Breakfast and Other Important Last Minute Exam Prep

Breakfast is Important

[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

Well folks, here we are at the end of the semester. You have read and read until you thought you could read no more, but you did it. Now, it’s time for some last-minute suggestions to read. 

The week before:

1. Get your flu shot

Ok, this is only tangentially related to taking exams, but the flu is no joke and law school is a germ cesspool with everyone in close quarters and stress-compromised immune systems. Chances are you can get it at school for practically or literally nothing. Please, I beg of you. Get your flu shot.

I digress.

Time to Get Your Flue Shot

2. Stop Comparing yourself

We all want to know if our outline is adequate and to gauge if we know as much as our peers, but this strategy tends to be counterproductive. We all work at different paces and with different methods, so the data you gather and use for comparison will inevitably be misleading.

Everything about law school is built to tell you that your success is relative to your peers’ success. As problematic as that system is, and as gross of a culture as it creates, it likely isn’t going to change in the near future. So it’s up to you to take steps to guard yourself against the anxiety inherent in the system.

Do some research on how to ace exams. Set goals for yourself in terms of what you would like to accomplish leading up to the exam, and trust that your preparation will serve you well.

3. Get Some Rest

I know this is my schtick, but only because it’s true. Make sure you are getting enough sleep not only the night before your exams, but the weeks leading up as well. Your brain needs it. Really. It does.

On exam day:

All of our school’s exams are at 2:00 pm, which is awesome for me because that is my most alert time of the day. I feel for those of you who are in your afternoon slump at 2:00 pm though, so here is my fifth-grade-EOG advice for you:

1. Eat a complex breakfast and HYDRATE

I’ve written before about what a huge fan of rituals I am. I am also a huge fan of food, so this semester I am going to experiment with an exam day breakfast ritual – something that feels festive, but still has a little bit of protein, some carbs, and a lot of water. If you choose something festive, let me know!

2. Deep breathe

Diaphragmatic breathing lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and can flip your anxious lizard brain back into a human brain. To do it, sit with both feet on the floor, one hand on your chest, and one on your belly. While you are breathing in, imagine that you are blowing up a balloon under the hand that’s on your belly. Breathe in for three, hold for one, breathe out for three.

3. If you have a study ritual, implement it.

You obviously won’t be able to implement every facet of it, but any memory trigger you can activate will help spark those deep archives in your marvelous brain.

Most importantly, remember that you are a whole and magnificent being regardless of how you do on exams. You may not do as well as you hope, and that may force you to reassess your goals, but your grade on an exam is not actually an indicator of your future ability as a lawyer, nor is it an indicator of your worth as a human.

Not feeling super prepared? Check out some outlining tips here and some self-care tips here!

The Productive Art Of Study Rituals

Listening to Music while studying

[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

I have been listening to the same album for almost every single study session for the past two years. I know this sounds boring but hear me out. I am the kind of person who struggles to transition from the outer world where life happens, and where shiny things distract me, into the inner mental world where productive studying happens. It took me almost 18 years of education to realize this, but when I finally did, my study life was revolutionized.

Here’s what it looks like:

Noise-canceling headphones

I prefer over-ear ones because, for whatever reason, having my ears covered distances me from the outer world in a kind of perplexing way. I prefer headphones, but if I don’t have them, a hoodie sometimes does the trick. (Is this weird? Anyone else like this?)

Music

My go-to study music for a very long while has been Sleeping At Last’s Atlas: Space Deluxe, the second half of which is all instrumental.

Recently though, I have branched out a little bit and started listening to Yo-Yo Ma’s Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites.

And, this one is a little weird, but it has been working for me: The Monks of the Abbey of Notre Dame Gregorian Chants. I have no idea how I started with these, but they make everything feel a little magical.

Organize work surface

I lose focus pretty easily when I am studying, especially if I am tired. If I get distracted for something even as simple as finding a pen, it sometimes takes me 20 minutes to get back into focus mode. So, I lay out writing utensils, my book, and my clipboard with fresh notepaper on the table and cross my fingers that I didn’t forget anything that I might have to go hunting for later.

