Top 10 Law school tips

Study in the basement of the law library so you’re not tempted to leave by the light of day.

And dat quickly turns into night, so it’s almost like you didn’t miss a beat

Identify the issue of your memo

All too often, students read the fact pattern of their client’s case and immediately start blindly searching Westlaw or LexisNexis, typing in all phrases that come to mind. Instead, law students need to take a deep breath and ask: “What is the client trying to achieve with this lawsuit?” By identifying the cause of action, you can then ask: “What are the legal criteria that either help or hurt my client?” The answers to those two questions will formulate the legal issue. With those terms in mind, you can then use that phrasing to formulate the search phrase.

Narrow your jurisdiction

When students first start conducting legal research, they mistakenly cast too wide a net when it comes to jurisdiction. Desperate to find applicable law, students often look to states other than the appropriate jurisdiction to find relevant case law. Cases from other states, however, are persuasive authority, not mandatory. Persuasive authority holds little weight, so it should be scrapped from your memos unless your law professor or supervising attorney states otherwise. The only cases that hold mandatory authority are Supreme Court decisions and those from the appropriate state. Federal cases from the corresponding circuit are also possible, but as those can be a bit trickier to apply, check with your law professor, TA or supervising attorney to make sure they were applied properly.

Use Boolean search terms

Though it may seem silly, many students will write the full issue statement into the search box. Westlaw and LexisNexis, however, actually run more like Google and typical search engines than people realize. With that in mind, mastering Boolean search terms will help you save time and yield more fruitful results. For example, consider the following:

  • If your issue reads, “Under Maryland law, can a property owner be considered negligent if a wild animal bites a guest on his property?”
  • Then, your search phrase could state: “property owner” and “negligent” and “wild animal” In this one search phrase, you target all 3 critical aspects of the issue. If your results become too limited, then you can eliminate either the quotation marks or one of the terms. You certainly won’t become an expert in Boolean search terms overnight, but by practicing them now you can save a lot of time throughout your career.

Understand that helpful cases don’t have to have the legal outcome you want

Many times students avoid using the appropriate case law because the outcome wasn’t what the client wants. For example, why refer to a case where the defendant was found guilty if you are the defense attorney? The answer lies in an attorney’s ability to distinguish cases and maintain a sound argument. Your best case may be made by showing that your client is NOT like the plaintiff or defendant of the relevant case law. The analysis section of your memo or brief allows you to navigate the comparison. For instance, your sentences may read something like:

  • “Unlike the Smith case, our client… .”
  • “While the Smith plaintiff had_______, our case is an example of_____.”
  • “Though the defendant in Smith _________, we ask the court _______.” By showing how the fact patterns are different, you can demonstrate how the court needs to find a different verdict toward your client. The caveat, however, is to make sure the laws are properly aligned. For example, don’t compare a case that maps out the law on medical malpractice when your case pertains to workers’ compensation.

If you find a helpful case, use that to find other cases

An entire article could be written on this tip. It’s perhaps the most helpful and often overlooked legal research tactic. Both Westlaw and LexisNexis offer legal research shortcuts that make a huge difference:

  • Westlaw has “KeyCite,” while LexisNexis has “Shepardize” — though both do the same task. This tool allows you to see other cases that cited your case. The cases that include your case as “good law” are definitely options for you to peruse and possibly use as additional information. Even the cases that have negative treatment to the case you have in mind can still be used if you master the art of distinguishing the cases, as discussed above.
  • When you’re reading a case in Westlaw or LexisNexis, the cases listed as authority are hyperlinked. Skimming the hyperlinked case is typically good idea because if that case had authority for the one you consider a match, it may hold weight for your client’s case as well.
  • Lastly, when you first look at a case on WestLaw or LexisNexis, there are headnotes that provide key legal points within the case. Both programs allow you to view other cases that make use of the same headnote. If one headnote is on point, then a case with that same headnote is also worth a read.

If you feel "down" after the bar exam, that's perfectly normal.

Instead of feeling happy that the exam is over, some of you might feel a bit down or sad in the few coming days after the bar exam, or feel completely "out of it". That's a perfectly normal, biological response. You see, your brain was for weeks operating under high stress chemicals, caffeine and adrenaline in anticipation of the test, and with the exam over, you'll be going through what's equivalent to withdrawal symptoms. It's the same reason high stress professionals can't relax at home on weekends, or get "addicted" to work. So if you're feeling a bit blue, just know it's a perfectly natural biological response, which will go away after a while. Many people expect you to be elated, but I struggled after my bar exam to figure out why I was feeling so out of it. Just wanted to let you all know!

Consider the date, but don’t obsess over it

As a rule of thumb, a more recent case is generally preferred. Newer cases often reflect the legal and societal changes that could affect the case law. Nevertheless, if you find a case that matches your fact pattern and applicable law but it’s 30 years old, don’t panic. That may be your best case because your client’s legal issue hasn’t appeared in recent years. Double-check to see the negative treatment of the older case to make sure it’s still good law. If there aren’t any red flags, that case is probably fine to use.

Know when to stop

Law professors and supervising attorneys want you to do your “due diligence” when it comes to legal research. Typing in 3 different searches into the search box and then giving up won’t win you any favors. By the same token, spending 4 hours researching a fairly typical case is also a big mistake. You can’t view legal research as a hunt for a pot of gold. In many instances, you simply won’t find the exact case law or statute you’re looking for. When you feel as though you can’t possibly look any more, you probably can’t. Make use of what you found and write the best IRAC you can. If possible, ask for another set of eyes. If it’s for a law school assignment, ask your TA or mentor to take a look to see if you might have missed something. If this is an internship assignment, ask your supervising attorney if you think you’ve done enough. Though you may feel like a failure if you haven’t found the case that will land your client a victory, know that plenty of lawyers often struggle to find the right law, too.

Have One Theme and Discuss One to Three Experiences That Support It

As previously mentioned, avoid writing your life story in your personal statement. Firstly, there is just not enough room to do so. The typical law school personal statement has a two-page limit double-spaced (See Law School Personal Statement Formatting: What You Need To Know for specifics on format). Trying to cram all the interesting tales from your life into these two pages is impossible. Conform your writing to the limited space provided by the format. Choose relevant experiences you have had that can fit together cohesively and convey the value you will bring to a law school’s student body. Be concise and get straight to the point. Sometimes, this means cutting out certain parts of your story that do not fit or do not support your underlying theme. Whether overcoming adversity, pursuing your passion, or the next logical step in your career, you should have a single solid theme. It should encompass all the experiences you describe in your personal statement’s story. This is not an exhaustive list of theme types, but you can click here for more help with personal statement ideas. Your theme will usually develop as you begin to discuss your experiences. One to three exemplary and/or touching experiences are really all that are needed to provide the body content of your personal statement. More than this can start to sound like a rehashing of your resume, a list of accomplishments, or just a description of how bad you’ve had it up to this point in your life. None of which will sound appealing to the admissions committee members reading your essay. To catch their attention, maintain it, and hopefully garner some respect from the people deciding your law school fate, keep it simple. Use one theme and up to three experiences as examples to support it.