Study right!Written by Michael McKiernan Posted Date: August 25, 2014
No matter what your undergraduate specialty was, law school is a different beast altogether. So what do you need to know to tame it?
Michael McKiernan asked a law prof and a group of first-rate former students to share the secrets of successful study.
1. It ain’t gonna be easyBad news for all those magic bullet hunters out there. Sadly, there are no shortcuts to law school success, according to Kathleen McCandless, who collected the 2006 University Gold Medal for Law at the University of Manitoba’s Robson Hall law school. “If you want to do well at law school, I can summarize it all by saying there’s no way around hard work,” says McCandless, now a lawyer at Winnipeg’s Pitblado LLP.
2. Do the readingBad news for all those magic bullet hunters out there. Sadly, there are no shortcuts to law school success, according to Kathleen McCandless, who collected the 2006 University Gold Medal for Law at the University of Manitoba’s Robson Hall law school. “If you want to do well at law school, I can summarize it all by saying there’s no way around hard work,” says McCandless, now a lawyer at Winnipeg’s Pitblado LLP.
Sticking with the advice-you-probably-don’t-want-to hear-theme, Emily MacKinnon says there is simply no getting around the assigned readings for each class. “There’s such a huge volume that it’s very easy to start thinking about what you can cut out or skim through, but it’ll just end up being too much when the exams come around,” says the 2012 Law Society Gold Medallist at the University of British Columbia, now a litigator with McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Vancouver. “I always read them on the assumption I’d never have a chance to do it again, which means very active reading, always with highlighters and sticky tabs in hand.”
3. Get organizedHaving gone to the effort of reading all those cases, you need a system that allows you to make use of that stored data when it comes to exam time. Everyone’s will be different, but “the key is to have ways to find the information again,” says MacKinnon, who used Excel spreadsheets to track cases, with keywords attached for easy sorting. Doug Sarro, Osgoode Hall Law School’s 2013 Gold Medallist, says the facts and holdings of individual cases are less important than the legal tests they applied. “Instead of organizing my notes case-by-case, I organized them topic-by-topic. I’d start each topic summary by listing the general principles and tests that applied, and then go through the test element-by-element to talk about how the cases dealt with each element,” he says.
4. Find your study space
Whether it’s holed up alone in your bedroom or grouped around a library desk, everyone has an optimum study environment. Spend some time finding out what works for you. MacKinnon developed a system of coffee shop hopping, finding herself “reinvigorated” by a change of scenery every couple of hours. Sarro joined a study group closer to exam time. They “would work through two or three old exams and e-mail each other their answers. This helped me to see gaps in my summary and figure out what I needed to do to improve,” he says.
5. Open your mindSome classes get a bad rep, but “don’t write off courses as ‘too boring’ or ‘too hard’ until you know more about them,” advises Diana Ginn, a professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law in Halifax. And she doesn’t teach tax law, so you know it’s sincere. “You will likely end up studying some areas of law that don’t excite you, but you may also find yourself becoming interested in areas you could not have predicted. And some of the things that don’t excite you now may be very useful in your future career,” adds Ginn, who has won teaching awards for her first-year classes.
6. Profs are people tooWith a couple of hundred other students surrounding you, it’s easy to feel detached from the person at the front of the class. MacKinnon says that barrier is easily broken down. “In my experience, they generally love what they do, and like all humans, they like to share the things that excite them. I think they appreciate it when students are engaged,” she says. Bonus: they might just remember your name when you’re looking for a summering or articling reference.
7. Keep calm and study onScare stories are easy to come by in the ultra-competitive atmosphere of law school, but Sarro paid them as little attention as possible. “The most important thing through the semester is to stay healthy and avoid unnecessary stress. In law school, stress is contagious. If you hear about people sitting in the library 18 hours a day, you’ll naturally feel you should be doing that too. But you don’t, and you shouldn’t,” he says. Ginn says students should “aim to do well, but aiming for perfection is counter-productive . . . take breaks, spend time with friends, do things you find fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously.”
8. Go to classAs tempting as that extra hour in bed may seem, making an appearance in class will pay off in the long run, according to McCandless. “I found it a really key part of the learning process,” she says. “There could be topics or issues that come up in class that were never mentioned in the syllabus or the assigned readings. It’s also a lot easier to absorb the information when you talk it through than when you just read it. I found that really helped with recall when it came time to write exams.”
9. Switch off your devicesThe quickest way to negate the value of turning up for class is to spend your time there distracted by Facebook, e-mails, LOLcats, texts or some combination thereof. MacKinnon says her laptop was invaluable for note-taking, but wishes she had disabled the Wi-Fi. “It’s so tempting to start answering e-mails and deal with other things in your life during class, but you can’t engage with the materials in the same way. I’d try to promise myself I wouldn’t use the Internet, even if I thought I knew what the prof was talking about,” she says.
10. Ask stupid questionsNobody wants to look like an idiot, but MacKinnon says if you’re brave enough to risk it, it never really happens. “Law school can be pressure-filled, but once you learn not to concern yourself with how your learning looks to others, it becomes much easier,” she says. In fact, MacKinnon says her classmates benefited just as much from her thick skin as she did: “There were many occasions when I asked a question that I thought was going to have an obvious answer, and it turned out half the class were wondering the same thing but were just afraid to ask.” ■
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