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How to be Top of Your Class in Law School – While Still Having a Life

You’re here because you want to know how to be top of your class in law school.

You know how important good grades are to your career success, especially your first year grades. You didn’t work this hard to get into law school to then struggle your way through.

But you’ve also heard of the intense workload. You know that all your peers are incredibly intelligent, equally motivated future attorneys. And you know that your grade depends on this single exam that is graded on a curve.

Hard to feel like you have a real chance at being at the top of your class right? At least not without killing yourself to get there.

Do you still want to know how to be top of your class in law school?

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Here’s your answer: It’s going to be work. A LOT of work. I can tell you that right now. But it is not as much work as your peers will inevitably make it out to be.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You can actually have a life while in law school.

You can go to the gym, go to bed at a normal hour, spend time with your kids, cook meals, see a movie. During exams, this won’t be true. But during the semester, you can and need to have a life, for the sake of your sanity.

I even went as far as getting a giant German Shepherd in law school. 

And somehow finding time to go to playgrounds. 

So take it from me, you CAN still have a life. 

But the way to do that is to be efficient. To use your time wisely. To not study for the sake of logging hours or to match your classmates. When everyone else is complaining about constantly doing work, constantly reading, having no time to do anything else I want you to feel confident that you don’t need that much time, that you have learned to synthesize the material and understand it in fewer hours. 

Now being efficient doesn’t mean you won’t be putting in long hours. You will. If you want to be top of your class in law school, you will be studying most evenings and weekends, but it doesn’t have to be until midnight every night, or nine-hour days all weekend. I myself had a 9pm cut off for studying, and that was after I went to the gym, did my dog walking job, and cooked dinner.

The biggest misconception among law students is that there is no such thing as over preparing.

If I can teach you anything, it’s to be efficient. To not feel like you have to read every single word of every single case to be successful.

Part of being efficient is not wasting any time. You need to arrive to law school, day one, knowing exactly what you’re up against, what the life of a law student will look like, as we discussed in our previous blog post on how to prepare for 1L

The next thing you need is a game plan on how you’ll tackle the first year. That’s what I’m here to give you: the exact steps I suggest using that got me top grades at a Tier 1 law school that helped me secure a prestigious federal clerkship and a highly competitive job offer at a boutique impact litigation firm that rarely gave junior attorneys positions.

Ok, let’s teach you how to be a top law student!

Prepare For Class

If you want to know how to be top of your class in law school, the first thing you need to know is how to prepare for class.

When preparing for class, there are two things you want to prepare for: first, the absolute most important – the final exam. The second thing you’re preparing for is the potential cold call.

Though your cold call performance will likely have nothing to do with your final grade since for most schools all that your grade rides on is the final exam, I also recognize that no one wants to look foolish in class; I’ve been there.

But the biggest thing I do NOT want you to do, is to do what every other law student will do. Prepare for class (and therefore the exam) as if the cold call is ALL that matters. It doesn’t. There’s a way to prepare for both, while maximizing your time. 

Everything for class is about the assigned reading. Remember, you’re being taught using the case-method approach, so pretty much everything you read will be court opinions. You’ll also have some statutes (which are just laws) and model codes (which are not established law, but models that are often adopted in various forms as official law). 

Something to note about the case method approach is that it means you will be given A LOT more reading than you’ll need to understand the principle of law being taught. So a big part of efficiency in law school is knowing what you’re looking for.

Meaning before you even read the full case, you want to already know: the basic facts of the case, the “holding” of the case (the central statement of the opinion) why your professor is having you read this case, and how the case connects to the broader rules you’ve been learning. 

As with everything else, you want to do the reading with the exam in mind. And for the exam, you need to understand the principle of law behind a case, not every single fact and detail and name of the parties in the case.

So keep that in mind when you see how I want you to approach your reading. You’ll notice that I’m trying to keep it more high-level than you might expect, keeping you from falling two far into the weeds. 

Let’s now break down what you should do and when to prepare for class, but really preparing for class with the exam in mind: 

1. Understand the Universe You’re Operating In

The weekend before a school week, I want you to first figure out the universe you’re operating in.

