One factor that can contribute to success in your first year of law school is a good study group. When I was a law student, I had a great study group of two other classmates, and when you find the right group, the experience can be extremely positive.
A study group is important as it is nearly impossible to absorb every important aspect of every case you read in your classes by yourself. Even if you are the best note taker in the world, you may still miss some important points that your study partners picked up. In my own experience, my study partners sometimes informed me of points that turned out to be on the exam and I believe that my grades were higher as a result of working with a study group than they would have been if I studied completely on my own. In addition, the very nature of the law school course work and being a lawyer lends itself to discussion and debate, and a study group provides an excellent forum to develop the essential skill of explaining your point and convincing others.
Typically, a study group meets to review and discuss the cases and complex material assigned in class. The group may meet prior to the examination period during the outlining process or after outlining has been completed, or following individual classes if a particularly difficult topic was covered. The meetings are not brainstorming or the traditional “studying” and as such, it is a good idea to meet after all members of the group have had a sufficient amount of time to review and digest the material. In some cases, meetings occur after each member in the group has completed the same practice exam so that the group can compare answers.
Who Should be in Your Study Group?
The selection of a good study group is tough. You of course want to find smart people but you also want to avoid the obnoxious people who will monopolize the entire session with their inane ideas. Also, you want people that are conscientious and will come to the sessions prepared and ready to contribute. Another important factor is finding people that have the same temperament that you do. Calm should be with calm and Type A should be with Type A. Having similar grade expectations is also important so that all members of the group are striving towards the same goal. You also want people that you get along with to make the pain of intense studying a bit more pleasant.
The ideal number of people in a study group is three or four in my opinion. I lean towards three so that each party can clearly express their ideas. More than four may add too many different perspectives and diminish the overall benefit of a study group.
Regarding the selection of someone smart, remember that the people who are the most vocal in class are not necessarily the people who do the best on exams. More often than not, you will find that the person that receives the highest grade in your class is a person who has not said a word all semester. Perhaps this is because the quiet type is often paying attention and is not distracted by what they are going to say next. As such, do not discount someone because they do not speak in class as they may be exactly the study partner you are looking for. Both of the people in my study group were very smart and did not say a word in class unless they were called on. It was clear from observing them during the year though, that they were paying attention in class and taking notes.
Another thing to consider regarding finding a smart person is that some people who did very well in their undergraduate studies may not grasp law school very well. As such, it is tough to really know who is “smart” from who is not and you will really have to go with your gut.
Also, it is important to find someone that you can coexist with for a long period of time. I remember many long nights with my study partners in my first year and it was nice to spend them with people that did not get on my nerves. My study group and I still all regularly go out to dinner and I am sure we will be life long friends who shared a very positive bonding experience.
Finally, while inclusion of people you may have been friends with prior to law school in your study group is an option, you should vet them objectively and focus on whether or not you have the same study habits. A good friend is not always a good study partner so tread carefully here.
To sum up my opinion regarding finding the right people for a study group, I will say that you do not need the people in the class with the highest grades in your study group but rather people who you get along with, that are similar minded, work hard and have assimilated all of the information throughout the year. These are the people that will help you.
Who Should Not be in Your Study Group?
Beware of the “barnacle.” He or she is the person that latches on to your study group and whom you just cannot get rid of. This person wants to join your study group so that he can benefit from all of the work you have done but is a freeloader. This person usually contributes nothing, will waste your time and will irritate you and stress you out. My own first-year study group initially included such a person until we got rid of him after the second exam.
Unfortunately, it is hard to identify a “barnacle” as they usually put forth a very good sales job. However, once included, there will be signs the decision was not a good one. In my own situation, the “barnacle” consistently missed meetings or showed up late and came unprepared. He always had an excuse for not doing what he was supposed to do and invited others to join (who also were not helpful). Also, during the few meetings we had with him, he would frantically take notes as if we were in class and we were his professors. One of the first clues that we had made a mistake was when he suggested “exchanging” outlines even before we had our first meeting, which the rest of us thought was odd.
You should also not select someone that you see frequently misses class. If they miss class, they will miss study sessions. Moreover, a person who never attends class will not be very beneficial filling you in on points that you missed because they will not have class notes. The same rule applies to those who are in class but not really in class. For example, you should also avoid people you observe on the Internet during class or who are generally not paying attention. If they are more interested in surfing the net than the course material, they surely will not have good notes and will likely drift off during your study group sessions also.
Also, be careful of “the holdout.” The holdout will join your group to take what they can get but will be silent even when they have relevant things to share. Unfortunately, some are preoccupied with the curve and think that any information that they share with anyone (even their study group) will mean a lower grade for them. Everyone in your study group can get an “A” and it is very unlikely that any assistance you give to other members of your group is going to make any difference whatsoever to your grade.
Finally, I would avoid forming a study group with someone that I was in a relationship with. While it may be more convenient, you want to be able to let your ideas flow freely and the last thing you want is an argument in a study group to flow in to your personal life. Also, if you break up during the school term, you will be stuck finding a new member after most of the class has already formed groups.
Even though you must be careful who you let in, I strongly recommend you make the effort to find some like-minded people to form a study group. Do not be afraid to break up the group if it is not working but the advantages of forming a group made up of the right partners cannot be ignored.
An excerpt from Law School Lowdown: Secrets of Success from the Application Process to Landing Your First Job – (Barron’s Publishing).
2013 Bloomberg Finance L.P. Originally published by Bloomberg Finance L.P. Reprinted with permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author.