Free PDF: Proven brainstorming exercises to kickstart your personal statement and get you into your dream law school

How to Prepare for 1L: You Can Succeed And Enjoy Your First Year of Law School

The first year of law school is often talked about in hushed tones, tones of fear, dread, anxiety. You’ve probably heard horror stories, about the workload, about the dreaded cold calls, about the cut-throat competitiveness of the other students.

Some of it is true. But a lot of the truth of this depends on how you make your experience.

I can tell you that for many of my peers, these horror stories were their first year. But it doesn’t have to be.

So how do you survive 1L year?

By knowing before you even walk into law school how to prepare for 1L. You can actually enjoy AND succeed in your first year (really).

Click here to subscribe

Why Is the First Year of Law School So Important? 

Part of knowing how to prepare for 1L is understanding what you’re walking into, and what you’re working towards.

So let’s talk about the number one most important thing in law school: your grades. 

Your law school grades matter, a lot. Law school grades, and particularly grades in your first year, can set the trajectory for your entire career. Even now, prospective employers still ask and comment on my law school transcript–including my 1L grades. 

While grades do not define your worth as a person or candidly, even how good of a lawyer you’ll be, the reality is, first year law school grades matter, in terms of what opportunities you have during law school and after. 

Within law school, higher grades open opportunities for spots on prestigious legal journals, scholarships, positions as research assistants with professors, and competitive summer job offers (which are hugely influential in where you get your first job). 

After law school your grades are vitally important. Many of your soon-to-be employers (like law firms and judges) won’t consider people without certain grades or class ranking. 

Unfortunately, your first-year grades, for many of you, will be the most important. Although I personally feel the first year is not an accurate assessment since many many students do better the subsequent semesters once they get a hang of how law school works, it’s the reality of the game for those of you going to law firms, and still has a huge impact for those in the public interest world (which includes government jobs). 

Let me quickly explain so that you can understand why, for most of you, your first-year grades are probably the most important. 

For those going to law firms, you will likely participate in what is called OCI (which means “On Campus Recruiting”) at the end of the summer after your 1L year. This is where the major law firms in your area or nationally come to your school and conduct interviews to hire summer associates for the following year. These summer gigs typically lead to job offers for after law school. But the only thing these firms have to go on when they initially hire you are your first-year grades, your extracurriculars, and your interview performance. The most critical of all those three is, you guessed it, your first-year grades. 

Let me put this plainly – your post-law school job might hinge almost entirely on your first-year grades. YIKES! 

For those pursuing careers in public interest, your first-year grades are also vitally important. They are often the critical factor in what fellowships you are competitive for, what summer internships you get, and therefore what post law school job opportunities you have. 

So for all law students, your professional opportunities post law school greatly depend on how well you do your first year of law school. 

Now you understand all the pressure?! 

But you won’t break under it, because you won’t waste that first year just figuring out what law school is all about, or how to succeed. You’re going to walk into class day 1 already knowing how to prepare for 1L.

Let’s talk about what your first year will look like.

How to Prepare for 1L Tip #1: Know What to Expect 

As I said, a big piece of knowing how to prepare for 1L is knowing what to expect.

Most people have a vague idea of what law school consists of and figure they’ll learn the rest as they go.

This is not a plan for success. You’ll waste too much valuable time just getting the hang of law school, rather than actually doing law school.

So let’s go over a few basics about what your life will soon look like:

 1. Class 

Your first-year courses will likely consist of some of the following doctrinal courses: 

  • Contracts
  • Civil Procedure
  • Torts
  • Criminal Law
  • Constitutional Law
  • Property 
  • Legal Practical Skills (research and writing) 

Your first semester or quarter, depending on what school you go to, you will typically take three to four doctrinal courses plus a practical legal skills course.

Which subjects you have your first term will vary by school, which you should be able to easily find on your school’s website. 

You’ll be in lectures most, if not all, weekdays, for most of an 8-hour day. Most schools will divide all first-year law students into sections, and you will take all your courses with your section. Think of sections kind of like the Hogwarts Houses in Harry Potter You will get attached to your section, and the people in it. Take care of each other. 

Classes are primarily lecture based, but this is a lecture unlike any you’ve encountered before.

First year professors, regardless of what school you go to, will almost certainly use some form of what is known as the Socratic Method

The Socratic Method is a long tradition in the legal education world in which professors call on students at random, and without advance notice, to answer questions on the reading or professor-made hypothetical situations. The professor lectures through the student. So don’t just expect to sit back and watch a powerpoint as your professor drones on. You will be an active participant, whether you volunteer or not.

2. Homework 

Your homework for your core subjects, will be almost exclusively textbook reading, composed of court cases that provide key legal principles and standards.

You will primarily be assigned precedential court cases, which are court decisions that offer instructive or binding interpretations of the law. For this reason, a good amount of your assigned reading will be Supreme Court decisions, from as early as the 1800s (like this classic first year law school case) to more recent years.

This material is often dense, and long, and it can be confusing, especially for first year students, to identify the key passages and takeaways from each court opinion. Especially in the earlier court cases, the language often doesn’t feel like English, and you have to go slowly to really grasp what the case is talking about, and just as important, to understand the doctrinal point the professor is making by assigning it.

You will get faster as the semester goes on, but in the beginning, the reading will be mentally taxing, and oh so slow. And you will be assigned A LOT of reading. 