Spend no more than fifteen minutes checking your syllabus and flipping through the assigned reading in your textbook just to see what topics are going to be covered for the week.

Remember, you’re flipping, not reading. This is simply to figure out what topics you’ll be focusing on for that week. 

2. Learn the Basics 

Before you jump into your assigned reading, grab your broad commercial supplement, like an Examples & Explanations or Emmanuel Law Outlines, and SKIM the chapters on those topics (read our previous blog post on what materials you need to prepare for class). This will help you understand the point of the cases and why in the broader scheme of the class, your professor wants you to learn them.

Do not spend more than 1 hour MAX per class doing this (I say one hour but really you should be able to do this in under an hour per class).

This is skimming, getting a general sense of what the topic is, what the law is, and how the cases you’re going to read will fit into that. You’re not trying to learn everything, you’re just giving yourself a structure to lean against when you read your assigned cases.

This will tremendously help speed up your reading of assigned cases, so while this may seem like a lot of time you don’t have I promise that time put in here will be saved later on. 

Also, don’t expect that your professors are going to discuss topics in the same order as your supplement. Professors all have different ideas of how to best teach the material, and more importantly, the best way to get your mind thinking complexly. The supplement will help take all the mayhem from your professors and put it in a nice neat, condensed package. 

You likely won’t need to do this step for the entire semester, but especially in the beginning, and especially for complicated subjects (like Civil Procedure) using supplements to get a broad understanding of what’s going on, new terminology, the point of the cases, and how everything you’re learning starts connecting, can be a lifesaver.

Word of caution! Some students end up solely reading supplements and forgo reading the actual assigned cases. I don’t recommend this. Supplements are too basic. You will pass a class if you only read the supplement, but you’re not going to get a stellar grade. Your professor is going to expect a much more nuanced exam essay that will require an understanding of the cases and the principles of law more than just reading the supplement will teach you.

3. Learn the Gist of the Cases

Before you jump into reading the cases, you should already know what the case is about. So before you read each case, spend no more than five minutes per case reading a summary from your casenotes book (the supplement that is specifically keyed to your textbook) or you can just google the case. Oyez is also a great and reliable resource for case summaries.

Knowing the gist of a case before you read the dense language of the opinion will help you speed up your reading, because you’ll already have an understanding in laymen terms of the general facts, and it will also let you skip a lot of the fluff and material in the case that is not important to the legal principles you’re trying to glean from the case.

You’re assigned a case in a class for a specific pedagogical point. Yet that point is often only a small portion of the entire case. This means that you have to figure out the point of the case for your class. Knowing this before even reading saves you valuable time, because you can just skip over irrelevant parts of the case. This will make more sense as you get into your readings. But keep it in mind, because it’s a huge timesaver!

Ok, so I know you’re probably thinking, wait ANOTHER thing I have to read and it’s not even the actual homework yet?!

Yes, I hear you. I’m asking you to read a lot of different materials. But this will actually save you so much time. Instead of re-reading the case five times to understand what the hell they’re actually saying, and then instead of reading it another five times to understand why the professor is having you read it, and instead of rereading again when you sit down to study for the exam, you can read the case once, and read it swiftly.

Trust me, this method will feel like a lot, but it will save you a lot of time. And you will come away with a better understanding of the case.

4. Read Your Assigned Cases, But Don’t Read Too Much

Ok, it’s finally time to read the assigned cases in your textbook. Eventually, you should not be reading every word here. In the beginning, this will be slow going. But you’ll get faster.

When going through the cases in your assigned reading, I want you to keep in mind that the point of reading cases is not to memorize the facts, but to understand the underlying rule, to understand what the court ultimately decided, and why.  

Since you have an understanding from all your background reading of why you’re reading a particular case, you will be able to go through the case quickly, like a detective, looking for the clues you need to solve your case.

Those “clues” are the components of the case that matter to your understanding:

  • Parties
  • Procedural History
  • Relevant Facts
  • Issue
  • Rule
  • Holding & Court’s Analysis 

In my next blog post, I will teach you what each of these components are and how to book and/or case brief so that as you read, you’re already preparing for the exam. Stay tuned! 

