Nick Dowse's six tips for doing well at law school

[Prologue: as i was cleaning out my computer recently (November 2015), I found this post that I made in 2011 but never uploaded to the website... my bad. Uploading it now for posterity’s sake. Would be interested in your thoughts.]

Recently [sic] I was one panellist of five at QUOTALS’s [now defunct?!?!?!?!] “The Panel” event. It was an opportunity for students to speak with and ask questions of people who’ve successfully made it through law school and who had begun their careers.

I got to thinking about how that opportunity had not been available to me when I went through law school and I thought I would try to compile a list of tips for doing well at law school.

Tip 1: Be committed to the study of law


I saw a lot of people drop out of law school or do extremely badly simply because they were not committed to studying law. In some cases they were simply not committed to studying per se.

What I wish someone had told me at the outset is that law school is not easy. An appreciation of that fact before you get too far in is critical.

Other degrees are easier than a Bachelor of Laws. If you want to do well at law school, you’ll probably have to wind back on the uni bar booze sessions and weekend escapades a bit.

Law school requires something more than a cursory application of intellectual effort. If you cannot commit to something more than that, you will probably not do too well at law school.

That means attending lectures, participating in tutorials and actually spending time studying.

Tip 2: Make friends


When I first started my law degree, I was very shy and did not have any friends. I didn’t make my first real friend until maybe my second year. I realise now that I should have made more of an effort to make friends in my first year. It is so important to be able to talk to friends about law school assessment and issues. I did poorly in my first few assignments because I didn’t talk to other people about what they thought the issues were in the assignment question.

I think it’s very important to have some friends, or study buddies, to bounce ideas off for assessment and to share the trials and tribulations of law school.

The friends I made in law school are my best friends in the world. Make friends early on.

Tip 3: Try hard right from the start


This links in with tip 1.

No one told me how important a good GPA was to a career in the law. There are many people that will say that your GPA is not everything, and that’s true. But it’s a bloody good starting point.

And the trick to having a good GPA is to try hard right from the start. I don’t know much about maths, but it seems to me that if you start off with good marks its easy to maintain a good GPA. You will do yourself a big favour if you start off your GPA with 6s and 7s.

The question is, then, what do I need to do to try hard? Read on...

Tip 4: Don’t study hard, study smart


At first blush, this tip seems to conflict with tip 3. But it doesn’t.

What someone did not make clear to me during my studies was that there is a big difference between studying hard and studying smart. It is one thing to read every case cover to cover for every subject and have a superb understanding of the subtleties in each of the judgments. It is quite another to look only at the headnote of a case, an analysis of it in a textbook and a summary of pertinent points someone has written in their notes.

In my experience, I could do as well on an exam as a person who had read the case cover to cover even though I had not done so myself.

To that end, I recommend you start with what someone has done before you.

I do not see any need to reinvent the wheel when you study. If someone before you has been generous enough to give you their notes, my view is that you would be crazy not to utilise them. There is simply not enough time available to you to literally start notes from scratch and read every case and every textbook and every article each semester. For that reason, I suggest that you start with someone else’s notes for the subject.

“Starting with” someone else’s notes is not the same thing as printing them out and relying solely on them to answer exam questions. That’s not studying smart; that’s just stupid - refer to tip 1. Starting with someone else’s notes still requires you to try hard and study smart. So, what then does “starting with” mean?

Tip 5: Update and consolidate


If you’ve followed tips 1-4 you should have available to you by the end of the semester at least the following:
  • lecture slides
  • notes taken from the lecture
  • study guide
  • textbook
  • tutorial questions and answers
  • someone else’s previous notes

To best prepare for your exam, you need to take the above information and update then consolidate it.

This is the process I followed:
  1. Topic by topic, read through the lecture slides and the notes taken from the lecture
  2. Have the previous notes with you during this process and make sure the same information is in the notes. If not, add the relevant information to the notes in the appropriate spot. Support the information from the lecture with info from the study guide, textbook and tutorial answers
  3. Check that the topics mentioned for the topic in the study guide were in the lecture and are consequently in the notes. Update the notes where necessary.
  4. For each topic, look through the information in the notes and make sure you understand it. This is the most time consuming part - you actually need to understand what the information is. This may involve reading the relevant section of the textbook, or actually reading the section of the statute or the relevant passage of the case.
  5. Find the tutorial question(s) that applies that particular topic and see how the answer should go
  6. Make sure the notes answer the question in the same way - ie the flow of information in the notes matches the way the tutor answered the question. If they don’t, change them around so that the information appears in the same way the tutorial question was answered.
  7. Rinse and repeat for each topic in the subject.
  8. By now, you should have an updated set of notes.
  9. Go through each of the tutorial questions and answer them using only the notes. No need to write full sentences, just do dot points.
  10. Cross check your answers based solely on the notes with the actual tutorial answer. They should be roughly the same. If not, adjust the notes so that they are.

Following this process should allow you to update an existing set of notes. In the process, you will also consolidate the information from the lectures, tutorials, textbooks and study guide into the notes so that they can be your sole point of reference in the exam.

Tip 6: Learn how to answer exam questions


The correct way to answer exam questions is a skill that you can, and must, learn. It’s like riding a bike: it’s not something you know how to do naturally, but once you pick it up, you’ll always remember.

The essential starting point is to adhere to one of the numerous acronyms that guide you through an answer. ISAAC, IRAC etc etc.

Practice is key. Take the opportunity to do as many practice exam questions as possible. Run your answers past your tutor to make sure you got the right end of the stick (sometimes subjects even make the suggested answers available).

In exams, I never write in full sentences, and I never waste time writing out full citations. Just write enough detail for the examiner to know you know what you’re talking about and the shorthand version of the case authority (no year and citation etc, just party names).