I’m looking forward to teaching the Energy Law Seminar again this Fall at The University of Chicago.  As a professor there, I am often approached by prospective law students seeking advice about law school and legal careers.  My guidance always starts with the obvious fact that performance in law school correlates strongly with more, and better, career options.  In this blog, I share a study system that was taught to me in the summer of 1992 (just before I started law school).  More than a quarter of a century later, technology has changed but the system still works.

  1. Avoid Study Groups.  Spending hours with your fellow 1Ls is at best a waste of limited time.  You will not learn anything from them that you need to know for your exam.  Exposure to their comments will make it harder for you to remember what the professor said in class.  It may even confuse you.  Remember, your grade will only be based on mastering what the professor is teaching you.
  2. Read All Assignments the Day before Class.  If you do not read what the professor has assigned, you will have a harder time understanding the professor’s lecture.  You will be one step behind.  Read these assignments the day before class, ensuring they will be fresh in your mind.  Never read your assignments the same day as your class.  You might underestimate how long it takes.  Also, something might happen that prevents you from completing the assignment.  There is no need to take notes while reading.  You should not try to guess what is important about a reading, as doing so may pollute your memory with observations (other than those your professor will make in class).  Just read the assignments.
  3. Attend All Classes and Take Detailed Notes of the Professor’s Lectures (But Not Student Comments).  The professor is going to test you on what he says in class.  This means you should do your best to attend each and every lecture.  Take detailed notes of everything the professor says and only what he says.  Never write down student answers or comments, or even your own observations.  Notes should be hand written rather than typed into a computer.
  4. After Class, Transform the Professor’s Lecture Notes into a Computer Outline.  Learning is reinforced by different senses.  We used our eyes to read the assignment before class.  We used our ears to listen to what the professor was saying.  We used our hands to write down what the professor said.  Now, we are going to re-organize what we wrote into an outline.  The re-typing of what we previously heard and wrote earlier in the day reinforces memory.  It should be done on the same day as the lecture.  Each day later decreases the quality of  memory reinforcement.  The outline also helps us identify any areas where you did not fully understand the professor.
  5. Visit the Professor at Least Two Times During Office Hours.  There will be issues that you do not fully understand.  Do not ask your fellow students for guidance.  Do not try to get answers from the Internet or study guides.  Go and talk to your professor.  It is the professor’s view that you will be tested on.  Moreover, we professors enjoy talking to students one-on-one.  In fact, you would be surprised how few students make use of our office hours.  We do not want to see you every week, but plan on visiting once during the middle of the course and a second time near the end.  Most professors include a participation component to their grades.  A couple of office visits should add a few points to your participation grade.  It also helps professors get to know you, which sets the stage for meaningful letters of recommendation for judicial clerkships.
  6. Study Your Outline Only, Avoiding Other Guides.  As exams approach, study only the content of your outline.  Never pollute your mind with other students’ outlines or material from books or the Internet.
  7. Use Your Professor’s Past Exams and Answers as Practice.   Some law schools make past exams available in the library.  A professor’s past exams are highly predictive of what types of issues and questions you will see on your exam.  The week prior to your exam, you can take these past exams as practice tests.  Even better, some professors place the top one or two exam answers in the library file.  Do not look at these until after you have written the practice exam.  Then compare them to your practice answer.

The preceding steps focus on traditional issue-spotting exams.  That is, each answer is graded based on how many issues it identifies and properly analyzes.  The student who receives the highest grade is the one who identified and correctly analyzed the greatest number of issues.  Professors have their own checklist of issues they are looking for, which reflects what they taught in class.  Occasionally, we give a point here or there for an insight we had not anticipated, but far more often such extracurricular insights are irrelevant or wrong (and receive no points).

During the second and third years of law school, many grades are based on papers.  While steps 1-5 still apply to these courses, in lieu of Steps 6-7, you should read the professor’s published works, including law review articles and blogs.  Finally, before selecting a topic, I would encourage you to discuss a short-list of three paper topics with your professor.  How interested did the professor seem in each topic and your approach?  Choose the one that the professor seemed most interested in.  When we are reading thirty or forty essays, our level of interest can matter.

The preceding system focuses your time and mind on the universe of information that matters most.  It also creates a structure for when you will do each type of work, which is a bulwark against procrastination.  Systems increase the probability that the work will get done.  Remember, law school A’s are not won by being smarter.  Everyone in your class is equally smart.  Law school grading is a game of inches.  If you diligently follow this system, you will identify more issues and get higher grades.

IMG_3602    University of Chicago Students at Work in Gaille’s Energy Law Seminar

About the Gaille Energy Blog.  The Gaille Energy Blog (view counter = 74,062) discusses issues in the field of energy law, with periodic posts at www.gaillelaw.com. Scott Gaille is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School, an Adjunct Professor in Management at Rice University’s Graduate School of Business, and the author of three books on energy law (Construction Energy Development, Shale Energy Development,and International Energy Development).

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