Take Time to Digest and Learn the Material

Now we’re going to talk about what to do after class, what to do with all those case briefs and class notes you just spent so much time on. Yes, sorry, you’re not done with those.

Remember, if you want to know how to be top of your class in law school, you have to always keep the end in mind: the final exam, not class.

The work you do AFTER class is just as important, if not more important, than the work you do to prepare. 

Immediately after class, you’re going to review and condense all the notes you took. Preferably the same day, but certainly the same week as when you learned the material in class, you should review your class notes and case briefs and see if you still have any questions.

This will do a few things: (1) it will solidify your memory of the material (research shows that it is retrieval more than anything that creates learning); (2) it will identify for you any gaps in your knowledge before it gets too late (ideas in class build upon each other so if you fail to properly understand an earlier section, you will probably fail to accurately understand later sections); and (3) this will save you a lot of time when you go to outline in preparation for the final exam.

To digest the material, you should combine your case briefs (tailored notes you took on the case while you were reading) and class notes into a single document.

When combining with your class notes, you should also condense and concise your notes.After class, you should be able to better see what in your case briefs was actually important to include, and what is probably not that relevant. You will also now see which cases are the ones your professor focused on the most, which should be reflected in your notes. Your professor may have rambled on and on about something you can write in a sentence or two in your notes.

The very act of condensing and streamlining your notes into a single document, not just the end product, is itself a study tool. So don’t skimp here.

Ok, so I know you’re probably thinking: there is no way I have time to do anything else. I just spent hours reading supplements and my textbook, creating case briefs and writing my class notes. There is not time for even more!

And you’re right, you have very little time to do this. But there is still time. And the time you spend on this will save you time in the long run, trust me.

How I would fit this in this post class review is in between classes. You’ll typically have a lunch break and some other spare breaks throughout the day in between classes. So instead of going on Instagram or waiting in a ridiculously long Starbucks line, take that time to review. 

This is that important. 

Prepare for Exams Early: Outline

Within the first few weeks of law school, you’ll inevitably start hearing other law students talk about outlining.

Outlining is, as the name suggests, the act of creating an outline of the course using your case briefs, class notes, supplements and anything else you’ve used to prepare for the course.

But outlining is not just about having good notes, it’s about condensing all the material you learned into something that is digestible. You’re essentially creating a mini coursebook of your course knowledge. Towards the end of the semester, your outline will be long, maybe around 30 pages. Closer to exam time you will then condense that even more to a 1-2 page cheat sheet with the basics (but this kind of exam prep is not something you need to worry about just yet).

Because of the sheer volume of material, most law students, even those who are unprepared will eventually start outlining, simply because there is no real other way to organize the vast amount of material you’re expected to learn.

But very few students start it early enough or do it effectively. This is one of the skills I really wish I had known how to do before law school began. By the time I realized I needed to do this and by the time I got the hang of it, I was half way through the semester and had to scramble to catch up. Knowing how to outline before you even start classes will set you far ahead of your peers. 

You’ll want to start outlining for exam prep at the end of each “subject.” Outlining is a whole art in of itself, so I’ll teach you how to do this in a later blog post. So stay tuned! 

Go to Office Hours

In undergrad, I can’t remember a single time I went to office hours. I remember thinking, “I don’t need that,” or “I don’t want the professor to know I’m struggling” or “that’s just too awkward.”

This is immature thinking. And one you shouldn’t carry into law school. You are about to enter a profession where you will have to speak in front of judges and argue with other overly confident lawyers, so now’s the time to get over your fear of talking to professors. They are humans, and most even enjoy talking with students.

You’ll likely be surprised to find that professors are much different in office hours than in the lecture class. The lecture is much more performative, and professors typically feel more approachable and down-to-earth during office hours. 

Attending office hours can be extremely valuable for ensuring you’re understanding the material, figuring out how your professor likes things phrased (the more you can parrot your professor in the exam, the better), and helping you build an individual relationship with a professor, which can be invaluable in getting a summer internship or a future letter of recommendation. 