Set Tree

After everything is laid out and my Gregorian Chants are playing, I set a tree. (Check out this post if you have no idea what I’m talking about)!

Scents to study by

Scents

Gregorian chants are weird, but the olfactory/memory connection is definitely weirder. I have a tiny roller of essential oils that are supposedly meant to help you with focus, but really I just think they smell nice and I have been using the same one for so long that every time I smell it, I get a boost of study-adrenaline. Before that, I would chew spearmint gum a spearmint mint, which had the same effect.

Obviously this gangly, kind of unwieldy ritual isn’t always possible, but I try to implement as much of it as possible, as frequently as possible if I need to get deep work done. I’m pretty sure I listened to Atlas: Space two hundred and fifty times while I was finalizing my memo draft.

Do you have any unique study rituals? I’d love to hear about them. Reach out at @the1lLife on Twitter and Instagram!

5 Tips to Writing Top-Notch Law School Essay Exams

Tips and advice on Writing Essays

[ Juliana Del Pesco, BARBRI International Legal Manager, Americas ]

A semester of reading, briefing cases and preparing outlines all culminates in one final act: Writing law school final exams. Most law school exams call for essay-type responses as a test of your ability to analyze and resolve legal problems.

You will be required to demonstrate your grasp of the materials you studied throughout the semester, along with your ability to provide lawyer-like solutions to precise legal issues. Your class grade will be largely, if not exclusively, based on your final exam performance, so be sure you are properly prepared with these exam-writing tips.

#1 – READ AND ANALYZE THE PROBLEM CAREFULLY

Read the entire problem through once rather quickly to get a general understanding. Focus on the question you are being asked to respond to at the end of the problem. Then, read through the scenario again, slowly and carefully. This time, evaluate every word and phrase to identify all potential issues. Always keep in mind the specific question you are actually being asked to answer.

#2 – ORGANIZE YOUR THOUGHTS

Organization is critical to writing a strong essay answer. After all, if the professor cannot follow your analysis, how can they grade it fairly and appropriately?

Before you start writing, chart the issues in the manner in which you will resolve them. Again,  make sure the issues are related to the actual question you are being asked to answer. Arrange the issues in the sequence in which you would expect a court to address them (i.e., normally, jurisdictional issues first, then liability, then remedies). Capture the points you will discuss in sufficient detail to prompt you to think the problem through to a fair and practical solution.

BARBRI has developed a quick outlining system called Issue T to help students organize their thoughts for essay writing. In the Issue T, you state the rule implicated at the top, list the elements that comprise that rule on the left side of the “T”, and list all of the supporting, relevant facts on the right side of the “T”:

#3 – START WRITING ONLY WHEN YOUR ANALYSIS AND ORGANIZATION ARE COMPLETE

You may find that you devote a solid one-fourth of the time allocated to reading, analyzing the problem and organizing your answer. That’s okay. A logical organization and clear expression of ideas will strengthen your answer. This purposeful approach may even bolster an answer that’s somewhat weak.

#4 – AS YOU BEGIN TO WRITE, USE THE I-R-A-C FORMAT FOR EACH ISSUE RAISED

Issue. First, state the issue in precise legal terms (e.g., “Did the defendant’s mistake in computing his bid prevent the formation of an enforceable contract?”). Be careful to avoid generalizations or oversimplification of the issue.

Rule. Next, state the applicable law. Be sure to define the pertinent elements of a rule as well as any terms of art. Consider and discuss ALL relevant views, making certain that you express the underlying rationale behind each divergent view or rule of law.

Application. Then, apply the rules to the facts using arguments. Avoid the common error of stating a rule and then jumping straight to the conclusion.. Your professor will not infer a supporting argument for you—you must spell it out. Remember to use the Issue T you created earlier to remind you to discuss  which facts in the fact pattern support (or prevent) application of the rule. Discuss and weigh each fact given and the logical inference to be drawn from it. Be sure to include counterarguments where possible.

