The One Mistake to Avoid When Studying for Law School Finals

Published: Nov 14, 2018


When I was in law school, I had a final exam routine—from the types of study materials I made and my process for studying them, all the way down to the type of drink I’d bring into the test room and the music I’d listen to right before the test. Some called it crazy; I called it self preservation. Whatever you call it, it worked for me, and the familiarity helped me curb my stress.

I learned early on in law school—during midterms—just how hysterical law students can get during exams. Rather than focusing on the material, they swapped tips of how to study or commiserated over their inevitable failure. Or they shared the various advice and tools passed on by wise 2Ls and frantically tried to trade materials with each other. If you stay immersed in that atmosphere for too long, it’s hard not to get sucked in and start panicking.

I know because for one of my 2L classes, I abandoned my typical regimen and made the biggest exam-preparation mistake ever—I listened to someone else.

Two heads are better than one, right? Collaboration is all the buzz right now—surely all of these hip tech companies with their loft offices, beer-stocked fridges, and unassigned desks know the key to true productivity, right?

Not when it comes to law school exams. And here’s why: lawyers are dramatic and competitive. The two do not mix well—like peanut butter and fish . . . or worse.

It seemed innocent enough to study with a friend. I had already survived 1L exams; I knew what I was doing, and surely a pre-exam study group would do no harm. But what unfolded wasn’t pure studying. Instead, we both confused each other with our different understandings of the material and our divergent ways in how to approach the issues and analyze them. And—in pure law student fashion—we ramped up our stress by lamenting over which method was best and how we surely were both going to bomb the exam. I then relied on a hybrid analytical strategy using both of our ideas, which dragged me down during the exam—I was the last one to finish.

And no, I didn’t fail the exam. Our theatrics were just that. But I was exceptionally more uncertain and stressed out prior to and during the exam. And I didn’t ace the exam either. I questioned what I had relied upon for my entire 1L year, which had worked perfectly for me. Worst of all, I second guessed my own understanding of the material, which isn’t a bad thing in general because there is always room to improve comprehension, but that shouldn’t be happening the night before the exam. By that point, I needed to trust all of the work I had done for months and focus on reviewing.

I’m not saying study groups don’t work for people. They can be great if you’re with the right group and you’re confident in their understanding of the material and their ability to keep you focused.

What I am saying is that you should follow the study pattern that works best for you to decrease your stress, optimize your understanding of the material, and provide ample time to practice test questions. You should use the kinds of resources—outlines, flash cards, practice tests, group conversations, re-reading, etc.—that help you feel most confident in the material. This may mean studying with a large group, studying with a small group, studying with one person, turning into a study hermit, or a combination of those. You may not even know which method works best for you yet if you are a 1L.

But I can tell you the method that will never work is buying into the hype of your classmates and changing your routine to fit what other people say you should be doing. The curve brings enough stress into final exams; don’t feed it any more with other people’s worries. You’ve made it this far, and you know yourself—stick with the study plan that works for you, keeps your stress at a manageable level, and maximizes your learning.