Last semester is over. The new year has begun. What do you do now? Do you continue to push forward in law school the same as you have? If not, what changes do you need to make? The answer is that you need to continue to have a growth mindset. Whether you are a 1L going into your second semester or a 3L going into your final semester of law school. Each semester is an opportunity to grow and make positive changes as a law student. As I have mentioned at length,1Like 5 blog posts worth of length your mindset is important in law school and this is no different now as you start your Spring Semester. Let’s talk about how to accomplish this.
The first thing you should ALWAYS do when a new semester begins is to look back. That is the only way that you will be able to make productive and positive change to your study habits. Review all of your final exams from the previous semesters. Read all of the comments from your professor for each exam. If your professor gives you a sample answer, then you should look at that too. You should also make an appointment to meet with your professor about your exam to get their opinions on your exam and your exam writing in general. You should do this whether you got an A or a C or anything in between.2YES! Even if you did well on an exam. I will get into this more later on, but you want to know what you did right just as much as what you did wrong on exams. This is a crucial step to maintaining a growth mindset as the Spring Semester starts, so I suggest doing this in the first couple of weeks. Time will get away from you as the semester starts to pick up and, after you review your exams, you want to make sure you are instituting any changes you deem necessary early on in the semester. So get to it!
I know what you are probably thinking: “Why would I want to review an exam that I did poorly on? I don’t want to relive that exam, the stress that was caused by it, and the disappointment after I got the grade.” A lot of people feel this way, but you cannot fall into that trap. You will not be able to improve or make necessary changes to your exam approach without first seeing what didn’t work and why it didn’t work. You may also be asking yourself:3You’re really asking a lot of yourself! “Why would I need to look at an exam I got an A in? I crushed it, what more needs to be learned from this exam?” While you’re correct, you crushed it and should be proud of that, you also want to see what worked for your approach on that exam so you can replicate it for future classes and exams.
As you review your exams4And before you meet with your professor. you should keep a list of what worked and what didn’t work in each exam dividing your list into substantive issues and structural issues. For substantive issues pay attention to whether you had problems issue spotting, identifying the appropriate sub issue, or understanding the law and its exceptions. For structural issues focus on whether you clearly identified the issue, had a fully formed rule including defining important legal terms and focusing on any pertinent exceptions to the law, and had a well-argued legal analysis that wasn’t merely a restatement of the facts or legally/factually conclusory. It’s also important to note that every professor is different and may want different structures in their exam so some of your grade may have come down to not knowing what your professor wanted. To make sure this does not happen again, do not be afraid to ask your professors this semester what they want from you in an exam answer.
Now that you have your list of what didn’t work for you on an exam, you can review the exams with your professor and see if they have anything to add to that list. Then it’s time to put a plan in place to address these issues. For substantive problems, you should focus on learning the law and applying it early. Put a plan in place now to start outlining in the first week of your Spring Semester and do practice questions as you outline so you get work with your issue spotting and analysis throughout the semester.5Do not use full practice exams at this time because it is too early. You should do practice questions after you outline each relevant area of law using questions from your textbook or a reliable commercial outline. I like the Examples & Explanations series by Aspen publishing. For example, if you are taking Torts, when you finish outlining the section on Intentional Torts, you can go to one of these sources and do questions just on intentional torts to help you get comfortable with issue spotting and forming your analysis. For structural issues, start doing writing the answers to these practice questions in whatever format your professors in the Spring Semester prefer (IRAC, CRAC, etct). You want to pay close attention to your analysis to make sure that you are actually applying the facts to the law. A lot of students end up using their analysis to simply restate the fats or conclude (using factually or legally conclusory language).6A legal conclusory statement is one that contains a legal conclusion but is not grounded in a rule of law. For example: “D was negligent when she crossed the double yellow line and hit P.” Here, the statement concludes that the defendant was negligent but does not go into the elements of negligence or how the facts apply (or do not apply) to the facts from the exam question. A factually conclusory statement is one that is not grounded in or explicitly connected to the facts in the exam problem. For example: “It is clear that D was negligent, because he breached his duty.” In this statement, there are no facts used in the analysis and simply makes a broad conclusion about the law. The more practice you get with structing your answers, the more it will become second nature to you so that by the time the exam comes, you will not even have to think about how to organize your answer. As your Spring Semester progresses, your practice will progress too and by the time your classes are done, you will have a fully formed outline and a basic understanding of the law that you can then jump into with full practice exams.
I know that this seems like a lot to do each semester in law school, especially as your semesters get busier. But this is a skill that you will not only use while in law school. You are doing this now to develop this skill for when you are in practice being a real, live attorney! When I was still a practicing trial attorney, I would speak to the jurors, court staff, and judges after each trial to find out ways to improve on my next trial. Before writing an appellate brief or going to argue in front of the Appellate Court, I would review my notes from my previous appeal to find ways to make this one better. As an attorney, you are constantly trying to better yourself and your skills so that you can better represent your client. Start developing that skill now while you are in law school so you can maintain that growth mindset throughout your career.