Nervous About 1L Exams? Here’s Advice From a Rockstar Tutor

BlackboardIf you’re starting to get nervous about law school exams, it’s your lucky day!

Here’s some fantastic advice about getting ready for law school exams from Lee Faller Burgess, founder of Amicus Tutoring. Lee’s an honors law school grad with a background in psychology, consulting, and tutoring — so she’s the perfect person to address all the different aspects of preparing for high-stakes exams!

Without further ado:

Alison: You coach law students who want to improve their grades. What do you wish your students had known before they took their first 1L exam?

Lee: I wish that students could appreciate that law school — studying, taking exams — is both a new experience as well as a subject like any other.

It is a learned skill — you need to experiment, practice, try new techniques, and learn how to be the best law student you can be.

So many people feel they should just be able to attack law school in the same way they did their undergraduate classes. But it is more often than not a different experience academically and everyone needs to learn how to study, write, and approach law school exams in the ideal way.

I’m a 1L and I’m beginning to get nervous about exams. I’ve done all the reading and been to all the classes, but I hear law school exams are really different. What three things should I be doing now to get ready for exams?
  1. Make Good Outlines:
    When I work with law students, some of the first questions are always about outlines. “Are they really important?” “What makes a good outline?” And my favorite: “Do I really need to make my own?”

    The purpose of an outline is exam preparation. That means your outline’s main purpose is to organize the material and make it easy to understand, memorize, and re-create for the exam.

    What makes a good outline? It should be clear and easy to read and it should contain the pertinent information and be organized. Most importantly, it should make sense to you, as it is your study tool.

    You should make your own outlines! Making an outline means that you have thought about the law and how it fits together. This thinking portion of the outlining process is completely lost if you use an outline created by someone else.

  2. Practice Writing:
    A common law school myth is that you have to wait until you are done with the course to start practicing writing. That is just not true!

    In fact, if you wait until the end of the course, for most of us, it is much too late, especially if you are in your first year of law school. Why?

    Well, legal writing — and, yes, IRAC — is a learned skill. It is not the same as exams of your past. It requires a style and formula that many of us are not accustomed to.

    In addition, you need feedback.

    Most law school classes have only one final at the end of the semester. If you wait until the end of the semester to start writing, and then you don’t do it correctly, the only feedback you get will be poor grades on your finals.

    And who wants that?

  3. Try to Meet With Professors to Learn More About the Exam:
    Typically, law professors will be candid with you in office hours about what they are looking for in a good exam answer.

    Bring along a sample of your outline or your writing practice to kick off the discussion.

    Ask your professors if they have any recommendations for supplemental materials they think would be good to practice.

    Just generally have a discussion with them about exams. You may be surprised what you learn.

    Remember that the professor is the person writing and, typically, grading your exam!

Could you talk a bit about what you do in a typical day at work and how it is similar to, or different from, what you thought you’d be doing when you went to law school?

When I went to law school, I assumed I would be working at a big law firm practicing law full time. And that is exactly what I did after law school — it just turned out I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped. This led me to starting Amicus Tutoring and a career of teaching.

One of the things I enjoy about my work is that it isn’t exactly the same every day.

Here are common things I do in a day:

  • On a typical morning I can be found meeting with a student to help her start studying for the February 2012 bar exam. We talk about general study techniques, specific substantive areas of the law, and work on how to organize a bar exam answer.
  • After that meeting I can be found at my computer reviewing writing assignments students have sent me. “Track changes” is my new best friend! My goal is to give students constructive feedback so they can re-write the assignment and begin to see what a good essay looks like.
  • Two days a week I teach Legal Analysis at the University of San Francisco School of Law. This class is for students struggling academically and starting their 2L year. The goal of the class is to help the students develop better study skills and refine their writing to achieve exam success. This typically involves a combination of lecture and writing practice. I find that lecturing about writing can be fun but learning really comes when you try to implement it in a writing assignment. When students leave my class, I hope they feel they have a skill set to continue to be successful in law school. And most do, getting great grades in their final semesters including many A’s and A+’s.
  • Mixed in between all of that is the reality of running your own business — marketing, accounting, professional development, and networking — just to name a few.

Owning your own business turns you into a jack-of-all trades, not just a lawyer. However, I am learning to enjoy that part of my job because I am constantly learning new things and getting to meet new people.

Thanks, Lee! Great advice and thanks for giving us a sense of what you do every day.

I can personally confirm that Lee’s a super nice and helpful person, so don’t hesitate to contact her if you could use a bit of help doing your best in law school, or while studying for the bar exam. Here’s her website, Amicus Tutoring. Check it out!

(And, now, Lee and I are actually working together on the Law School Toolbox. All the tools you need for law school success!)

Read On:

More law school advice, coming right up!

Return to Surviving Law School 101.

Have questions for Lee about preparing for law school exams? Leave them in the comments!

Image by ywel via stock.xchng.


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  1. I Failed the Bar Exam! Now What?!?…

    Fantastic guest post today from Lee Faller Burgess of Amicus Tutoring about what to do if the unthinkable…

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