The SORD Guide

A student noted that “About the only similarity between undergraduate school and law school is that it is school. Other than that, law school is an entirely different caliber – requiring so much more than undergrad that it does not even compare” (McClurg 2017:41). “When people ask ‘When will you be done studying?’ there is actually no good answer”, the student continued, “because we could probably spend every waking hour outside of class studying and still not be done” (McClurg 2017:41). Welcome to law school!

In terms of preparation, I actually thought about riding a bike to law school. However, I quickly realised I could not because it was too tired… particularly given carrying the heavy laptop and all those hefty casebooks and textbooks! But, whilst my transportation plan may have hit a snag, rest assured, it pales compared to the challenges awaiting me in law school. As such, it is crucial for you to be organised, stay disciplined, prioritise speed and maintain reflectiveness (collectively known as the ‘SORD’ Guide) in terms of my essential takeaway from my time in law school (Miller 2010:130-132, 161-162, 194; Ferguson and Newton 2020:174).

Nonetheless, it is also vital to identify your own style to arrange your study and life in law school. After all, individuals may find different approaches that suit them best given their diverse backgrounds. Professor McClurg (2017:45-57) observes that there can be up to 20 distinct types of law students, albeit with some overlap. Accordingly, it is recommended to explore a diverse array of success strategies, through various channels including books, online forums such as Reddit and Top Law Schools, discussions with upper-level students, conversations with mentors. It can aid in obtaining tips from individuals of comparable backgrounds and obtaining tailored insights to your circumstances. Alternatively, you may just discover the strategies that best suit you.

 

A Organisation

 

One of my mentors shared with me that their key to excelling at law school and securing promising opportunities hinged on being organised. Nevertheless, initially I did not fully comprehend the concept of being organised. However, I maintained the conviction that one of the secrets to surviving or thriving in law school is being organised. A long while after, when I came across the Law School Confidential book, I started to realise that staying organised means not only tidying rooms and meeting deadlines but also involves arranging your studies and life properly in law school. It essentially entails having everything organised.

For instance, the optimal timing for setting up your accommodations is one week prior to the orientation, which can aid in getting you ready for the demanding academic expectations of law school (Miller 2010:122-125, 130-132). And it is advisable to familiarise yourself with the surrounding layout, including the locations of the library, bookstore, gym, bank and supermarket to ensure you can meet all your needs once classes commence (Miller 2010:132-133).

In the exam, you should have effectively organised materials that you can refer to such as exam notes, statute notes, essay notes, reading notes and perhaps full notes. At least, you should have colour coded readings or cases so that you can seamlessly locate the desired positions (Miller 2010:158-162). An example of a colour coding system can be:

“GREEN: facts

YELLOW: critical legal reasoning

RED: holding; court; judge; procedural posture

BLUE: important precedents cited and their holdings

ORANGE: important dissenting remarks (Miller 2010:158).”

Nevertheless, I do find that relying on my own notes tends to be more efficient than using highlighted readings.

 

B Discipline

 

As an incoming law student or promising future lawyer, you may have encountered several legal shows. Nonetheless, I have to maintain that whether it is the classic Law and Order, or the more recent Partner Track, legal shows primarily spotlight the highlights of legal careers. Behind these pinnacle moments, there typically will be hundreds of hours of hard work including poring over cases at a desk, developing theories, drafting agreements, briefs and memoranda or navigating challenging encounters with clients and other individuals (Miller 2010:35-36).

 

The main components of our daily routine in law school, particularly during the first year, are centred on tasks such as doing readings, attending classes, completing assignments and preparing for exams – the hours behind the high points (Bond University 2021). For instance, Property, a typical subject in the first semester of 2L and often considered one of the most challenging, has 736 pages of study materials (McClurg 2017:40; Miller 2010:252). And there are additional extensive textbook excerpts and statutory content we need to cover. Moreover, the customary structure of taking four subjects per semester quadruples the workload. Not to mention, there are certain interim assignments that require attention. Compounding the challenge, Melbourne Law School does fail students ruthlessly, particularly in arduous subjects such as Obligations, Contracts, and Property. Therefore, staying disciplined is crucial for navigating the demanding milieu of law school, as one of my favourite professors has suggested (Falcon 2003:7; McClurg 2017:437; Miller 2010:468).

Nevertheless, I must confess that from my personal experience, staying disciplined is much easier said than done. You might encounter scenarios when sickness, technical glitches, compelling or important events, or unforeseen job allocation disrupt your schedule. After all, apart from law school, there is life. Hence, we can revisit the idea that law school is a negotiation. The pivotal queries are how can you negotiate with yourself and the law school to attain the desired outcomes in personal, academic and professional development. To answer that question, there are some communication skills in negotiation you can utilise.