The best time to go to office hours is right after you outlined a section. That way, you can identify the areas you still don’t understand, but have worked through the material so you can have an intelligent conversation with your professor.

Make sure you have questions prepared ahead of time. Don’t just go in for the sake of making a good impression. Professors are busy, and while they’re happy to help, no one likes a teacher’s pet.

Some things you might talk about in office hours are:

  • The point of a case in the broader context of the course
  • Applying a specific rule to a hypo 
  • Hypos the professor brought up in class
  • Order of a rule’s element
  • Exam preferences, such as formatting or case citations. But wait to ask any exam questions until the end of the semester.  

A word of warning. Professors will not want you to come seeking the answers directly from them. They want to see that you are grappling with the material first. For instance, don’t go to office hours and ask: What are the elements of a negligence claim? You would instead want to ask, I think these are the elements of a negligence claim? Could you let me know if this is thorough? Is this the order I should analyze them in? 

A second word of warning: don’t bring up things you read in a supplement, or on an upperclassmen outline. Generally, if it wasn’t something you read for class, avoid the topic.

But otherwise, professors will welcome your questions. Take advantage and go to office hours. 

Have an Outlet & Community Outside of Law School 

Law school is like a stress incubator. You put together a bunch of highly neurotic, overly-analytical, ambitious people and you’re going to create a stress combustion.

Becoming friends with these peers is important, both for camaraderie and future networking, but it is also vitally important to have a community and outlet outside of law school.

Especially during exam times, I remember being so grateful to just go to a friend’s house for dinner and not end up accidentally talking about another legal case the entire time, like would happen with my law school friends.

I joined a super fun yoga community. A nice break from law student types all day! 

Doing things outside of law and with non law students is also a reminder to keep your sanity, to remember that there is a bigger world out there than the law school incubator.

Have friends outside of law school, do activities that aren’t just building your law school resume. Your mental and physical health will thank you, and ultimately, you will be a better performing, happier law student for it.

Be Ok Going Against the Grain

How I have recommended you approach preparing for class and how I recommend you approach the entire semester means you have to be OK not doing what the rest of your classmates are doing. You have to be ok listening to your classmates talk about all the time they spent doing something, and know you don’t need to do it that way, and in fact you should not do it that way.

That can be tough. But don’t let that stress you out. Let that encourage you.

You’re aiming to be different. If you do what everyone else does, given the grading curve, you’re going to get the grades everyone else does. That would put you in the middle of the pack. You’re here because you want to know how to be top of your class in law school. Be confident that you are being more efficient, more effective, and smarter in your studying and preparation with these strategies. 

Here’s a picture of me taking “going against the grain” maybe a little too far by doing a handstand in the law library. 

Key Takeaways!

If you want to be top of your class in law school:

  1. Prepare for Class
    1. Understand the point of your assigned cases in the broader context of the course by finding the topic in your syllabus and then reading about that topic in your broad commercial supplement like an Examples and Explanations book.
    2. Before reading your assigned cases, understand the facts and legal rulings in the case by first reading a summary of the case either in your casenotes book or on google ( is a great resource).
    3. Read your cases with an eye for the key components of a case. Skim through the irrelevant parts of the case.
  2. Digest the Material After Class
    1. Condense your case briefs and class notes.
    2. Identify any areas that you don’t understand.
  3. Start Outlining for Exams Early
  4. Go to Office Hours
  5. Have an Outlet Outside of Law School
  6. Be Ok Going Against the Grain
    1. Remember, most law students won’t be doing these strategies. You have to be ok ignoring most of your peers and trusting that by doing something different you will get that different grade . . . the top grade! 
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Hope you enjoy this blog post! Want to know how to use the power of your personal statement to get into your dream law school, even if you aren’t the “perfect” applicant?

Mara has helped countless law school applicants get into their dream law schools, even without a perfect GPA, the highest LSAT score, or most unique story. Mara used to be a litigator at one of the top law firms in the world and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School as a prestigious Toll Public Interest Scholar.

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