Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Spring Semester Blues -- Treating 1-Ls right

Our Academic Support Program director just sent out an e-mail noting that the start of spring semester is often very hard on 1-Ls, in particular. They just got their first semester grades, and many got a shock. For the first time in your life, as a 1-L, you are running with a whole pack of the folks who were at the tops of their class. And, law school is different from any other school you may have had before. Even MDs, engineers and PhD holders can get a shock at their first law school exam and grades.

So, with a tip of the hat to Prof. Herb Ramy at Suffolk, here are some suggestions, if you were disappointed in your fall semester grades:

Make some changes

1) Roommates, Illness & Personal Problems
If your low grades are a result of a bad roommate situation, extended illness or some other personal problems, you need to deal with them now. Change roommates, see a doctor, address the problem. You may also want to talk to the Dean of Students or counseling center for help in dealing with the problems and/or an accommodation under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

2) Study More
Prof. Ramy suggests 60 hours a week as the target for full time students. If you are working too many hours to accommodate your studies, think hard about whether you are properly caring for the large investment of time and money that is your law school career. Maybe you need to cut back on expenses, or switch to a part-time program, or even take some time off before finishing law school. Prof. Ramy says 45 hours a week may have been enough to put you top of the class in undergrad, but it puts you behind in law schoool!

3) Study Smarter
Use your time to the best advantage. Prof. Ramy suggests:

a) Don't just read & brief cases before class. Spend a little time after each class reviewing your notes and trying out more hypotheticals to see how the concepts play out.

Advantages of Post-class Review:
i. You will remember better
ii. You will be able to slot the concepts into a growing model of the law
iii. You will notice early if you don't understand the concept du jour. Law classes build one on the other, so a poor understanding in the early days will make the rest of your semester shakier!
iv. It's the start of developing an outline.

b) Use your study group to help you understand and work out new hypotheticals. Study groups are also good places to try out sample exams and be sure you understand all the details of each concept.

4) Review Your Exams
If your prof reviews the exam with the entire class, pay close attention. The best exams not only spot most or all of the issues, they offer in-depth legal analysis. Legal analysis requires you to identify and discuss which facts raise particular legal issues and then determine the likely outcome based on the information provided.

If you meet your professor privately to discuss your exam, prepare ahead of time! Read back through your answers, if they are available. Think back to what the professor said at review sessions. Ask to compare your answer to a model good answer, and look with an open mind to learn what you can do better next time.

5) Build on Previous Outlines, But Focus on Spring!
At Suffolk, we have year-long 1-L classes. If your school does this, you will want to keep the outlines you prepared for fall semester, because the final will cumulate the full year, but will probably focus most heavily on the new material from the spring. But remember that law school classes cumulate, building new concepts on older ones, so your earlier understanding will the foundation for your new learning.

6) The Mental Game
Most law students are very high achievers and very competitive. Many have never received B and C grades before. Some 1-Ls are very devastated by a mediocre grade. I quote from Prof. Ramy:

Using a low grade to motivate you to do more or different types of studying is great. On occasion, however, a student is so devastated by grades that it affects their ability to function in class.

Remember, your grades are simply a very narrow measure of how you performed during a handful of hours on few days in December. Your grades do not define you as a person. Students with Cs on their transcript do go on to graduate from law school, pass the bar exam, and have fantastic careers.

Instead of focusing on receiving certain grades, something that is not entirely within your control, focus on working up to your potential. If you walk into your exams knowing that you have done everything in your power to succeed, then you must be satisfied with the results. Note that I am asking a great deal from you. I want every student to do their personal best. While your personal best might not result in straight As on your transcript, it means you given law school all you have to give.

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