The following interview is with a student who managed to succeed in a highly competitive environment at Cornell Law, one of the elite top 14 law schools in the country. When all grades were in, this student placed in the top 10% of their class 1L year. I find many 0Ls enter law school with a desire to excel but no idea what do to get there. Hopefully the advice in this interview will set you on the right path. Bear in mind that this represents just one person’s strategy for getting good grades. Many strategies work well, but you have to get a lot of advice to find the tactics that are best for you.
We have preserved the student’s anonymity. Interview by Evan Jones, co-blogger on lawschooli.com
Let’s start by talking about undergrad. Would you say there was anything in your undergrad experience that particularly helped to prepare you for law school? Something you would recommend that other prospective law students do?
If people haven’t warned you, law school is reading, reading, and then… more reading. I’ve heard people say that “logic” and “rule” based backgrounds help like engineering and math. That seems off to me. Same goes for economics. Apart from one week in Torts and Contracts, economics won’t play a large part in 1L- maybe in some higher level courses, but definitely not in 1L. The only thing that can really give you a boost is a reading-intensive major. I did a lot of classics and history where I was reading in English, Latin and Greek for hours, so the transition into law school was not a shock at all. There are a lot of kids that get hit by a brick wall within the first week of 1L because they’re reading five or six hours every day, day after day, and they’ve never done that before.
Some quick background stuff: what did you do for LSAT prep. What materials did you use and how long did you study. Did you self-study or take a class? Is there anything that you found particularly helpful that you’d recommend?
The long and winding road of my LSAT preparation began with a Kaplan course, but that was useless. I ended up getting the “Logic Games Bible” and the companion books from that series for the other sections. They really are the best. I started with the Games first. I made numerous photocopies of every game that LSAC has released. I only used real LSAT games. I really was all about predicting the patterns, types, and difficulties of the games. Over the course of 20 years, you can really see they’re making these things harder and harder, and it’s important to note that. As I found, one game may take a (good test taker) four minutes; another will take twelve. It’s important not to freak out when you get a twelve-minute game as the first game of the section.
After I got the format down and got familiar with the kinds of questions and what the exam was about I did timed sections only. The whole idea behind the test is that it’s a time crunch. The first ten questions you want to get done quickly and correctly because #18 or #23 could take 3.5 minutes. They’re all worth the same, though, so there’s a fine line between speed, precision, and accuracy. I found taking timed sections to be the only way to go study-wise. I would do three a day and then built up to doing five a day, sometimes in a row, sometimes with breaks, to get my stamina up. I never did more than five a day or studied more than 3 hours a day- the idea being is that the test is a focused 3-hour exertion, pushing at home beyond that limit does no good. It worked (well enough) for me.
Oh, buy one of those LSAT timer watches. They’re not against the LSAC rules and they take the mental effort out of seeing where you are in the exam. The whole damn exam is a time crunch.
Now you chose Cornell University Law, can you tell us a bit about your decision to attend Cornell? Has it been what you expected?
Cornell is an amazing school. It’s small. We joke and call it Myron Taylor High because the main building is Myron Taylor Hall. So if you’re not into everyone knowing you/your business in 1L, this is not the place for you. The professors are great. Almost all my professors wrote our textbooks, Kevin Clermont and Robert Hillman included–they’re both awesome. Professors are eager and approachable overall and receptive to questions in office hours or after class. (Though, for the record, brown-nosing does NOTHING in law school. I have no idea why people do it. Grading is entirely blind except for maybe the class participation boost.) Cornell’s ConLaw Professor, Michael Dorf, is top in his field and was stolen from Columbia. He’s awesome. There are speakers as well- too many to attend your 1L year. I think ten federal judges visited for brown bag lunches over the course of the year. In short, the school is everything you’d expect from a T14 and more. There’s a new wing being built now- it’s going to be done in 2015, and it looks amazing from what the plans show. There are tons of clubs doing things all the time- I didn’t join any 1L because I wanted to focus on grades. (Grades matter, clubs don’t. Getting a job isn’t like applying to undergrad, as I found with my 1L summer job. Softs really don’t matter.)
The only downside is being in Ithaca, but I don’t want to harp on that because when you’re not in class, you’re reading, and when you’re not reading or in class, you’re sleeping. That is 1L.
That’s U Chicago too all over. Any of the smaller schools are going to feel like high school 2.0, I think. Now you clearly put in an exceptional performance 1L year, making it into the top 10 percent of your class. I think what people reading this are going to want to know about most are your methods. Let’s start with your everyday practice when 1L classes began. How did you approach the workload early on?
First, and I know this may sound silly, but I’m genuinely surprised by the people who don’t go to class. Cornell is $56K a year, and you don’t show up? What’s going on there? So, showing up is part of the battle. Also… that means showing up not hungover. This is dense stuff. There is no passive learning in law school.
Second, and again, a NO BRAINER, do your reading. Kevin Clermont told us that “law is a self-taught subject.” He is right. I loved Torts, but my professor notoriously got off topic. It was immensely interesting, but I ended up teaching myself the material. Class really supplements your learning; it won’t teach you the material. Understanding: that is the name of the game.
Third, keep reading and re-reading until you understand the material. Example: We had two textbook pages from Kant for Crim Law. Really dense stuff. I spent 45 minutes reading and getting a grasp on the material. Waste of time? I got cold-called the next day on a Kant question. Now, that was a 1/100 shot, but the point is that you really shouldn’t go to sleep not knowing what you just read because no one will be there to hold your hand to the finish line.
Fourth, I made sure not to fall behind early on. It’s easy the first month to do so. It’s just reading after all, but don’t skip any! It’s OK to fall behind if something comes up once you have the swing of things, but NEVER more than a week or two even then. I didn’t do the reading for a course for two weeks to focus on a brief 2nd semester. It was a big payoff. Aced the brief and then spent an entire Saturday and Sunday catching up. However, most people won’t/can’t spend 12 hours+ catching up. I saw a lot of kids fall behind from sheer laziness or arrogance. There’s no cramming and getting A’s unless you’re Rainman. It’s the volume and density that will kill you, and if it piles up to an unmanageable level, well, there’s no abandoning ship, you just sink with it.
Where did you seek out advice on how to approach classes? What worked for you and did you try anything that didn’t work that you had to scrap?
I talked to kids who did well in law school, and they all said the same thing: there are various methods, do what works for you. Here’s the best advice: figure out what you need to do for a class, and tailor your strategy to that.
For Contracts, the professor was a stickler for details on cold-calls, and if you messed up, he made note of it. It was imperative to know the details of the case on your cold-call. If you messed up the law, that’s fine, we’re all learning, but he wanted dexterity with the facts. So, I briefed for that class. My briefs were usually about 3/4 of a page single spaced.
Torts, on the other hand, that was mostly textbook notes because the cold-calls were really big picture stuff. Questions like “why is the judge taking this approach to the problem.” Yeah, there are facts involved, but its much more “forest thinking,” so super detailed briefs weren’t necessary. I did begin taking down briefs though, because I wanted a document to work with at the end of the year, and I was thankful for it.
So, in the end, I ended up briefing cases in most courses. Some people don’t have to and get As. I had to, but it’s also important to realize that you get fast at it by the end. You know what to ignore and what’s important. So if it’s slow in the beginning, and it will be- don’t kid yourself- stick with it an keep the faith.
Oh, something I totally ignored: flash cards. Some people use them, but I found it silly.
Let’s talk about note taking specifically. I know strategies vary on this. I had a friend who basically transcribed class, while I was a pretty spare note taker. Where did you fall on this spectrum?
I developed my own highlighting color system early on. I found it EXTREMELY helpful. Orange for cases, yellow for key reasoning/rationale, blue pen for facts, etc., blue highlighter for doctrines. Trust me, it works.
I guess I was a heavy note taker at home because I liked briefing. For class, you need to figure out what the professor is like. Example: my CivPro professor notoriously throws in questions that he mentions in class that are perhaps tangential to the reading; so, I wrote down every word he said. The random question on the exam last term related to the oral debates on the senate/house floor in passing the federal venue statute. For another class like CrimLaw, I was quite sparse and really only supplemented my briefs with any particular opinions my professor had on the doctrine (because when it comes to exam time, you don’t want to argue for felony murder if your professor thinks it’s a terrible doctrine.)
The lesson really is that you need to do whatever makes you learn the material thoroughly and efficiently. Some friends read and only took margin notes and took extensive notes in class. On the other hand, I tend to take extensive notes at home & minimal notes from class, because that let me listen to the professor more without worrying about getting notes down into my brief on the rationale and holding etc.
And obviously finals went pretty well for you. Can you tell us a bit about how classes and finals were structured at Cornell? Was 1st semester as important as 2nd? Stuff like that.
First semester: 4 finals with two days in between and a 4-day reading period before the first final. Second semester: 4 finals with three days in between and a 4-day reading period before the first final.
All classes had a final. Lawyering had two briefs per semester.
Damn, they throw you right in it there. Now, in some detail, how did your study build as finals approached. Tell me about the 1st semester, when you had yet to take law school exams. Tell me a bit about your outlining strategy, for example.
It’s pretty scary. I always considered myself a smart person, but people tell you that a law school exam is the great equalizer. They were right. Law schools exams are a beast. And if anyone reading this has ever studied Ancient Greek, then you know I’m not exaggerating.
The most important thing I did is have a game plan or a plan of attack for each kind of question. And while this is law school course specific, you’ll know what I mean soon enough: if you see a negligence question and you’re going through breach, make sure you cover all the ways to determine the appropriate standard of care. The statute on health code standards may be on point for the exam, but would custom in the industry make better sense in the restaurant business? What are the costs of government regulation? That’s the kind of thinking that gets an A. Don’t just grab the low hanging fruit.
I also made “quick sheets” on the cover of my outlines that were 1-page summaries of the entire semester. Like for contracts: I had a box on all the ways you could form a valid contract, and another box on all the defenses to those ways to form contracts. That way in the heat of the exam you don’t miss a theory that was an easy application or forget that the Statute of Frauds must always be satisfied under certain conditions.
Make it manageable in size. If it’s longer than 40 pages single-spaced and formatted, it’s useless. You won’t have the time to use it. The knowledge needs to be in your head. The outline is more like a reminder/lifeline. If you go into the exam thinking the outline will be a substitute for your brain, you’re cruising for a B-range grade.
Make a table of contents. There’s no time to treasure hunt.
Color code the outline. Makes it easy to find things. I made cases ORANGE. Doctrines BLUE. Key terms YELLOW. (Basically mirroring my textbook highlighting system) I don’t know the neurobiology on color coding, but in a time crunch, it makes it easy to find things in a sea of words.
Law school exams are applications, not regurgitation. So, in my view, there is no sense having extremely detailed case analysis in your outline. (I made this mistake in Property, my lowest grade of the year.) You’re applying, applying, applying. Knowing Palsgraff like the back of your hand is great, but what you really need to be able to do is apply the differences in ideology between Judge Cardozo and Andrews. For reference, I did not cite one case in my torts exam, and I had the model answer. I was successful because I applied the material well. Some people find it helpful to apply by comparison (like you do in briefs, oral arguments, etc.), but these professors aren’t stupid. You’re not going to get a hypothetical that remarkably has to do with a case you read where a person gets hit by a train when they failed to get out of their car and look around at a railroad crossing. Talk about how the law you have learned applies to these facts.
The perennial question of law school is whether to do group or individual study or some mix. I was kind of a mix guy with probably more time as a lone wolf. What did you go with?
I studied in a group for the second semester, but only after I had really gone over the material. I think the worst thing you can do is go into a study group not knowing what the hell is going on and thinking the study group will clear it up. It’s also going to drag the group down.
So, I think that it can be hit or miss with the group thing. If you’re a lone wolf, do what works. If you’re someone that feeds off of other people, do that. I guess I’m right in between. I like to learn on my own and then discuss the tough material in a group. I wish I did it first semester a bit more, but I’m not kicking myself.
Oh, if you do end up doing a study group. Don’t feel like it necessarily has to be structured around going over essays. The best session I ever had involved a 45 minute tangent on personal jurisdiction in civil procedure than had to do with moving an 1820’s case to 2012.
How about supplements and commercial outlines? Did you use any and which did you find most helpful?
- Torts: Dobb’s Hornbook. I literally outlined this book and combined it with in-class material and aced the exam. The hornbook will clear up ALL the problems you’ll experience with the difference between duty and prox cause and other nuances of torts.
- ConLaw: Cherminsky’s “Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies.” It’s the industry standard for a reason.
- Crim: Dressler’s Understanding Criminal Law. He’s the authority, and the book is outlined VERY well structurally, and the footnotes have great case analogies.
- Property: Such a vast subject it can be tough to outline. I used a combination of “Understanding Property” and Krier’s Supplement, “Gilbert Law Summaries on Property.”