Conclusion. Finally, come to a straightforward conclusion on each issue. Make sure you have clearly answered the question asked, and you have not left an issue hanging. If a number of outcomes are possible, discuss the merits of each, but always select one position as your conclusion and state why. In close cases, it is generally best to select the most practical and fair conclusion. Just don’t consider yourself bound by the “general rule” or “majority view” in answering an exam unless the question clearly calls for such.

#5 – OTHER HELPFUL TIPS AND VALUABLE RESOURCES

Budget your time, but don’t be concerned if you notice that others begin writing before you do. Law professors are usually focused more on the quality rather than the length of a student’s answer. They will appreciate that you stick to the issues and emphasize what counts to provide the most succinct, yet appropriate, exam response.

Last but certainly not least, make sure your answer is legible. If your school gives you the option to handwrite or type your exams, I recommend typing your exam. Your professor won’t be impressed by the logic of an answer that cannot be easily read.

For effective 1L school resources, learn about the BARBRI 1L Mastery Package.

For more law school tips specifically for LL.M.s, download the free BARBRI LL.M. Guide.

ABOUT BARBRI

BARBRI has helped more than 1.3 million lawyers around the world pass a U.S. bar exam. The company also provides online J.D., post-J.D., and international programs for U.S. law schools and specialized ongoing training and certifications in areas such as financial crime prevention and eDiscovery.

To help LL.M. students determine which BARBRI course may be best to pass a U.S. state bar exam, check out our blog: BARBRI EXTENDED BAR PREP AND 8-WEEK BARBRI BAR REVIEW: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Brain Breaks

[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

Something happened to me last week that has only happened to me a couple of times before.

After many days of 10+ straight hours of deep mental work, my brain just collapsed from exhaustion. I tried to push through it. I drank more coffee. I drank so much coffee. I worked on the less intellectually-demanding tasks while I waited for my brain health gauge to replenish, but the truth was that I had overdone it. The inner-workings of my mind resembled what my house looks like on weeks that I have multiple events at school: absolute disarray. The longer I delayed taking a break, the worse the mess got and the more difficult even the simplest tasks became.

It’s a vicious and inefficient cycle, really. I work slower and less efficiently instead of taking a break, which makes me even slower and less efficient. On and on it goes until the pace is really more like standing still. The time and work would have been better off if I had just stared at the wall for thirty minutes, or better yet – watched some 30 Rock.

We’ve talked before about how learning new information and processes creates and repaves your neurological pathways. The more new information you are taking in, the more “paving” work your brain is doing. As you are paving and repaving these neural pathways, your brain is simultaneously engaged in sorting and organizing all of the new information to relate to the pre-existing information. The more you repeat those same processes and that same information, the more well-trod those pathways become, but only to a point.

Why?

Because brains, like bodies, get tired. We all know this from our primary school days, right? Eat a healthy diet to give your brain energy. Exercise regularly to give your brain energy. Get enough sleep to give your brain energy.

Here’s the law school addition to that: give your brain breaks so that it can do all of that work without turning into a puddle of mush. I am finding that this is harder work than I care to admit. Even when I am not doing school work, my brain is still in on mode – somewhere in my mind I am rehearsing the definition of proximate cause. I am afraid that if I stop rehearsing it to myself, I will lose it.

In a sense, that’s true.

But if I give my brain actual breaks, it will take the definition of proximate cause and organize it. And I might lose it for a bit. But then when I find it again, I will be able to see what folder my brain put it in and then finding it will be that much easier next time.

This is especially important with exams coming up when the temptation to cram study is very high. We study more, sleep less, and retain less.

It’s very difficult for me to take real brain breaks, but here’s what I have found that helps me: boxing, running, and cycling; listening to really loud, fun music; watching trashy sitcoms; reading an engrossing novel; going on a hike with my camera; eating really good food without any other distractions.

I’d love to hear what you do to give your brain a break! Reach out on twitter and Instagram @the1lLife!

