Eileen Halpin has been helping law students stay ahead of the curve for over a decade. One of her specialties is preparing them to tackle those daunting final exams. Especially the essay sections. I was able to sit down with her earlier this semester to discuss what recommendations she has for students headed into their first round of law school finals, and what lessons they should take forward into their second semester. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Decisive Utterrance: What do you feel is the biggest hurdle for students adjusting to the transition from undergraduate to law school?
Eileen Halpin: Students underestimate how much time it takes to prepare for finals their first year in law school. In order to be well prepared come test time, and later for the bar, you have to give yourself ample time to absorb and analyze the information you are receiving in class. It’s important that you not only do the reading every class, but set time aside to review your notes, make outlines, and answer practice questions.
DU: So when would you recommend students begin preparing for their final exams?
Halpin: The best time to begin budgeting your time in preparation for your final exams are within the first couple of weeks. Lawyering skills classes are demanding but you need to find time for your other classes as well. Begin engaging with the materials in your core classes immediately. Read the cases assign for each class. Do it twice, or even three times if you need to. Then look to the notes sections and do some problems to help cement your understanding.
It is essential that to take the time to type or hand-write their briefs for each case, especially in the first year. Doing this will help you to break up the information. Students find that when they do this it helps them think in terms of IRAC as well, which is helpful to them in writing briefs for their lawyering skills classes, but also in getting ready for exams. Thinking of case information in terms of the Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion, will not only aid in comprehension of class materials but will help you better organize information in a way that will make sense to your Professor when they grade your exam essay.
It all begins by being prepared for class. Then during class, taking accurate notes and writing down hypos presented by the professor. After class, hopefully within 24 hours when it’s freshest in your mind, go back and rewrite your notes by hand and see if they make sense to you. If you find that things aren’t lining up like they should, that’s the time to reach out. Request a meeting with your professor or go to office hours. Your instructors are valuable assets in our learning process. Often students ignore this resource at their own peril.
When students don’t do as well as they thought they would on an exam, they usually tell me that they ran out of time. As I speak with these students about how the prepared for the exam and managed their time through the semester, it never just boils down to what happened in the exam room. The student realizes that they hadn’t been using their time wisely throughout the semester. They hadn’t been briefing cases and making outlines. They hadn’t made time to think out how they would answer essays ahead of the exam. As a result they spent too much time trying to figure how to structure their answer on the exam, instead of just doing it and moving on to the next question. Briefing and practice questions help you structure your answers ahead of time. Outlining helps you learn the substantive material that will be tested on. You need to find the time to do both your first year if you want to do well on your exams.
DU: Why is time management so important to success in law school?
Halpin: Law school is much different than undergraduate. The classes are more demanding and you have a lot of new information coming at you all at once. Learning how much time it takes for you to accomplish tasks and using your time wisely is therefore essential to success. Briefing, outlining, doing practice questions. The better you get at designating enough time to do these things, the better your comprehension will be and the more comfortable you will feel headed into the final.
Knowing how much time you need to accomplish certain tasks and understanding how to most efficiently use the time you have at your disposal is just part of getting ready for the exam. You need to be prepared to walk someone through your thought process while you are writing an essay. This is essentially what you are being graded on and every case you read should be preparing you to accomplish this task as efficiently as possible.
DU: Any parting words of advice?
Halpin: Your first semester of your first year is always going to be the most difficult. You won’t feel like you have the time to read the cases. Everything is new and you won’t feel like you have the time to digest all the information that comes at you. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed, but you have to be persistent. You are learning a new language. The more comfortable you get with the case briefing and terms of art, the whole experience becomes more manageable. You realize how you can better carve out time for class preparation. You want to embrace this time, it is part of the learning process. You are entering a profession that requires you to read cases and digest the law in terms of statutes and precedent. This process begins in law school, and the faster you learn to allocate your time wisely, the easier it will be to succeed.
Sometimes people have the wrong impression when they come to law school. They think that they have all the skills they will need on the first day of class. This isn’t true. I tell my students on the first day of class that we are all works in progress. I still believe that to be true.
To arrange for a free initial consultation, please email Eileen at: [email protected] or telephone her at 312-330-1634.
By Michael Reed