Five tips for first-year J.D. students

August 20, 2021

By Cristy Lindberg

In your first year of law school, it’s easy to feel like you’re drowning. Everything feels so different from your undergraduate experience. The assigned readings never seem to end. Here are five tips I learned as a St. Mary’s University School of Law J.D. student in the Class of 2023 that may help incoming law students find success from the very start.

  1. Find an organizational method that works for you.

Law school is made up of daily reading assignments. To stay on top of everything and hold yourself accountable, it’s important to have some sort of organizational method. It can be a study schedule, a to-do list, a calendar or a combination of all three.

For example, I hand-write all my assignments and due dates on paper. Start with something that’s worked for you in the past. If you have to tweak it down the line, that’s okay, you can change it. You don’t have to feel like you’re stuck using the same organizational method all semester. Time is your most valuable resource in law school.

  1. Start outlining Week One.

Think of outlining as making your own study guide for the semester. You make this study guide from the notes you take during class. For your outline, pay close attention to legal rules and their context. Don’t get overly detailed in your outline. 

If your professor lets you use your outline on the test, you don’t want to waste time flipping through pages to find the answer. You want to know it. To really know your outline, (and the answers) you need to go through the class material repeatedly over time. If you start converting your notes into an outline the first week and continue to stay on schedule, that should help you during midterms and finals. Sometimes professors will even review your outlines, and it is much easier when you already have something than creating one at the last minute.

Take margin notes on your thoughts as you read. Always look up words you don’t know and write the definition down, professors will ask. Highlight important passages you discuss in class. Take notes when professors repeat important information, like rules or themes. Always do the reading yourself before consulting online briefs, such as Oyez or Quimbee.

When I first started law school, it took me 10 minutes to read and understand what I was reading on a single page. This process will get faster with more practice, but it is important that you read to understand and not just read to complete the assignment.

For more information on class notes, see this article.

  1. Take time to recharge.

Staying on top of assignments is important. It’s equally important to have hobbies outside of law school to manage stress. Make time for them. 

Create a balance between law school, your other interests and other obligations you may have. Schedule time for things you really enjoy. School will take up as much time as you let it. So, if you don’t set aside the time for healthy hobbies and relaxation, you won’t recharge and you will burn out. Save one day a week for no law school.

  1. Don’t worry too much. Everyone makes mistakes.

Cold calling (when a professor randomly calls on students without notice) is sometimes regarded as the scariest part of law school. As an introverted person, I can tell you it’s not that bad.

In most law classes, professors will pick someone and ask that student to go over a case reading during class. It may even feel like professors are trying to scare you, especially the first week. Everyone has bad days or will get a question wrong at least once, that’s okay.

Eventually, the section builds a sense of unity. There’s no judgement from your classmates, and the professor just wants to see that you did the reading and understand the course material. Remember that everyone makes mistakes. Getting a couple questions wrong isn’t the end of the world. It’s part of the learning process, and you will get used to talking in front of people with time.

Before each class, I do a super short mini-brief of each case in the reading. This involves listing just three or four sentences: what the case is about, what the main question (or issue) is and what the court ruled. These are helpful if you get called on and for making your outline.

  1. Ask for help

If you give them enough time in advance, there are people here to help you: classmates and upper-level students, professors, deans and staff. Do your assignments as well as you can first and then don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

Fellow classmates are the best first resource because they are on the same page as you and might have a different perspective to help you see the material differently or can help you understand things you missed. Upper-level students are helpful in picking classes or professors to take and for general advice on your classes. 

Professors want to make sure you understand their class, but they also want your law school experience to be the best it can be. Most professors are or have been practicing lawyers and will have information about legal practice in the real world. Ask questions when you have them, and don’t save them up until the end of the semester. 

Deans and staff members have knowledge of resources to help you. The School of Law’s Office of Career Strategies is helpful in career prep as well as internships and job guidance. The Office of Law Student Affairs can help you when a personal issue arises. The Sarita Kenedy East Law Library provides a plethora of electronic study resources.

If you’re not sure who to go for help, don’t be afraid to ask any of the staff. Everyone here wants to see you succeed.

Cristy Lindberg, second-year J.D. student
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