Strategies for succeeding in law school

  • September 14, 2020
  • Daniel Gatto

Law school can be hard but it is also easy to just go about it poorly. December exams are often difficult for first-year law students and one or two exams typically count for 100 per cent of a final grade in a course. Therefore, by the time you know that you are not doing well it can be difficult to turn things around. Some law faculties even have a practice of not counting December exams to entirely remove the impact of a poor December exam from final course grades. There are also some North American faculties that operate on a “Pass/Fail” basis.

Poor grades in law school can be avoided by preparing an adequate study plan. The right study plan does not need to be complicated and should focus on the essential because time is usually not on your side. A clear strategy for how to tackle the challenges of law school may not necessarily pronounce itself in a timely manner to a new student. I propose the following suggestions to help you better manage your studies and achieve academic success:

  • Get summaries from previous years to read as you go through the course. Identify deficiencies in the summaries which may include errors or changes in the state of the law. Consolidate the summaries with your own if it may be helpful. Use Lexum summaries (for criminal and constitutional law in particular). There are tales that some of the best students do not read any cases and only focus on summaries. This is, of course, unadvisable for a number of obvious reasons. Also note that simply reading all of the material is not what will enable you to succeed, though this may have been the case for you in undergrad. Furthermore, know that you will probably not have the time to read all of the materials for each of your courses. However you prepare, focus your exam preparation on short, tightly-worded summaries with any rule of law (ratio decidendi) that can be derived from the case clearly identified.
  • When writing exams, try to structure your answers around the “IRAC” method: issue, rule, analysis and conclusion. Identify the laws and cases that you have covered in class that are relevant to the legal issues at hand and apply the relevant rules of law. There is generally no clear-cut right or wrong answer to the questions you will have to address on an exam, there are only arguments that are more or less likely to succeed over others in court. Proposing only a practical way of solving a problem without adequately addressing the laws and cases discussed in class will not get you the bulk of points needed to get a good grade on the exam, even if such an approach may make you an effective practitioner later on.
  • Do not neglect to state basic rules on exams. It can be tempting to skip stating simple rules for the sole reason that they are simple in order to save on time. A proper analysis should begin with the basics. If a case was covered in class, you should generally mention it. Some students prepare blocks of text to transcribe on exams that are applicable to a range of different fact patterns. You may not find transcribing an elementary rule from your notes to be a worthwhile use of the limited time you have during an exam to demonstrate your analytical capabilities. It is generally expected, however, no matter how basic it may be.
  • Do not omit cases that you find too weak to merit consideration on exams or assignments. If a case you’ve covered is relevant, you should mention it. You may feel that you do not have the time. You may be right, but it unfortunately does not change what is required of you. You must make your best efforts to address both sides of a legal issue. In undergrad, it can be more common for students to beat the reader of their work over the head with a one-sided thesis. Those with a philosophy background already have some experience with not doing this at the outset.
  • Plan out your courses based on your interests and strengths. We all have different skills and exam writing may not one of your fortes. If you do not fare well on exams, try to take more courses that are assignment-based. Assignment-based courses may be somewhat limited, but bear in mind that courses that require you to write essays or participate in moots give you the opportunity to produce quality legal writing and to refine your speaking skills. These are truly some of the most valuable law school experiences.

Law school (and law practice) is somewhat of a sink-or-swim environment. It’s normal to swallow some water. Take the situation as it is. I believe that changes to how students are evaluated in law school should occur to make for better lawyers. More assignments would help to enhance the level of comprehension of students and the quality of the documents they produce later in practice. I hope that all Canadian law faculties are watching the new approaches at Lakehead and Ryerson closely. I wish you all the best in your studies.

Daniel Gatto is a senior investigator in a Canadian financial institution’s risk management group. He was called to the Ontario bar in 2018.