Nobel prize winner Kahneman noted that invisible factors such as cognitive heuristics and unconscious biases can have a substantial impact on human behaviours (Kahneman 2011:Introduction). Amidst the deluge of daily information, individuals frequently resort to mental shortcuts known as heuristics to cut through the influx of information, make decisions and direct their behaviour (Kim 2018:ix; Feigenbaum and Feldman 1963:61). Anchoring is a mental shortcut that can profoundly affect individuals’ behaviour, even when the individuals are cognizant that the arbitrary information was entirely unrelated (Kim 2018:20). To illustrate, following exposure to an arbitrary number of 1 percent (anchor), individuals tend to offer lower predictions regarding the likelihood of nuclear war compared to those who had not encountered such an anchor (Kim, 2018:20).

Accordingly, it is advisable to establish clear deadlines for achieving desired objectives and set goals (Heavin and Keet 2021:212; Margheim et al 2005:23). For example, you may establish a deadline for a draft of your assignment and determine daily reading quotas for your compulsory subjects. As a result, whilst you may find it challenging to strictly adhere to your plan, the mere existence of such a plan is likely to yield considerable positive effects. In addition, you may consider developing a routine for your daily study, such as dedicating three hours each evening from 7 pm to 10 pm for reading (Miller 2010:165). It leverages on the concept of task familiarity mentioned by Dr Timperley, whereby tasks become easier and require less energy the more we do them, because the tasks become automatic (Feldon and Bordiujevici 2004; Paas et al 2003:1).

 

C Speed

 

“In law school, time is your most precious commodity” (Miller 2010:165). As such, to thrive in law school, it is essential to maintain a rapid tempo every day and in completion of assignments and examinations. Some remark that law school is a marathon, not a sprint. But to me, it feels more like a sprint marathon! All the deadlines loom like a horde of minions incessantly chasing after me, so I have to sprint relentlessly from day one of every semester. I have to keep running until the deadline for the last assignment.

Despite my aspiration to maintain a swift pace at all times, it is not always practical, as previously mentioned, owing to occurrences such as sickness, events, unexpectedly assigned work or other disruptions. Thus, it is imperative to work smarter rather than just harder, particularly given the insurmountable workload (Bond University 2021). One of my strategies is to allocate time differently to various subjects according to the level of difficulty I perceive in them.

Another strategy of mine is to prioritise the readings or mini tasks assigned for the current week, and then circle back to cover any previously overlooked readings or materials. My mindset is that it is preferable to acquire some familiarity with the materials for each of the 12 weeks even with only half the knowledge, rather than mastering exclusively the content of the first 6 weeks, if I am unable to cover all 12 weeks thoroughly (Wade et al 2021; Boyes 2020; Katta 2024).

The same logic applies to both assignments and exams. As one barrister tutor of mine mentioned, it is considerably easier to obtain the first 50% of the marks than the second 50% (Creyke et al 2020:601). Ideally the time should be divided into chunks proportional to the weight of marks allocated, and time allocation in completing answers should be followed rigidly (Creyke et al 2020:601-602).

 

D Reflection

 

Field, Duffy and Huggins (2019:101, 128) contend that one of the key benefits of reflective practice is its role in bolstering the success of law students at law school. reflective practice can be achieved through different frameworks such as “What, So What and Now What”, Gibbs 6 steps and the 4Rs model (Martin 2018:79-80; Field, Duffy and Huggins 2019:125-127). However, the essence of reflective practice in law school study is to develop self-awareness, identifying your strengths and weaknesses and exploring strategies for enhanced performance in the future (Miller 2010:256-257; Field, Duffy and Huggins 2019:128-129; Martin 2018:72, 79).

You can compare the subjects in which you scored well with those in which your performance was subpar (Miller 2010:256). You can reflect on the underlying factors for your strong performance in certain exams or assignments through comparison (Field, Duffy and Huggins 2019:129). You may find distinctions such as your tendency to excel in exam essays, higher performance when you make your own notes, better scores when you diligently practice past exams, enhanced grades with consistent attendance and minimal class absences, and improved results when you almost complete all assigned readings, among other factors (Miller 2010:240-241, 256-257). These little distinctions, in conjunction, can provide you with a substantial edge, ultimately empowering you to achieve extraordinary accomplishments in the rigorous environment of law school (Miller 2010:256-257).

  • As such, it is these nuanced differences that you may want to prioritise to ensure success in your future subjects. To capitalise on these distinctions, on the one hand, you can concentrate on maximising your strengths, for instance, by selecting subjects primarily assessed through exam essays (Miller 2010:256-257). On the other hand, you can proactively work on your weaknesses, such as making an effort to complete prescribed readings and produce your own notes in your future subjects (Miller 2010:257).

Acknowledgement

We acknowledge the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land. We recognise their continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to any Indigenous communities and peoples.