12 tips for a first in law

12 tips for a first in law

Written by Dominic Simon, trainee solicitor at Shakespeare Martineau LLP, currently doing commercial litigation.Written by Dominic Simon, trainee solicitor at Shakespeare Martineau LLP, currently doing commercial litigation.

Getting a first will help you stand out to law firms and employers generally. A first alone is not going to get you a training contract or pupilage but (a graduate with a 2:1 and a wide array of experience will be more desirable to employers than a first class student that struggles to fill their CV) a first class degree may demonstrate exceptional critical thinking capabilities. Whether or not you hope to achieve a first, the following 12 tips should serve as invaluable advice to all law students.

1. Read the judgements

You are probably tired of hearing this but there is a reason your seminar tutors keep grilling you about it. This will allow you to not only understand the legal principle but the reasoning. This makes application of the principle (in exams and in practice) easier.

Further, the facts of problem based exam questions often closely resemble those of major cases, and if you understand the case in depth, you’ve struck gold.

2. Contrast legal reasoning

This is another reason to read judgements but I thought this tip merits a section of its own. Do the judges have different opinions? If so, why? Did the judge contradict himself? Is there a more judicially approved viewpoint? What do judges in other jurisdictions think? Is the dissenting judgement more satisfactory? Is the judicial reasoning outdated? What are the social implications? Does it accord with public policy? These are the sort of probing questions you should seek to answer.

3. Track your study hours

Treat your study time like billable hours. Set the clock, time your study sessions and try to be as accurate as possible. Set targets, and at the end of the day, or week, calculate how many hours you spent studying. This will allow you to see whether you are working hard on a consistent basis. It is also much better to work hard throughout the academic year than to have to cram during exam season.

4. Don’t waste free time

I spent 30-40 minutes each day travelling to university and spent this additional time studying (or building my ”commercial awareness” by keeping up to date with what was going on in the world). If you do the math, that’s a few extra hours of revision a week. Somebody I know that consistently achieved the highest mark in his year used to listen to audio lectures while driving to university.

5. Use journal articles

Use journal articles in coursework and in exams to demonstrate wider reading and deeper understanding of a topic. The more the better (provided that they are relevant and you have covered what has been taught first).  Make sure you reference them correctly in your coursework, and in exams make sure you refer to the name of the person, e.g. ”Tanya Aplin has pointed out that…”. At Nottingham Law School, seminar tutors usually recommended a number of articles for each seminar in the pre-reading. I highly recommend you read each one. There is a reason they are on there. They may even be exam clues.

6. Use more than one textbook

If you have a law library then why would you not make use of that vast wealth of knowledge? This is especially useful for coursework, which doesn’t require you to memorise. A 10 minute scan of a textbook and you may find something that makes the difference between a 2:1 and a first.

7. Structure, structure, structure

Practice exam structure and ensure your coursework maintains a consistent “thread” throughout. The points you make should link to some degree. Read it over and over again and ask non-law students to as well.

8. Answer seminar questions

Seminars are an opportunity for you to apply what you learn in lectures and from your reading. By doing this, you remember what you learn. If you make mistakes, even better, because you will come to understand the topic more. Better to make a mistake in a seminar than in your work.  Dive in, be an active participant, but also listen to others.

9. Listen to tutor feedback

Learn from feedback given to you by your tutors. Do not simply discard redlined mock exams and coursework. Read their annotations! I would make the effort to read it as soon as you can so that 1) you do not forget and 2) it is more beneficial to read feedback as close as you can to when you wrote the mock coursework/exam.

10. Keep it simple

We are not studying to become 18th century lawyers, so don’t speak and write like one. Don’t write in a pompous manner, especially if you do want to practice law. