You may already have an idea of how the law is taught from movies and books about law school, or from speaking with people you know who have been to law school. The popular image is of late nights in the law library and lectures spent being asked to recite back from what you’ve read. This isn’t so far from the truth, but it isn’t necessary to spend every waking hour studying and practicing if you take the time to figure out how to learn the law efficiently. These resources will help you figure out what works and what is a waste of time.
The first thing you need to know going in is that the law is usually taught by the case method, which originated at Harvard Law School almost a century ago. This method relies on students reading assigned cases by themselves, trying to figure out the rules those cases stand for, and then being asked to talk about them in class. The traditional law classroom is some combination of lecture and Socratic questioning, which means that the professor asks the students for the answer, and attempts to lead them to the correct conclusion with further questions. Today, different professors may use different techniques, but this is still a very common format for first year classes.
The first thing you need to know is how to read a legal opinion, or ‘case.' I highly recommend that everyone starting law school read the following article as early as possible, as it lays out very clearly what you’re supposed to be doing when you read legal opinions as a law student.
Orin Kerr, How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students, 11 Green Bag 2d 51 (2007)
There are also whole books devoted to the topic of how to effectively read and learn the law, and by following their advice, you can save yourself a tremendous amount of time by making sure you’re getting what you need out of your reading the first time. Here are some examples:
How to Brief a Case (CALI)
This is an exercise designed to introduce first-semester law students to the basic elements of a typical case "brief" and to teach them general methodology for writing their own briefs.
Law School Academic Success Project
Videos covering learning strategies for law students.
While everyone will benefit from completing their assigned reading and participating in class, most law students also use other strategies to improve their understanding of the material. Many of these strategies are covered in the general law school guides above, but here are some more resources that are more specific to studying.
Outlining an area of the law is one of the most common study methods. Outlining means creating a summary of the law. Typically, students create an outline for each of their classes, so you might make an outline for the Law of Contracts, and another for Constitutional Law. There are several philosophies on how best to outline, and some successful students don’t use outlines at all. What is important is that your study method prepares you to take the exam, and helps you learn the law so you succeed on the bar exam and in practice. Here are some resources to learn how to outline effectively.
One mistake many law students make is thinking that they can substitute a commercial outline for one they create themselves. After all, they’re created by professionals, right? The mistake here is in thinking that having an outline is the valuable part. You won’t have time to refer to your outline much during the exam, so the real value of an outline is how the process of making one helps you to understand the law in a deep way. Nevertheless, comparing your outline to a commercial outline before your exams can be a good way to be confident that you haven’t overlooked anything, or made mistakes about the law.
Westlaw Outlines from the Black Letter Series
While the casebook method is based on reading primary sources of law, mostly legal opinions issued by courts, many students find referring to secondary sources helpful. There are many kinds of secondary sources. Some are organized like traditional textbooks with chapters explaining each topic, while others are organized to facilitate different kinds of studying, like presenting legal problems and helping you walk through how you should analyze them.
You can view subject-specific study guides here.
In addition to your doctrinal classes, you’ll be learning about legal research and legal writing. These are two of the most important skills for practice, and they can be difficult to learn. Expect your research and writing assignments to take more time than a research paper would have in your undergraduate studies, and get started early.
Legal research is a skill that can take a long time to master. Don’t expect your excellent Google skills to transfer over perfectly. You’ll receive instruction in legal research from your class instructors, the law librarians, and the representatives of the major legal databases, but even after all of that, you might be confused as to what you need to do. If so, please visit with one of the law librarians. They’re experts in legal research and they are eager to help you figure out what you need to do.
Some other resources for legal research:
Legal writing is another skill that takes practice to develop. These resources can help supplement what you learn in your legal writing class.
Learning how to properly cite sources using Bluebook format can be confusing, but it is important for your legal writing assignments, and especially if you plan to work on a journal. Many students recommend reading through the Bluebook cover to cover to familiarize yourself with it. It may also be helpful to tab your bluebook so you can quickly refer to different sections.
These resources can help you learn Bluebook citation with less headache: