Wednesday, July 22, 2020

11 Tips on How to Do Well in Law School

Artwork by Jeremiah Joenard Olivas Gallo


“Working really hard is what successful people do…”

-Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success


Law school is not a joke. It is not a hobby. It is serious business; very very serious business.


As a faculty member and assistant dean of De La Salle College of Law, I used to join the panel who screened law school applicants. We often asked why they want to study law because this is how we assess if they have the right motivation to go through such rigorous training.


I remember an applicant who said that she was a high school principal, her children were all grown up and there was nothing much to do at night, so she decided to attend law school. Her facial expression and manners revealed that she was simply looking for a hobby to occupy her spare time. I thought she did not have the right motivation and felt she would not last two weeks. True enough, after two weeks, she dropped out.


Another applicant was a businessman whose children were also all grown up. He wanted to be a lawyer for his business, and he was dead serious about it. He enrolled in the evening section for working students, gave all necessary hours to his studies, became a scholar, and even graduated with honors.


Some applicants want to pursue the dream of their parents who were “frustrated lawyers”. I don’t want them to carry that frustration for four years. It’s not good to pass on one’s frustration to the next generation. I tell them to make sure that the dream is their own too because this will make them want to fight through a very tough four-year training. 


You’ve got to have the right motivation for law school. That is the starting point. This will make you want to succeed in, not just survive, law school.


Again, I want you to succeed, and not just survive. Survival triggers a mental picture of a seriously ill person in the intensive care unit of a hospital attached to various instruments such as a respirator to enable him to breathe, a heart rate monitor, a sphygmomanometer to monitor his blood pressure, on the edge between life and death. I do not want you to just survive in law school. I want you to succeed semester after semester until you graduate, take and pass the bar, and take your oath and sign the roll of attorneys.


You are reading this because you want to be an excellent law student. You want to give your best as you learn the law as well as the methods, systems, skills, and habits that will stay with you throughout your law practice. Survive law school, and you will just survive law practice. Be successful in school, and you will succeed in your practice.


TIP NO. 1

LEARN TO THINK LIKE A LAWYER


You will be trained to become an expert in the law. You will gain not just the head knowledge but also the right attitude, mindset, perspective, and way of thinking so that you can become a problem-solver.


You will learn how to think like a lawyer. What does this mean?


Observe yourself and your classmates when you answer questions during recitation or even just plain conversation in your first year in law school. Many of you usually have a roundabout way of answering questions. It takes a long time for you to get to the point, and some of you don’t make any clear point at all.


As you advance in law school, your thinking process becomes clearer, since you are able to identify issues in a given situation. You are better able to sift through the facts and pick out those which are relevant, relate these to the applicable law, apply the law to the facts, and arrive at a sound decision. You are also able to argue from the opposite side, to help you assess the strength of each party’s legal position. You separate yourself from the situation and analyze legal positions without any emotional involvement.


That is what it means to think like a lawyer. It involves linear thinking, “the process of thought following known step-by-step progression where a response to a step must be elicited before another step is taken.“ according to Ascension Glossary.


This is the opposite of non-linear thinking, defined as “Human thought characterized by expansion in multiple directions, rather than in one direction, and based on the concept that there are multiple starting points from which one can apply logic to a problem.” defined by Cecil “Chuck” McCumber in “Do we think differently? Linear vs. Non-linear thinking”.


Linear thinking is more structured and logical, while non-linear thinking is more free and creative.


During your legal training, your mind and thinking process will be rewired so that you will become logical linear-thinking laser-focused analytical individuals.


There will come a time when you will appreciate the benefits of combining linear and non-linear thinking. The creativity that comes from non-linear thinking will eventually be beneficial, especially if you are going to work towards coming up with creative approaches to solving legal problems, and if compassion will influence your practice.


I remember when I handled a case in which my client was a 14-year-old mother with a one-year-old baby, and the father of the baby was 17 years old. The dispute was about custody of the baby, with the grandparents on each side insisting that custody belonged to them. 


The paternal grandparents were well-off, so their legal counsel asserted that they were in a better position to take care of the baby, applying the “best interest of the child” principle. The judge likewise referred to that principle. 


I realize that they were forgetting one thing, so I stood up and told the judge, “Your Honor, my client is also a child, and so is the father of the baby. I think we should look at this case from that point of view.” For a moment, the courtroom was quiet, until everyone involved came up with an agreement that considered the welfare of the three children: the mother, father, and the baby.


In an article entitled “Analytical /Intuitive Thinking” (2005), lawyer Charles B. Perselle discussed the strengths and weaknesses of linear and non-linear thinking for lawyers. He concludes that a combination of both types of thinking results in “holistic” thinking which is characteristic of mediation, a creative method of dispute resolution. To learn more, visit this link.




TIP NO. 2

WORK HARD AND LONG; THE MAGIC OF 10,000 HOURS


No matter how much we tell you that law school is hard work, you will never be able to imagine it until you actually experience it.


For most people, law school is expensive; the tuition fee and books cost a lot of money, and for good reason. Quality has a price.


Yet an expensive school alone will not make you an expert. You need to sink in 10,000 hours to become an expert in law.


An author named Malcolm Gladwell wrote the book OUTLIERS (2008). He cited studies of experts in different fields: violinists, pianists, basketball players, and others. He wrote that in the beginning, genius or innate talent counts. One who is gifted in a certain activity will excel up to a certain point. However, innate talent levels off, and there is a point when it would no longer be enough. What would count is the number of hours of training. The more hours spent, the better trained a person will be.


Again, the study shows that it takes 10,000 to become an expert in anything. Gladwell wrote: “Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”


So take out your calculator, and let’s do a simple math exercise together. You have four years in law school multiplied by 365 days.


4 years X 365 days =

1460 days in law school / 24 hours =

6.8 hours per day


You need to spend 6.8 hours each day, including Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays in order to excel.


My brother, also an attorney, works in one of the biggest law firms in the world, with more than 3,000 lawyers. He specializes in international tax. And he ranked number 6 in the Philippines bar exams. I asked him: “When did he start preparing for the bar exams?” You know what his answer was? From day one of law school.


A few years back, the man who placed number 10 in the Philippine bar exam was more than 60 years old. A professor of accounting at the state university, he took up law at the same time. When interviewed, he was asked the same question: when did he start studying for the bar exam. He gave the same reply: since day one of law school.


You must have single-minded determination to succeed by giving what it takes. Organize your schedule and your life so that you can devote the necessary hours to absorb, understand, and apply the law.


As you give your time to the study of law, you are sowing seeds. There will be a time to reap, and you will be reaping a harvest, which is much more than what you have sewn. This is a Biblical principle (Galatians 6:7), and sometimes it is called the Law of the Harvest. You will reap a good harvest if you sow good seeds.


There may be times when you would feel weary. Keep your eyes on the goal.



TIP NO. 3

TAKE WELL-ORGANIZED NOTES


You have to be very organized in taking notes. This is part of your training in self-discipline, which will be reflected in the quality of your notes.


Take a look at your notes --- it is a picture of your state of mind. Do you agree with me? It shows how organized or disorganized your mind is.


Besides, you will take notes like you never took notes before in college. Believe me.


It is best to take notes before, during, and after class but your main note-taking time should be before class as part of your preparation. During and after class, add notes only to amplify or clarify those notes that you have taken earlier.


You must distinguish between gadgets and methods. Gadgets are not the same as note-taking methods. Don’t think that just because you have all these gadgets, you have already taken notes and studied. Don’t think that just because you have cut and pasted these notes into your tablet, you have studied. Gadgets are your tools for taking notes while methods pertain to your system of note-taking and quality of its contents.


Unlike in undergraduate courses when you throw away your notes at the end of the term because you don’t need them anymore, your law school notes are useful until you take the bar exams and even after.


Your notes, especially in the first year, are foundational. They are very important. Knowledge builds upon knowledge so what you learn in one subject, let’s say in Persons and Family Relations, are essential when you take up subjects like Succession. Your notes in Criminal Law 1 are necessary for when you take up Criminal Law 2 and Criminal Procedure. And so on. So take good notes to keep and use for later.


Moreover, take notes in anticipation of the bar exam which you will be facing after your senior year. Be comfortable with your notes. Do not think that when you study for the bar, you will have time to take notes. No way. Or that you will have time to read all your books anew. No way. 


With that quantity of law and cases on your plate, you will have time only for a review. It’s a re-view, or a "viewing again", so you should have already dealt with your subjects before. If there’s any new knowledge to add, these should be limited to updates of cases, laws, and rules.


It is best to take notes by hand. A study shows that taking notes using your own handwriting is more effective because your whole being interacts with the material. It is not mindless copying, not merely cutting and pasting chunks of text to your document file. Your handwritten notes involve a process of distilling information which will make you remember them better.


It is also not advisable to take audio or video recordings of the lectures passively, because, like I said earlier, you should interact with the material. By this, I mean that you should actively participate by choosing which information to write down, paraphrasing or summarizing concepts, and organizing these in a logical way. Taking audio or video recording could be useful if you take good handwritten notes from them later on.


The cut-and-paste facility provided by our gadgets is not helpful in remembering information, simply because this is just a way of transferring text to our gadgets. Again, we have to interact with the information so we can remember better.


The article, “Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension” by the Association for Psychological Science states: “It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently.” (For details, visit this link.


What should your notes include? Legal definitions, legal principles, elements or requisites, case digests, questions asked by your professors during recitation, and topics repeated by the professors during discussions or lectures. The basis of your notes should be the course outlines given by your professors at the start of the term.


Consider the note-taking method that works for you. When I was a law student decades ago, the Cornell note-taking method worked for me and I think it is still effective even for today’s law students. You can learn more about it in this web article by Alexa Galloway dated September 29, 2016 entitled “Tips for using the Cornell note-taking method”.



TIPS NO. 4

KNOW YOUR LEARNING STYLE


We all have different learning styles. Some of you learn better in groups while some prefer self-study; others can absorb concepts easier through flowcharts and graphs while still others would rather go for text-based input. You need to find out your dominant learning style so that you can enhance your learning.


The website https://vark-learn.com/ enumerates four learning styles: visual, aural/auditory, read/write, and kinesthetic. Hence the word “VARK”. Here are some of the learning preferences of each:


  1. VISUAL learners prefer graphics, such as:


  • Flowcharts

  • Graphs

  • Maps

  • Spider diagrams

  • Infographics


  1. AURAL / AUDITORY learners prefer hearing or spoken information, such as:


  • Lectures

  • Group discussions

  • Web-chats

  • Podcast

  • Webinars

  • Vlogs

  • Livestreams


  1. READ / WRITE learners prefer words, such as:


  • Reports

  • PowerPoint

  • Text-based input

  • Flashcards

  • Articles

  • Web posts


  1. KINESTHETIC learners prefer practice and experience, such as:


  • Simulation

  • Reenactments

  • Concrete personal experiences

  • Demonstrations

  • Role playing


Do you want to know your learning style and the learning strategies that suit you? You can find out by answering a questionnaire at https://vark-learn.com/ .


_________________


* The word “VARK” was launched in 1987 by Neil Fleming, and his work appears in Fleming, ND and Mills, C (1992), NOT ANOTHER INVENTORY, RATHER A CATALYST FOR REFLECTION, To Improve the Academy, Vol. II, 1992, page 137.



TIP NO. 5

NEVER CRAM


Cramming means studying for an exam by absorbing too much information in a short time, usually resulting in lack of sleep. This is not advisable in studying law because it results only in short-term retention, and lack of sleep makes a person remember less.


“Sleep, however, is essential in forming enduring memories - and a lack of sleep is shown to be self-defeating in terms of memory recall.” according to the web article “Revising for exam - why cramming the night before rarely works” dated October 28, 2016, which you can find in this link.


Continuing further, the article states: “So a good night’s sleep after learning new information is essential to forming memories. It’s beneficial to get sleep rather than staying awake and going into an exam without rest.”


Mnemonics or memory aids may provide you with good systems for memorizing. For instance, my professor taught us the elements of a cause of action through the mnemonic ROVID, that is, RIGHT of the plaintiff, OBLIGATION of the defendant to respect that right, VIOLATION by the defendant, INJURY and DAMAGE to the plaintiff. This is certainly very helpful, and I also teach this to my students, who remember the elements long after our course is finished.


However, do not depend on mnemonics so much because that might lead you to remember only the memory aid but forget what it means. The best way is to, first of all, understand the concept, master the idea, and then use the memory aid only after these. The memory aid should serve merely as a prompter.


Another effective way is to chew the lessons and not simply to swallow. Take time to turn the concept in your head, think of different situations to apply to a concept to make sure you really understand.



TIP NO. 6

ATTACK THE RECITATIONS & EXAMS


Unlearn your habits in college of trying to impress the professors or your classmates. Your professors will not be impressed because there are exact answers to their questions, and these are what they want to hear from you.


When you recite, remove unnecessary words like “Ma’am, I think”, “In the first place”, “To begin with”, “as a matter of fact”, “you must remember”, and the like. These are words or phrases you use to gain some thinking time.


Study so that you will know and understand the concepts and ideas very well. Don’t try to wriggle your way out of concepts that are vague to you, because you cannot if you really did not study. Teachers like to make fair game of students who try to impress them with shallow reasoning.


Decode your professors. Anticipate. Read their books and articles; note their favorite topics and subtopics in class. Provide them with the answers they are looking for, and make it easy for them to give you a good grade.


Study for the exam by going through your course outline, the table of contents and the index of the textbook. Use these as your reviewer, making sure that you not only know the concepts but you understand them well enough to apply them to legal problems.


Anticipate exam questions and practice answering them. Think of recurring topics in past exams, as well as your professor’s favorite topics which he discusses and focuses on in class.


By using your course outline, you can make sure that you study every topic. Do not skip topics. Instead, start with the topics that are difficult for you, and keep unpacking the concepts until you understand. 


Do not wish that the professor won’t ask about a certain topic in the exam. Think that the professor will ask, and prepare your answer beforehand. This is your training in preparing for a court case. You must be able to anticipate and be prepared. This is what I mean when I say you should attack your exam.