Law School Note Taking Part II

Law School Note Taking

[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

Last week in the 1L Life cafe, we talked about law school note taking strategies. This week we are following that up with a rundown of my absolute favorite ever all-purpose app – Notion. (remember, it’s free for students!)

If you think this particular note-taking setup would work for you, you can click here and duplicate the template into your own workspace.

Here’s how I have it set up:

I start with a school dashboard that has my to-do list for the week along with a sub-page for each class and activity I am involved in. I update my assignments on Sundays. It sometimes takes a while but having everything right there is so much easier than flipping through the syllabus ten times because I keep forgetting my planner and also what page numbers I am supposed to read.

School Dashboard

Each class sub-page has the info for the course, every assignment thus far, and a sub-page for each week, case briefs, vocab, rules, syllabus, and of course, the BARBRI outline. I use a unicorn cover photo for every Contracts page, because contracts, like unicorns, feels mystical and elusive to me.

Contracts

The Resources pages are mostly spreadsheets, within which each entry exists as a card. I became obsessed with this system of tables a few years ago when I started using Airtable. I am hooked. I use the provided emojis to give myself a little memory jog about the contents of cases without even having to click on them.

Ever-Time Roofing Corp V. Green

Contracts BriefsAs you can see by the sparseness of emojis, I have been a little behind on filling out my Contracts case brief chart. That’s okay, though, because I have a three-step process for interacting with cases. I take hand-written notes, so I do a very short (usually 3-4 bullet points) handwritten brief of each case. Right before class, I transfer my hand-written notes over to my weekly notes document, which refreshes me on the facts. Then, at the end of the week, when I am tidying everything up and making note of what I need to review, I transfer my in-line case notes into my table.

At this point, you are probably pretty impressed by my perfectly refined system but you should know that even though I have successfully tested this system to ensure it works well for me, there has yet to be a single week where I complete the whole process for all of my classes. There have definitely been weeks where I didn’t complete it for a single class. Also, I am fairly certain the case brief up there in that Ever-title Roofing case is actually from Lexis.

Contracts Final Plan

One last little note.

I just started mapping out my Finals plan, which only a little bit terrifying, of course. I have not gotten very far but included it here as well.

2Ls and 3Ls, I beg you for your sage exam-prep advice! If you try out the template, I’d love to know what works or doesn’t work for you. If your law school note taking system is better (or less complex) than mine, let me know! Reach out on Instagram and Twitter @the1lLife.

How Do You Outline In Law School?

[ Juliana Del Pesco, BARBRI International Legal Manager, Americas ]

It’s a time-honored tradition in law school and one of the most crucial exam preparation steps. If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about law school outlines.

Outlining simply is synthesizing and meshing course material so you can access details quickly and digest concepts broadly. This process helps you master complex course material by organizing it into something meaningful and understandable for you … and, ultimately, to study for final exams.

A law school outline should consist of things like:

  • the rules from the cases you study
  • your summarized class notes
  • the professor’s hypotheticals
  • any other material that the professor has brought into discussions or alluded to in lectures

Almost every professor will tell you to start outlining early in the semester. Creating your own outline, rather than borrowing, is highly recommended. It may be time consuming but expressing the relevant principles of the law in your own words will help your comprehension and understanding.

Here are our recommended steps:

#1 – GATHER THE FACTS

It’s difficult to build out a meaningful outline without some substance. First, gather all of your foundational information in one place — including your case briefs, class notes, casebook, and maybe a study aid like your BARBRI outline or a handed-down outline. For help acquiring outlines that make the most sense for your classes, you can start by reaching out to your professors. BARBRI also provides great outlines as part of the 1L Mastery Package.

#2 – CREATE A FRAMEWORK

The table of contents in your casebook already has the makings of an outline so you can easily use it as the foundation for yours. It clearly lays out the major area of law, the related subtopics, and where all the cases fit into the discussion. If your professor teaches to a course syllabus rather than following a table of contents, lay out your outline using the syllabus in a similar manner.

#3 – STATE THE RULE, THOROUGHLY

Add a clear and complete statement defining the rule of law (e.g., “Battery is ….”). Do this for each rule based on what has been laid out by your professor, a case you read, information you gathered from a commercial outline (such as the outline in 1L Mastery) or hornbook, or some other source (e.g., Use of the Socratic Method in the classroom). It’s critical that you understand and can clearly state the rule.

#4 – BREAK DOWN THE RULE INTO ITS ELEMENTS

Next, break down the rule itself into its component parts, or elements. Each element then needs to be defined (e.g., List out all four elements of battery and what they entail). The order should follow the way in which the elements were laid out in class by your professor, or how they track in your casebook. It will serve you well on your final exam to take the time to dissect each rule in this way. You’ll likely be asked to write about an element or elements of battery on the essay exam rather than the rule itself.

#5 – FOLLOW EACH ELEMENT WITH SOME HYPOTHETICALS

Law school exams are based around hypothetical situations. The more practice you have, the more comfortable you’ll be in applying law from cases to new hypotheticals when you encounter them on your exams. You’ll have to grapple with unusual fact patterns and be able to determine which rule should be used to solve the problem created by those facts. I personally found the practice of illustrating how the rule works to be very helpful as a way to truly understand and learn the rules of law.

OTHER TIPS AND ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Skip the case briefs and don’t include case names or citations in your outline unless you believe your professor will expect you to know this.

Remember, your objective is to summarize the law you have learned in one cohesive review tool that will enable you to be successful on exam day.

If you’re an LL.M. student,  download the free BARBRI LL.M. Guide for more tips.

ABOUT BARBRI

BARBRI has helped more than 1.3 million lawyers around the world pass a U.S. bar exam. The company also provides online J.D., post-J.D., and international programs for U.S. law schools and specialized ongoing training and certifications in areas such as financial crime prevention and eDiscovery.

To help LL.M. students determine which BARBRI course may be best to pass a U.S. state bar exam, check out our blog: BARBRI EXTENDED BAR PREP AND 8-WEEK BARBRI BAR REVIEW: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Note Taking Strategies

note taking strategies

[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

Got Note Taking Strategies?

There are as many note taking strategies as there are note-takers. Everyone works a little bit differently and needs a slightly different thing. What you need will likely change from semester to semester, and maybe even from course to course. I have tried probably almost 100 different systems throughout my long educational career, and I can attest that the only perfect system is the one you stick with. Here’s what I have used this semester, and it has worked mostly very well for me.

Reading Notes

I do my reading notes on paper and my class notes on the computer, and then add my reading notes into my class notes as I’m reviewing at the end of the week.

I like handwriting notes for a few reasons. It slows me down while I am reading and forces me to engage with the material more methodically. This is sometimes a con, but most of the time a pro. I give each of the cases in my notes a nickname, which then corresponds with the icon I pick to represent it in Notion.

note taking strategies

I also really like to be able to connect ideas spatially with diagrams and arrows and flow charts. You can do this on programs like One Note, but I like how easy it is on paper.

I wrote before that I highlight only in gray in my case books, but I color code my notes. Cases are pink, rules are blue, vocab is purple, and things I need to finish or ask about are green. I use erasable highlighters, and when I get an answer to my question or finish the unfinished task, I just erase the highlighter.

Diagrams

I love diagrams. Nothing helps me organize processes or ideas as well as a flow chart or a tree diagram. I often write my case briefs in timeline form instead of the traditional paragraph form. I find it is much easier for me to see the important information if I can easily see how it is connected to all of the other information on the page.

note taking strategies

Class Notes

I’ve written before about the wonders of Notion, but I could do a thousand blog posts about how much I love it. My whole life is organized in Notion, from my calendar and to-do lists to meal planning, recipes, personal reading notes, to all of my class notes, case briefs, outlines, and (Also it’s free for students!!)

I have a landing page for school that has all of my assignments for the week. Then each class has its own landing page with all of the info for the semester, the BARBRI Outline, a case brief spreadsheet, and subpages for vocabulary, rules, outlining, and each week’s notes.