3. Grades 

For most schools, your grade in each course is based on a single final exam. And for most schools that exam is on a strict curve, meaning you’re essentially competing against your classmates.

You will likely not have any quizzes, midterms, participation points, or group projects (though I’ve heard there is an increasing trend towards having midterm exams, which will make the pressure a little less intense).

You typically have one day to do well, and it will cover the entire semester’s worth of material.

This is the biggest difference between law school and undergrad. In undergrad you likely had multiple assignments, or at least a midterm and final. But in law school, it’s ride or die. How well you do on that single day is everything. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed, too bad. Your dog got sick and you were up all night cleaning throw-up (sadly my true story), too bad. If you have a bad day, you get a bad grade in the class, even if you were the star of all those cold calls throughout the semester.

How to Prepare for Law School Tip #2: Gather Materials 

To know how to prepare for 1L, you need to understand what materials you need and why.

These are a few materials that no one will tell you need, but that I personally think are essential to your law school success, or at least to an easier road to success. I suggest ideally getting before classes begin or as soon as you can:

First, you want to get your hands on Upperclassmen outlines. Upperclassmen outlines are robust, fully briefed outlines of your specific professor’s course from previous students who did well. The students who wrote these outlines usually become mini legends as their outlines get passed on year after year. (Shoutout to my outline hero, Mr. Softness for super high-quality outlines).

These outlines will operate as your preview of what to expect from class. Professors will almost always teach the exact same material every year (with some additions if the law has evolved), and these outlines are like transcripts of each day. This is something that took me too long to realize even existed. But these can be gold 

We’ll shortly talk about how to use these upperclassmen outlines in your class preparation, but first let’s talk about how to get them. This can be the tricky part. Outlines are rarely on any kind of public domain, like your school’s website.

The best and typically only way to get these outlines is from past students. Yes I hear you, you just got to school! How are you supposed to know anyone, let alone ask people for materials already?!

Here are a few ways I suggest looking for these outlines:

  • Upperclassmen: You may be able to meet upperclassmen at various networking events during orientation. Befriend some! And then casually ask for their outlines…and maybe offer to buy them a beer. 
  • Student Organizations. If you join a student organization (like a student run club at the law school) you are automatically in league with upperclassmen and many of the organizations keep their own bank of outlines. 
  • Other first year law student Other first year law students will obtain these outlines from either friends or siblings who were upperclassmen at your school, or from the same ways I just suggested. Ask around. And if you do get some, share with your classmates. This kindness will come back to you. 

It may be tough to get a hold of upperclassmen outlines before classes begin. That’s ok, even if it takes a few weeks to find any. Just try and get a hold as early as possible. It will save you time preparing for class, and primarily for your time in the spotlight – your cold call day. So get over the awkwardness and ask around. 

The second item I want you to buy are Commercial supplements.

There are two types of supplements I recommend getting: 

First, a C asenotes Book that is keyed to YOUR specific assigned textbook. I’m going to repeat this, make sure you get a casenotes book that goes with your specific class’ book, meaning you can’t get this until you have your syllabus. This book provides quick summaries and analyses of all the cases in the book. These will be a lifesaver for preparing for class, and for understanding what the hell that case from the 1800s is saying since their English sounds like gibberish.

Not every textbook will have a casenotes book unfortunately, and some professors may assign readings from a variety of textbooks and I wouldn’t suggest buying a casenotes for each of those books. It will just inundate you with too much information and also drain your bank account. I candidly didn’t even know these existed my first year. So know you can survive without them. But I definitely wish I knew about them because it would’ve saved me a lot of time. 

The second type of supplement I want you to get is a broad overview supplement that will help ground your reading and understand the point and connection between all the cases. These books primarily discuss black letter law (which is a fancy phrase for law that is clear and on the books, and no longer subject to any real debate).

These books will not give you deep insight into the law like class will. Which is why these cannot replace your textbook or class time, especially because what you focus on and what the exam will focus on depends entirely on your specific professor. But these supplements are still invaluable in understanding the basic premise behind what you’re learning, and make readings so much more digestible. I honestly don’t think I could’ve survived or thrived in law school without them. 

My favorites were Examples & Explanations and Emmanuel’s Law Outlines (but typically I liked the Examples and Explanations best).


P.S. these are not affiliate links. Just my honest recommendations, so feel free to do your own research. But I think most people with recommend Examples and Explanations.

One word of caution, don’t get a bunch of different supplements for each course. In Part 2 of this blog post, we’ll discuss how to use these supplements, and you don’t need more than one. More is not better here. It will just confuse you and add unnecessary work, and take away time you already don’t have.

How to Prepare for 1L Tip #3: Have a Game Plan

Ok, now that you know what you need to start the semester, you need to learn how you will use all these materials. 

Having a game plan for how you will succeed in law schools is vital if you want to be a top student. Or honestly, if you just want to enjoy law school and have more time to do non-law school related things. 

Just like a top performing athlete doesn’t just walk into the weight room and wing it, you can’t do that either. 

You need to know what you’re doing, when, and why.

In Part Two, we’ll discuss your exact game plan for how to succeed in law school. Stay tuned! 

Click here to subscribe


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.

Get the three exercises that have helped countless law school applicants craft a wildly successful personal statement


How to kickstart your personal statement and get into your dream law school

When you sign up, you’ll also receive regular updates on law school admissions

Where can I send your PDF?

Privacy Policy: We hate spam and promise to keep your email address safe.

How to Stand Out & Get Admitted to the Law School of Your Dreams