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Advice for Law Students: Channel Your Inner Elle Woods

Welcome back to The Curiosity Concept

Last year, I wrote How To Survive First Year to give advice to new university students in general. This year, I thought I’d write a post dedicated to my soon-to-be fellow Law students.

If you’re not familiar with the reference in the title, it’s from the popular film and law student-cult classic Legally Blonde where sorority girl Elle Woods defies all odds to become a student at Harvard Law School, proving that hard work, integrity and a little knowledge about perms can get you anywhere.

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Like with other life experiences, you can never truly know what you’re getting yourself into with Law school until you’re actually in the thick of it, whether you’re starting the first year of your degree or entering your last like me. This post will hopefully help you to feel less like a deer in the headlights by giving you some pointers and sharing some of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a Law student.

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Do all the compulsory reading

It’s no surprise that this is at the top of the list. It’s a well-known fact that Law students have to do a lot of reading, but don’t let this discourage you and lead you to put off actually doing the reading. Your lecturers are academics and have expertise in their field so they have solid reasons for the reading they set, one being to help you develop the kind of thinking you need to build expertise in the legal field. If you find a piece of reading hard to understand or boring (because honestly some of it genuinely is), read around the subject/topic so that you can form some kind of understanding, rather than ignore the reading altogether.

In my first year, Legal Theory had some of the most difficult reading I’ve come across so far in my degree. I talked to my seminar tutor about it and she said it’s always best to give the set reading a good attempt, then look for related reading that is more accessible. Her advice really helped me, and it turns out Legal Theory became my favourite module of first year because I came across so many ideas and concepts that were incredibly interesting to me in ways that were much easier to understand but still relevant to the module.

Get to know the syllabus early

Looking over the topics you’ll be studying ahead of time helps you to prepare for them and gives you a good picture of how all the topics fit together in the module.

PRO TIP: if you know the upcoming topics and the books that will be set as reading, you can check them out of the library quickly, before everyone else on that module clocks it and there’s a mad rush to the library. The more you know…

Taking notes from the syllabus in the first few weeks of studying a module also helped me when getting revision books – not all revision books cover the kind of content you will be taught, so if you know what’s relevant to your course, you’ll avoid wasting money on books that aren’t helpful for you.

Also, get revision books early

Following the point above, once you know what you’ll be learning, it would help to get revision books earlier than a few weeks before exams. This was something I definitely learned after first year and applied in second year. Revision books break down the information to the essentials, i.e. what you need to know to be able to have a basic understanding of the topic. So, revision books can be useful throughout the whole time you’re studying the topic, not only during exam season. Of course, do the assigned reading afterwards so you have an appropriate amount of detail.

Organisation is the ultimate key

Throughout your degree, you will learn so many facts and concepts that may require you to take the time to fully understand them and this means setting up systems that will allow you to do this efficiently. Deciding how you will organise your notes so that you can keep track of these facts, concepts, cases, academic opinions, journal articles, etc. is a smart move you can make at the beginning of your course so that you don’t have to scramble to bring everything together before exams. 

In first year, I struggled to keep up because I had lots of notes dispersed around different locations. I had notes written in my books, in notebooks, in OneNote and on loose-leaf paper. It wasn’t until I bought binders and plastic wallets that I was able to feel like I was in control of my learning. And bringing everything together made me realise I had done more work than I thought, it just wasn’t effective because I hadn’t paid attention to organising it.

PRO TIP: For organising the cases you learn, make a table, or find one online (there are loads of study accounts on Tumblr or Instagram that make functional and pretty ones), where you write down the case name, e.g. R v Smith, details like the year and the citation, the facts of the case and then the ratio (the important legal point of the case). I’ve found it’s very useful to put all my cases in one place, with all the details readily available, but I still need to get better at doing this consistently. 

Also, do your best to make sure you’re writing notes in an organised manner. Clarity of notes means clarity of mind, especially during exam season. After some experimenting, I’ve learned that the Cornell Notes method is the best way for me to structure my note-taking so that it actually makes sense after the lecture.

Another lesson I have learned is that organising your time is crucial, and this means more than just having a timetable. Build a timetable for yourself that allows for smart working and that you can actually follow – you don’t have to schedule 18 hours of daily non-stop work to do well as a Law student.

In his book Deep Work (which I really enjoyed and will be reviewing soon!), Professor Cal Newport explains how Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the US, was able to do well in college whilst spending more time doing extracurricular activities and writing books than actually studying. This was because Roosevelt dedicated his spare time solely to doing school work. His effort in the limited time he was working was so focused and intense that he essentially traded concentration for time. The lesson from this isn’t that you should give minimal time to your studies, but it’s that you shouldn’t assume that because you’ve spent 5 hours studying, you’ve learnt a lot. 1 hour of intense focus and concentration is far better than 5 hours of distracted working.

So, practice organising yourself consistently, in all areas of your life, so that being organised becomes a habit that can boost your productivity throughout the time you’re studying.

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Don’t over-complicate the law for yourself

Law students can often be very competitive and so it can be easy to feel like others are running intellectual circles around you. Honestly, in these past two years, I have come across some people who do the absolute most. It might be because they enjoy thinking in convoluted ways. It might be because they feel the need to demonstrate their mental prowess in front of the class – I don’t know. But my advice here is that there is really no need to make the law more difficult for yourself than it already is just to keep up with other people.  For instance, whether you’re speaking in a seminar or writing an essay, you don’t have to use obscure or unnecessarily complicated words to try to convince others that you know what you’re talking about.

There’s a saying, often attributed to Einstein, that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough

Keeping this quote in mind has been very useful for me throughout my degree, especially when it comes to speaking in class (the struggle was very real in first year) and also solving problem questions. Take a methodical, step-by-step approach to understand and explain things and it should be very clear to your lecturers/teachers/examiners that you know what you’re doing. 

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Treat Law school like a marathon, not a sprint

Law school isn’t one of those things that you can ‘take easy’ for the year and then buckle down and smash in the month before exams. Well, it might be for some anomalies of intellect but I wouldn’t advise you risk leaving reading and doing your work until the final moment just because you are convinced that you are the anomaly. 

The tips I’ve given above, such as doing the reading and staying organised are things that you can work on throughout the year and the rest of your degree so that even if you’re not amazing at first, with persistence and perseverance, you genuinely can be.

If you make an effort every day over the course of the year you save yourself from the stress and anxiety that comes with trying to do months’ worth of learning in a couple of weeks. In this case, slow and steady really does win the race. Take the time to experiment with learning and studying techniques and build productive habits for your success. Also, dedicate time to socialising and making positive friendships.

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Law school is a lot of things. It’s fascinating (when you take a module that you like), confusing, challenging and sometimes even fun (can you imagine!). It can also be a struggle and believe me when I say, I understand the struggle. But as my sister once told me, you can’t spell struggle without result. The last bit of advice (for now, anyway) is to have an optimistic and growth mindset so that your result will be positive.

I started this post with an Elle Woods reference, so it’s fitting that I end with one as well:

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Onwards and upwards from your fellow Law student,

Anoshamisa 🙂

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