I keep all of my case briefs in a chart and link to just that week’s cases in my weekly notes subpages. Notability has little emojis available for different kinds of labels, so I label each of the cases to jog my memory. We’ll talk more about this next week, but here’s a preview!

note taking strategies

I made a template for weekly notes pages that includes the assignment, a weekly checklist, vocab, and rules. I have two columns of notes, one for reading and one for class notes, and then under each, I have a toggle list by subject. My contracts professor is kind enough to post her weekly slides before class, so if I have time, I’ll also import the slides into my weekly notes before class starts.

I love Notion for my class notes because of how easy it is to organize everything. I can hide whatever I am not focusing on in that moment and look at just the main topic or just the one case at a time.

My system took quite some time to perfect, and I still run into snags every once in a while. The main thing is: Find a system that works for you and stick to it. There is no such thing as a perfect system, and it’s far better to have a consistent one than an ever-changing “perfect” one.

I am always curious about what works for people, so reach out and share your note taking strategies with the hashtag #1lLife or on Twitter and Instagram @the1lLife!

Techniques for Briefing a Case

[ Juliana Del Pesco, BARBRI International Legal Manager, Americas ]

The case brief is a necessary part of studying U.S. law. You will undoubtedly hear the term regularly during your time in law school. Quite simply, a case brief is a set of notes you take on each assigned case to ensure you are paying attention to what’s important.

This study aid is meant to help you encapsulate and analyze the mountain of material you will be expected to digest and recall as a law student. The case brief is the end result of reading a case, re-reading it, taking it apart, and putting it back together again. In addition to being a useful tool for self-instruction and referencing, the case brief also provides a valuable “cheat sheet” for class participation. With a few techniques in hand, you will be able to master the art of briefing cases to be well on your way to owning class discussions.

CREATE A BRIEFING SYSTEM THAT WORKS FOR YOU

Often, a case is misread because the student fails to break it down into its essential elements. The use of a briefing system can get you in the habit of dissecting the case sufficiently for analytical purposes. There are many different ways to brief a case. You should find the format that is most useful for your class and exam preparations.

Here are the elements of a brief that I have found to be the most effective:

  • Facts: Briefly state the name of the case and its parties, what happened factually and procedurally leading to the controversy, and the judgment. This information is necessary because legal principles are defined by the situations in which they arise, and a fact is legally relevant if it had an impact on the case’s outcome. For example, in a personal injury action arising from a car accident, the color of the parties’ cars seldom would be relevant to the case’s outcome. Similarly, if the plaintiff and defendant presented different versions of the facts, you should describe those differences that are relevant to the court’s consideration of the case.
  • Trial Court: State the judgment or decision in the case. Did the court decide in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant? What remedy, if any, did the court grant?
  • Issue: State the issue or issues raised on appeal. This is where you will describe the opinion you are briefing. In this section of the brief, state the factual and legal questions that the court had to decide. To analyze a case properly, you want to break it down to its component parts. Be sure to stick to the relevant issue or issues because these are the ones for which the court made a final decision and which are binding.
  • Rule: In a sentence or two, state the legal principle or the applied rule of law on which the court relied to reach its answer (the holding).
  • Rationale: You now should describe why the court arrived at its holding. This section of the case brief may be the most important, because you must understand the court’s reasoning to be able to analyze it and apply it to other fact situations, such as those you will see on the bar exam.
  • Objective Theory: Concurring and dissenting opinions can present an interesting alternative analysis or theory of the case. Therefore, you should describe the analysis in your case brief. It will help you see the case in a different light.

KEEP YOUR BRIEFS BRIEF

To be most effective, case briefs must be brief. Don’t attempt a detailed restatement of the entire case. Rather, try to capture the gist of the facts and the court’s reasoning in as few words as possible, but with enough detail to discuss in class and integrate into your class notes. Here are 4 Ways To Brief Cases Even Faster.

DON’T WORRY IF YOUR FIRST BRIEFS AREN’T PERFECT

Most professors will promote the value of briefing but will never actually ask to see that you have, in fact, briefed. Remember, you are the person that the brief will serve, and briefing is a skill you will develop as you become more comfortable reading cases.

