classmate of mine recently told me that he had been given the advice as a 1L that he should either work really hard or not very hard at all. This seems to me to be great advice. The choice is yours.