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It Needs to be Said: Prepping for Class is Overrated

Again: what matters? Exams. Exam performance is the only thing that matters. But because you don’t have exams every day, and you do have class every day, One Ls become persuaded that daily class preparation should be their focus. Everything is oriented around preparing for tomorrow’s class.

This is terribly wrong. You want to be in a study group? Get a group together and chant this a hundred times: “Exams are the only things that matter.” “Exams are the only things that matter.” Exams must be your focus. Class room preparation is about 20th on the list.

Don’t misunderstand me, attending class and listening in class is critically important. And you know what? That takes almost no energy, and no prep time. All you do is show up with some coffee and I am sure you can manage that. In fact, listening closely in class is the biggest bang for the effort buck that you can get in law school. You do virtually nothing, and get a lot of payout for it. width=

But listen to me: Most of the time in each of your classes is going to be spent on what will end up distilling down to one concept. Do you understand the significance of that? Law school professors spend most of every class focusing on one or two ideas. That’s it. As I explain in the book: this is why we love the Socratic method. The Socratic method dramatically limits how much ground is covered in any particular law school class.

Think about it, brother: If the professor spends the whole hour or two of class today on one idea, don’t you think you are going to understand that idea no matter how well you prepared for class today? You don’t have to be Perry Mason to figure out an idea that a Professor spends a full hour explaining. Truth is, if you don’t understand what that concept is after sitting through an hour of discussion about it, you are probably in trouble and there is very little I can do for you.

All of this adds up to one practical step: the first thing you need to do is change your study focus as such for the One L year. Instead of focusing on class preparation as an end in itself, reorient your intellectual focus regarding the class time itself towards how that class time helps you prepare for the exam.
Ok, Gary, I know that class is important for exams. What does this mean in practical terms?

First, read the cases for each day. But please understand that the reason for going to class is not to demonstrate that you have read the cases. It’s not to look knowledgeable to your professor or your classmates. (By the way, its not the place to check your Facebook® highlights either.) The reason to go to class is because class is where the professor reveals to the class what is important to understand for the exam. More importantly, perhaps, class is also the place where the professor reveals what is not important for the exam.

Think about it this way: At the beginning of the semester, you bought a casebook that has about 650 pages of cases in it. It may cover, if you read the whole thing, 50 or sixty full-bodied legal doctrines. But are all those doctrines going to be covered in class in depth or appear on the exam? No. Not at all. What you are going to find out is that most professors cover about one-half or less of those doctrinal concepts in class. And unless you have the grandson of Joseph Stalin as a professor, you are not going to see something the professor never covered in class on an exam.

So what does this mean for you? Here is a how to think about class: the primary purpose of every law school class period is to signal to you the scope of what legal doctrines may appear on an exam. In this way, any particular law school class is best understood as a limiting exercise. Therefore, the primary reason to go to class is to catalog the concepts that you need to know, and—better yet—to discard the material that you don’t need to know.

Hear me. Whatever the fear of your particular Professor Kingsfield might suggest, it is not important what preparation you have done prior to class.  Day by day prep for class – what you do before class– has very little practical payoff.

What is critically important is the understanding you have of the topics that are covered in class by the professor, after the class is over.  Hear me here: What you do before class is not near as important as what you do after class. In fact, what you do before class sometimes gets in the way.

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