- CivPro: I’m not sure if outlines even help in civil procedure, but if you’re going to use anything, use Clermont’s Black Letter Series and Hornbook.
- Contracts: “Principles of Contract Law,” the Hornbook by Hillman, is great! (and has a lot of his corny jokes).
How about total hours of study? Do you feel like you just hung with the pack or were you among the heavier studiers? I will say that at my school the good performers typically put in a little more work than the undistinguished middle. I can’t think of a counterexample.
There is a direct correlation between time spent reading and studying to performance- up to a point. Then, after that moment it’s a flat-line or worse, a negative return. Again, everyone’s balance is different. I remember in the three days between my Crimlaw exam and contracts this past semester I took a day off and read a book and watched a movie because the CrimLaw Exam was brutal and just demoralized me.
My rule of thumb and this really didn’t vary, is that there are 2 hours of reading per credit hour. My torts class was four days a week (4 credits), so I had two hours of reading for each class. That’s a roughly accurate metric. Some days it was 90 minutes. Some days was 150 minutes. Civpro can definitely take longer. CrimLaw was usually shorter.
When it comes to my personal level of studying, I know that I studied WAY less total hours than a few other kids, who literally looked like they were chained in the library and never left. I can tell you that looking like you’re working hard does not mean you’re actually working hard (somehow people don’t really process this.)
I think my working fewer hours had to do with efficiency. I came into the library, put on my noise-canceling headphones (invest in Bose; the typing in exams alone is enough to drive a sane person mad), sat alone, did my work, and left. I always said the reading room was for amateurs. If you want to get nothing done, go sit in a huge room with 45 people you know. Yeah, it’s fun, but I always preferred to kick back once my work was done.
I can say one thing for sure, though: No one studied “lightly” and did well. There is no faking it.
How about practice tests and such? When did you do them and how many did you do?
I never once did a practice test before I had FULLY outlined and studied the material. Tell me what sense it makes to do them before that point? It will only make you anxious and freak out.
Once I was ready, I looked at some practice exams, but I never wrote anything out. I would outline the questions by hand, as I would do on real tests, and mentally go over the points I would write out on test day. In this way, I managed to get more tests done and expose myself to more variety of questions. Also, past exams are the easiest way to see what’s DEFINITELY going to be on the exam. My contracts professor was obsessed with economic duress. My torts professor could not get enough of the difference between independent contractors and respondeat superior. My civil procedure professor loved the interaction between counterclaims and personal jurisdiction. There are patterns. Find them. Also, if your professor is nice enough to give model answers, study the hell out of these. In the end, the professor is giving you a template for how he thinks the question should be written. Study it. Mirror it. This sounds simple, but most people don’t do it.
Also, if you see something on a practice test and you don’t understand it, make sure you do before test day. The biggest mistake I made in Crim was seeing something on “employer corporate liability” on a prior year’s test and going, “We didn’t cover that. He must have done it in a prior class, but it won’t be on our exam.” Imagine my surprise when it was a section of my exam. Luckily in situations like that, the curve works in your favor when you have learned that stuff.
Alright, let’s talk about the big game. What did you do on finals day itself that worked for you? Is there anything about your approach to sitting for exams on test day that you would recommend?
My method was a little nuts. I would wake up 5 hours before the exam. Whenever that was- for contracts 1st semester it was 4 AM. I would then proceed to go over my outline cold. Practically like I could recite it from memory. I would then literally go over every page of the textbook, to familiarize myself with all the material we had covered. It wasn’t like a cramming session though. It was merely an EXTREMELY thorough review. I don’t know if I’d recommend it to most people.
Bring gum. Chew it.
Bring a sugary drink. I just read “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Kahneman. The brain runs out of energy at 45mins-1hr. Fructose powers it up again. It’s science, not a gimmick.
Bring earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. 100 people rapidly typing is, perhaps, the scariest part of the exam.
The exam itself, well, that’s the whole rub right? I had a simple method of answering every issue. I called it “RAP.” Rule, Application, Principle. E.g.: Employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees when the employee commits a tortious act in the course of their job performance. Here, Bob hit the pedestrian with his car while he was making a pizza delivery. Vicarious liability is important because it provides incentives to employers to hire good and responsible employees, reducing overall costs to society and increasing efficiency.