If you’re an LL.M. student,  download the free BARBRI LL.M. Guide to learn more about briefing cases and other law school techniques. And be sure to take a look at these 4 Tips To Make The Most Out Of Your Law School Classes.

ABOUT BARBRI

BARBRI has helped more than 1.3 million lawyers around the world pass a U.S. bar exam. The company also provides online J.D., post-J.D., and international programs for U.S. law schools and specialized ongoing training and certifications in areas such as financial crime prevention and eDiscovery.

To help LL.M. students determine which BARBRI course may be best to pass a U.S. state bar exam, check out our blog: BARBRI EXTENDED BAR PREP AND 8-WEEK BARBRI BAR REVIEW: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Memo: Learning How to Learn

1L Law Student Studying at Night

[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

We are in the throes of Open Memo Season at my law school.

Everyone has a ghostly absence behind their eyes. The doctrinal professors have been perfecting their comedy routines in an attempt to cheer everyone up.

 Sisyphus Pushing rock uphillAs the process of writing has gone on, I have been surprised at how frequently I have heard very organized, very proactive students telling me how many all-nighters they have pulled trying to finish. I thought it was just me who had been working diligently and ahead of schedule. Yet, I still got slammed by the Sisyphean disappointment of perpetually feeling like I was getting closer to the finish line only to realize that the more work I completed, the farther away from being done I felt.

In typical Mara fashion, I procrastinated on finishing my memo by researching why I couldn’t finish my memo. Here’s what I learned: It’s so difficult in part because it is metacognitive reprogramming.

Metacognitive Reprogramming is as complicated of a process as it sounds, neurologically speaking. Though, as a framework for understanding why 1L is so stinking hard, it’s pretty simple. As we learn new information and build new processes of learning, our brains are making new neural pathways. In other words, we are utilizing a significant amount of unconscious mental energy trying to learn how to learn.

Here’s an example of what that looks like.

I spent more hours than I care to admit reading and rereading my cases in preparation to write my memo. I made a very thorough outline (15 pages long, folks), and a detailed step-by-step plan. This was my long-perfected method for tackling complicated writing assignments and it served me well through undergrad and masters programs. But it failed me when it came to the open memo because I underestimated the amount of time and energy it would take to translate all of that work into a cogent, organized, 20-page analysis of a legal issue. If you asked me to explain all of the nuances of the issues to you, I could, but I struggled so hard to translate my understanding of the situation into a product that still felt foreign to me.

If you’ve never written an open memo, or researched on Westlaw or Lexis, or analyzed full court decisions on your own, you are learning how to do those things at the exact same time that you are being expected to do them. I don’t see this cognitive overburdening as a flaw in legal education. In fact, like difficult exercise that tears down muscle before it rebuilds it, this process is important for learning new concepts. The flaw that I see in legal education is that we interact with assignments like the open memo as though this process was not happening, and then we have nothing to attribute our seemingly over-taxed minds to, except that we are incapable or unintelligent.

So then what do we do about it?

First, give yourself a break. You are bright and capable, and you need to preserve the energy you are expending on doubting yourself to do your work. Get some sleep. Drink some water. Eat a snack. This is not only important for your mental and physical health, but also helps to boost cognition. A recent study found that when people were dehydrated, they made about 12% more mistakes than when they were not.

Second, try to give yourself rest days. Just like working out your biceps every day will be counterproductive, if you work nonstop on the same task, your brain will get fatigued and be a puddle of mush instead of a brain. If you can’t afford a whole day off every week, build break times into your daily schedule. I apologize for all of the exercise metaphors here, but analogies are also metacognitive tools that help us tie new knowledge to preexisting knowledge (this is called neural reuse), which makes it easier to understand and harder to forget!