TIP NO. 7

BE HUMBLE


It is very important in law school that you remain humble. There is a Bible verse that is applicable here. Romans 12:3 states “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” (NIV)


Another version states: “I realize how kind God has been to me, and so I tell each of you not to think you are better than you really are. Use good sense and measure yourself by the amount of faith that God has given you. (CEV)


Unless you have experienced it, you do not know anything about law school even if you studied legal management or political science which has nothing to do with law at all. Be open to learning, not just about the law but also about the culture of lawyers: their ways, their habits, their desire for accuracy, their discipline.


So be humble. Admit your weaknesses and strengthen yourself in these. If your English is weak, acknowledge it, and develop yourself in this area especially if your country uses English as the language of the law. In my country where English is the official language of the law, it is possible that some undergrads were able to get away with bad English in college, but they cannot get away with it in law school or the bar exams.


A lawyer is an advocate, one who speaks on behalf of other people. If you are to speak for others, you better be able to speak well for yourself.



TIP NO. 8

UNDERSTAND BEFORE YOU MEMORIZE


You have to understand what you are memorizing. In my experience, I find it easier to memorize when I understand the concepts. You are not being trained to be parrots. Law is about solving problems, and memorized words cannot solve problems.


Let’s say someone tells you that a child was physically abused, and asks what can be done - you cannot recite the situations of physical abuse to your client. You have to help the client arrive at a decision on what legal remedies to take. So you need to understand what you are talking about.


I find that many law students just memorize words, but do not understand the meaning. That’s not good. You have to know the meaning. There are a lot of resources, including apps of dictionaries and thesaurus, and it is so easy to open those apps and look for meanings of words. Do not be lazy; be accurate.



TIP NO. 9

SUSPEND (MOST OF) YOUR SOCIAL LIFE


Stop yourself from engaging in a lot of extracurricular activities. That is not impressive. Rather, it shows the wrong priorities. You cannot keep joining a lot of organizations, at the cost of your law studies. Again, studying law is very difficult, you have to give what it takes, otherwise, you will be wasting your time, your money, or your parents’ money.


Like I said earlier, it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert, and insofar as law school is concerned, this means 6.8 hours of study a day. I half-jokingly tell my law students that if they have a relationship, they will have to devote 15 more hours a week to that relationship, and some of them say it takes even more than 15 hours.


This is not to say that you should not have any social life at all. What I mean is that even your socializing has to be scheduled.



TIP NO. 10

MAXIMIZE YOUR 20%


There is a principle in business known as the Pareto Principle which states that 20% of the output is responsible for 80% of the results.


If you observe the time you have, it’s highly likely that 20% of your study time is responsible for 80% of your output. Maximize this.


Identify your peak periods in studying on a daily basis. Make your environment as conducive to studying as possible. Avoid distractions, and turn off your mobile phones and laptops during this period (unless of course, you are using your laptops for studying). Stay away from social media, put your phone on silent mode so the pings won’t distract you.


You know yourself best, you know your sources of distraction, and so you must arrange your environment to make your studies as productive as possible.



TIP NO. 11

AIM HIGH


I hear some students say “I hope I will pass this semester” when the semester has just started. Or sometimes, I say “So you’ll finish your first year soon,” and the student replies: “Hopefully, ma’am.”


Don’t hope, Do. Work hard so that you will pass. You must aim to be successful, otherwise, you are just wasting your time.


When you study on a daily basis or for your exam, don’t aim for a passing grade. Aim for the highest, because if you don’t make it to the top, you can still make it near the top. But if you aim to merely pass, and if you make a mistake, then you will fail.


Don’t just survive law school. Don’t attach yourself to a respirator, desperate for air. Be excellent. Do your best. Live.



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Rosario Olivas-Quinto has been an Attorney and Counselor-at-Law for 32 years. She is a faculty member of the College of Law of De La Salle University of which she is Assistant Dean for Clinical Legal Education. She was also a senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines College of Law and taught at the Lyceum of the Philippines College of Law.


Rosario teaches remedial law subjects such as Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, Special Proceedings, Special Civil Actions, and Appellate Practice. She also taught Persons and Family Relations, and Rights of Women and Children.


She is a bar review lecturer of Chan Robles Internet Bar Review, and also a regular lecturer of Chan Robles Lawnet, Inc. on different subjects for the Mandatory Continuing Education (MCLE) of the Philippine Supreme Court.


She graduated in 1987 from the College of Law, University of the Philippines and in 1981 from the Institute of Mass Communication, University of the Philippines.


She is a litigation lawyer and senior partner of Fernandez & Olivas, a general practice law firm which you may visit at http://www.fernandezolivaslaw.com/ .


She also maintains a blog, www.yourfamilymatters.info.




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