First-Year Survival Guide and Study Aids

The research instructor for your LARW course will provide several handouts that are designed to help you prepare for your first year. In some places, we have taken a complete excerpt from these sources. We recommend that you review these handouts and take time to look at the items that interest you most. But beware: reckless use of these “study aids” can be perilous.

Some people will avoid study aids altogether and do very well. The authors sometimes make mistakes of law and, as you will learn in Criminal Law, a mistake is no defense. Not only that, your professor may use a different “rule” in her class—if that’s the case, you will soon find out that knowing her rule is the only exam answer that gets credit. In other cases, while the material presented in the study aid may be accurate, it is presented in a format that is not visually accessible to you. Certain formats work better for certain people, so take time to look through the study aid before you purchase it. See if your upper-class friends will sell you theirs at cut-rate prices—chances are they’ll never need them again.

We feel obligated to mention at least a few other study aids not discussed below. The first is Planet Law School, by one who goes by the alias of Atticus Falcon and refuses to identify where he went to law school. One of us paid $19.95 for this book and used it to get a somewhat skewed idea of what law school is about. The tone of this book is decidedly negative. Our good Atticus likely had a bad experience with law school. However his book is still helpful; he does a pretty good job of breaking down the more mechanical aspects of law school, i.e. studying and study aids. But some of his advice truly comes from another planet: form study groups but deny having them so that your peers won’t feel like studying; don’t speak up so that nobody asks you for help and saps your time; and if you make law review your future is full of milk and honey.

As Duke Law students, this advice is completely foreign to us. The fact is that Duke Law is small and close-knit. Students are generally more than willing to share notes and form study groups – but make sure you’re a contributing member of the group! Even if you don’t get to know everyone in your entering class during your first year, you will likely work with or otherwise befriend them before graduation. If you aren’t interested in discussing either your academic strategies or diabolical schemes, it is perfectly polite to just tell that person that you don’t want to talk about school and are trying not to think about it right now. Note: this is especially so if you are out at what is supposed to be a “social” function. But in spite of Atticus’ cynicism, his book remains a useful reference. Take these “tokens” of knowledge with a grain of salt.

Another helpful resource is Barry Friedman’s Open Book: Succeeding on Exams From the First Day of Law School. This book was recommended during orientation for preparing us for law school. It is incredibly helpful and provides an excellent breakdown of the IRAC format, a methodology for legal analysis that addresses Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion.

The other study aids that we should mention are Chirelstein’s Contracts and Wentworth Miller’s Law Exam Essay Writing System . Many people, including some of us, swear by Chirelstein’s “boat” book—so named because there’s a sketch of an infamous contracts tall-ship, the Peerless, on the cover. In contrast, we found LEEWS’ style and advertising to be a little too much like Planet Law School for our taste. That makes sense because the two are very well acquainted. Of course, some of us very much liked the material.

Remember that whether you will benefit from a given study aid is a personal question—you have to look at each one, assess all of the available information, and then decide for yourself.

The information below is taken from the Library handout mentioned above. It is a partial list of the references they recommend and is quoted verbatim. But you need not read any of these books to do well; you might have enough experience or practice in this type of work to excel on your own. If not, you may want to read one or two of the below and focus on the areas you feel you need to improve in. You should not read all of them—that would probably be time poorly spent. But without further ado:

Law School Study Aids

  • Miller, Robert H., Law School Confidential: The Complete Law School Survival Guide: By Students, For Students, Rev. ed. 2004. One of the better books that gives advice on how to handle law school life. Written by a graduate of University of Pennsylvania Law School along with a dozen law students, this book takes an informal approach in discussing how to succeed in law school and how to obtain clerkships and other legal jobs after graduation. This book also offers diverse perspectives on best practices and advice for new law students.
  • Maximizing the Law School Experience II, 29 Stetson Law Review 1016-1327 (2000). This special issue is a collection of articles by law professors, recent law graduates and practicing lawyers designed as an introduction and orientation to the profession of law. Selections include, Living a Full Life, Forging an Analytical Mind, and Working With Professors … Outside the Classroom.
  • Bell, S., comp., Full Disclosure: Do You Really Want to be a Lawyer?, 1992. In addition to describing the law school experience, this book contains descriptions of different types of law practice, both traditional and non-traditional.
  • Fischl, R.M. and Paul, J., Getting To Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams, 1999.  The official book description says it all! “Professors Fischl and Paul explain law school exams in ways no one has before, all with an eye toward improving the reader’s performance. The book begins by describing the difference between educational cultures that praise students for ‘right answers,’ and the law school culture that rewards nuanced analysis of ambiguous situations in which more than one approach may be correct. Enormous care is devoted to explaining precisely how and why legal analysis frequently produces such perplexing situations.”
  • Munneke, Gary A., How to Succeed in Law School, 3d ed. 2001. This guide covers a variety of topics from a description of the first year curriculum to how to study in law school and take exams. The book also describes how to avoid the pitfalls of law school. The appendix includes sample tort exam questions and answers.
  • Burkhart, A., How to Study Law and Take Law Exams in a Nutshell, 1996. The first half of this book covers the law school experience, and includes a section on reading and briefing cases. The second half consists of sample exam questions and answers for first-year subjects.
  • Delaney, J., How to Do Your Best on Law School Exams, 1982. This book is unique in that the author exhibits a sense of humor in his discussion of a topic not considered funny by most law students. Seven sample law school exam questions are presented along with a good and bad answer. The reasoning given for each good and bad answer is thorough.
  • Examples and Explanations Series: This series of books by Aspen Law & Business includes over a dozen titles which are great exam preparation aids. The books give a narrative overview of key concepts and rules followed by examples (hypothetical questions) and explanations (answers to the questions). The series covers topics such as contracts, civil procedure, bankruptcy, environmental law, securities and tax and are written by law professors. Most of these books can be checked out. In the online catalog search the title “examples and explanations” to see a list of all books in the series.
  • Hornbooks: These books were written especially for law students and are reviews of specific areas of law in a summary, narrative form. They are thorough but not exhaustive. The primary producer of hornbooks, West Publishing Co., has now divided its hornbooks into two editions: Practitioner’s and Student’s. The practitioner’s edition usually contains additional chapters which discuss practice-oriented issues not normally of interest to students. The library usually has both versions on Reserve. The Legal Text Series of hornbooks by Matthew Bender are specifically designed for law students and give a summary of the law coordinated with standard casebooks. The titles all begin with “Understanding” and then add the topic, e.g., “Understanding Civil Procedure.” To find titles in this series search the title “legal text series” in the library catalog.
  • Nutshell Series: These books contain a comprehensive outline of a specific area of the law and are usually written by a noted authority on the subject. They provide a big picture look at the law and avoid in-depth analysis. They contain fewer footnotes and references than hornbooks but generally give greater coverage of a subject than Gilbert’s, Emmanuel’s, or Legalines. The most current Nutshells are on Reserve.

There are many more study aids listed on the library handouts. Again, we encourage you to take some time after classes kick off to go back and look at the ones that appeal to you. Even the “top” students, if they are being honest, will admit that they didn’t just “get it.” It takes a bit of time and energy to master the required material and prepare for your examinations. But it can be sort of fun—a unique challenge of sorts—if you know in advance what you should expect.