Giving your brain time to rest also allows it to catalog short term memory into long-term memory. Sleep is a huge part of this as well. Don’t skimp out on sleep. Lack of sleep weakens your cognitive abilities. It makes work more difficult and slower. It makes you feel like you need to skip more sleep in order to finish everything. It’s a vicious cycle. Just go to bed.

Dealing with illness in Law School

Illness Law School

[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

It would be nice if all of the difficult parts of life paused for the three years of law school, but obviously, that is not how it works. During my first semester of law school, I developed worsening neurological symptoms, extreme fatigue, and debilitating brain fog. I was limping to doctors and specialist appointments between classes and trying to fit in class readings while I was sitting in waiting rooms.

So what do you do when life circumstances, specifically illness, impede your ability to succeed in law school?

Look into accommodations

The process for applying for accommodations can be daunting, but definitely worthwhile. Typically you will need documentation from your treating physician that describes your situation and what accommodations you might need. If you become unexpectedly ill in the middle of the semester you will likely be able to get emergency accommodations that will be in place just through the remainder of the semester.

Get in touch with your school’s Office of Academic Engagement (or whatever the equivalent is) as soon as you think there might be an issue. They can help you figure out the next steps and point you to the resources that are available.

Find Someone you can talk to

Find someone to talk to

Mental health is a challenge in law school even without any other difficulties, but dealing with law school and then having illness or life circumstances on top can be crushing. If you can, find a counselor or therapist who specializes in the area of need. Chances are your university has a counseling department where you can either see a counselor or get a referral to an outside counselor.

Your doctor’s office may also have social workers or counselors who can help you navigate the complicated web of doctor visits, medical bills, illness, etc. Often these resources are not readily apparent, but if you know to ask, they are generally available.

Know when to walk away

When I got sick, I clung to finishing the semester as if my life depended on it. The stress of trying to finish, while experiencing worsening symptoms, ultimately just made me sicker. After two months of doctor’s appointments with no real answers as to why my health was declining so rapidly, I was finally forced to deal with the reality that there was no plausible way I could finish. (I was eventually diagnosed with Lyme Disease and after treatment am obviously back to school!)

Because I had been talking with our Office of Academic Engagement about accommodations and updating them on the progress of my situation, they were not surprised when I decided to withdraw. The process was still multi-step, though. You will likely need documentation from your physician, a written statement describing your situation, and some sort of official form submitted to the university. Be aware of the differences at your university between withdrawing and taking incompletes. There are sometimes financial considerations involved there in addition to the academic considerations.

Coming Back

Hopefully, you will never find yourself in a situation where you have to unexpectedly withdraw from law school. If you do, hopefully, your life circumstances will resolve and you will be able to come back, should you so choose.

Coming back is not without its own complications. If you were in school long enough to have made friends with any of your peers, it may be difficult to start over socially while all of your pals are taking seminars together and moving forward into their career paths.

Law School is a pressure cooker. If you withdrew because of illness, you may have residual or lingering symptoms or a chronic condition that is exacerbated by stress. You may have to say no to extracurriculars and social events that you would like to be involved in, for the sake of maintaining your health.

I know from experience that this is very difficult. There is a long list of things I would like to be involved in, but if I overdo it even a little bit or get less than 8 hours of sleep for just one night, my knees start hurting, my hands start trembling, and my brain just shuts down.

If you have a chronic illness, law school may be an isolating time for you. Everyone is tired and stressed, and the additional fatigue and stress you may feel because of your chronic illness may make you feel weak, incapable, or like you made the wrong decision in returning. Build up your support community – doctors, counselors, understanding friends, family – who can affirm that you are very capable. There are also some great resources and discussions on Reddit, through the NIH, and across the internet.

If you have withdrawn from Law School and returned, I’d love to hear from you. Or if you are trucking through law school with a chronic illness, I’d also love to hear from you (and offer all sorts of accolades and support)! If you have a story you’d like to share, resources that you’ve found helpful, or resources that you think need to exist but do not reach out on Twitter and Instagram @the1lLife! I’d love to hear from you.

Note: Mental illness and other difficult life circumstances may have similar impacts, and this post is about chronic illness because that is my experience.