You should set aside as much time as possible before school starts to prepare for your classes. Used properly, this period could be one of the most productive of the entire semester. You will be able to come to the first lecture with a good lead on most of your fellow students and you will have time available right from the beginning to handle not only the mandatory outside reading assignments, but also the discretionary reference suggestions and extracurricular work which are essential if you want to make better-than-average progress and grades.
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Time is the most valuable asset you have as a law student; a relaxed attitude probably comes next. On the other end of the scale, over-anxiety and procrastination can lead to academic bankruptcy. Ideally, you should come to each lecture confident that you are fully prepared on the required work and ready to participate in an intelligent discussion of the subject at hand.
Have you ever tried to drive a car to a destination known only by name or address, with someone giving you staccato directions for each turn moments before you approach the corner? Compare that with a trip where you have looked over the entire route on a map first, and as you go along, your guide gives you the same information.
A lot less stressful, isn't it? That's because you are aware of the total picture; you know where you are going and have at least a general idea of how to get there. You do not have to absorb entirely new information in a short time. Rather, you supplement what you already know and are much more receptive to this additional information.
To adapt this overview system to your law school studies, start by acquiring the required casebooks as early as you can before classes commence. At the same time, also buy the textbook specifically written to accompany each casebook. If you can't afford it, get it at the library. If you lay the textbook and casebook side by side, you will see that they complement each other. Most of the time, the cases in the casebook are referred to in the textbook.
When an author puts together a student casebook on a particular subject—contracts, for example—cases illustrative of specific legal principles are assembled in historical order to show the development of the subtopic at hand. Under the section heading "What Constitutes a Contract," the first case chosen for the casebook might perhaps be some old English, New York or other state opinion discussing the proposition that a purely social agreement does not rise to the status of a contract. The next case might be from some other jurisdiction, pointing out that an agreement against public policy is not legally enforceable as a contract. The opening sentences of the accompanying textbook, under a similar chapter heading, might read:
Not every agreement between two persons constitutes a contract. Thus, it has been held that an invitation to dinner is an agreement relating to a purely social arrangement, and as such is not actionable in a court of law. Likewise, a suit will not lie to collect a gambling debt in a jurisdiction where gambling is illegal, for the courts will refuse to enforce an agreement that is fundamentally against the expressed public policy of the state. The textbook summarizes, along with many other cases, the holdings of the opinions in the casebook; the opinions in the casebook elaborate on the statements of the law found in the textbook.
In the casebook, the citation of the case appears at the beginning of the case. In the textbook, the citation appears in a footnote. In our hypothetical illustration, both books cite the same two cases. This generally parallels reality. When using your actual casebooks and accompanying textbooks, you will find that it is relatively easy to cross-reference the judicial opinions with the editor's text.
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How to use the study method: First, without trying to learn anything, and going as rapidly as you can, copy the textbook sentence giving the holding of the case on top of the title of the case in the casebook. Do this for every case in the casebook. At this stage you are not trying to learn anything, only doing mechanical copying. The purpose of all this is so that you will have the rule of the case right in front of you when you later start to study.
Should there be no textbook specifically designed to accompany a particular casebook, use another available one to get as many of these one-sentence holdings as you can. A number of the cases are standard fare, and a prior edition by the same author, or even by someone else, may have many of the same references. To save time, you may have to skip a few of the missing cases for the time being. Later, if you feel it is necessary, you can look up those cases in the digests or the reports and pick out what seems to be the most applicable headnote to fit the particular place in the casebook table of contents under which the case has been categorized. But if you do this, make some note to remind you that it is a headnote you picked and that it may not be the holding you are looking for.
Probably without realizing it, by putting down the rule of the case (what the case holds; what it stands for) for practically every case in the casebook, you will have actually read the textbook through once and have also written it once before school has even started. Although you were going rapidly without trying to make or retain meaning from what you were doing, at the very least you have been subconsciously exposed to the contents, and you may have picked up a bit more than you expected.
It could take the better part of two weeks to do this rule copying for all your first-semester courses, depending on how fast you can go and how continuously you work. If you do not finish before school starts, try to be equally far into each casebook so that you will be ahead in every course. The more you can complete in advance, the more time you will have to study during the semester.
Next, study the table of contents of each casebook. Look up all unfamiliar table terms in your law dictionary and write the definitions on top of each word. Do not guess; if a word looks like it is a legal term, look it up and write it down. You do not have to make any attempt to memorize these definitions at this time; the main thing is to understand what you are reading at the moment. Later, through usage and reading the cases, these words will become an integral part of your vocabulary. Do memorize in advance, however, the major section headings, and the subheadings for at least the first one or two subsections.
In the customary method of law school study, you are expected to use the cases as building blocks with which to build a structure: the law for that particular subject. When you first start out, if you lack the overview, your unfamiliarity with the language may make it hard to comprehend what any one "block" is all about. It will be even harder to visualize what the finished structure will look like. Even at the end of the course, some students have only a hazy outline of what should by that time be as clear as an architect's rendering. Many spend the week just before exams struggling to get that clear picture; many do not succeed—it is too late.
Avoid that situation. The time spent studying and memorizing the table of contents will quickly give you a beginning idea of the building you are trying to erect. It is like visualizing the skeleton framework of a skyscraper: the unity which holds the whole thing together. Knowing that it is there, and what it looks like, will give you a perception of what the goal of the course is. As the details are filled in through daily class work, the image will become clearer, and by the time the final exam approaches you can spend your review time going over a sharp, professional-looking picture, instead of having to go through the frustration of trying to imagine a hastily sketched drawing as a well-crafted oil or watercolor.
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