Obviously, that’s a very simple example. They’re never three sentences. The heart of RAP is the application, but the policy or the rationale for the rule and application is the deeper layer of the onion that gets the A. If you RAP every issue correctly, you’re in good shape.
Now, what did you change up 2nd semester? Did you just stick with what worked or were little adjustments needed? Did you do anything to become more efficient your second time through it?
First, I began studying in groups for finals, as I said above. It was very effective.
Second, I outlined less in places and more in places, where needed. This lesson will come from your experience first semester. You’ll realize that longer is not better when it comes to outlines. The endless tidbits on what X theorist says and Y theorist counters are not going to make a huge difference. You want the broad theory strokes. Where I outlined more: I focused more on pet peeves for 2nd semester. My contracts professor loved economic duress. My property professor had an absolute thing for negative easements. My CivPro professor was fascinated with international civil procedure. First semester I didn’t focus enough on these pet peeves; I missed my torts professor’s love of the correlativity of rights and duties. If I had focused on that I would have nailed an entire essay easily instead of grinding it out in a painful way come exam day.
Third, I took more precise notes and edited as I went. A paradigm of my process for Contracts: read case. Brief case. Note take heavily in class to supplement brief with professor’s thoughts. After class, delete all irrelevant briefed and noted material in light of class discussion and full understanding of the material.
This way, at the end of the semester, instead of dealing with a 130-page document of briefs and notes, you’ll have a more manageable 60-80. It’s like the first cut of an outline and it paid off huge when it came to the end of the semester, otherwise when you don’t really remember what went on in class that day and you’re left sifting through the at times incomprehensible notes you’ve taken.
Moving off the subject of finals now, a big part of law school for me was managing stress. I was a very regular bar review attendee. What do you do to get your mind off school in Ithaca?
Gym or some kind of sport. Personal thing but I’m a big believer in balancing the neurotransmitters in the brain. Working out releases all kinds of good stuff: dopamine, endorphins, etc. It’s been a while since my days of neurobiology but you know, whatever you do to find your balance you have to do it.
I found a surprising amount of time to read in law school. I managed to finish all of “Game of Thrones” (very light reading and I recommend it to all those stressed out) and a handful of other classics and historical non-fiction. Not to mention there are fringe benefits of being a reader in that reading in your spare time only makes you a faster reader when it comes to working…
Being social is important. 1L is a hard, hard year. At the end of the semester, you will be swamped. It was lockdown, because it really felt like my apartment was a supermax prison. I left only to go to the gym. Some days, I didn’t leave. So, end of story: early on in the semester, enjoy yourself when you can. That being said, there were plenty of times I forwent going to Chapter House or Dunbars and worked on my persuasive brief, or did some extra reading, or got ahead. Law school is a numbers game. When 90% of everyone is going out, sometimes I thought that it was the most natural selection of who would do well come exams. Then again, some people can just get it done with less. I, for one, do NOT like reading cases with a hangover, so I made sure any night I went out I didn’t have work the next day.
One day of the week was mine, and I didn’t do anything. Friday from 6 PM to Saturday night was mine. I went to the movies, got dinner, drank, played poker, whatever was happening. I turned off law school. You need to create a buffer or else 1L will own your life and you will go nuts.
I slept a lot. After a particularly rough weekend of studying, I remember just taking a personal day on Monday and sleeping until 2 PM and missing two classes. I was very in touch with when I was getting worn out. Being self-aware is important. You can’t study effectively when you’re burning the candle at both ends.
Anything else you want to tell future 1Ls at Cornell? Any professors to watch out for? Anything you want to impart to 1Ls in general?
A bit on some Cornell Profs:
Hillman- I found him great and liked his dry sense of humor. He’s big on theory (Williston and Coudert). And obsessed with unconscionability. Wendel- Amazing professor. Pay attention to the leitmotifs of his lectures: judge vs jury; rights/duties; standards of care; strict liability. Clermont was Brilliant. Write down everything he says. Don’t stop reading until you know the material. Rachlinski had meandering lectures but he us a very smart man. Pay attention to the problems from the book. Ohlin: exam is a time crunch. Watch out. Otherwise, amazing lecturer. Underkuffler: nice woman and smart, but maybe steer clear of her classes if you can. Lectures were painful.
Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview with us. I wish you success and keep in touch!
It was my pleasure. I hope the next generation of 1Ls finds this helpful. Best of luck to you all.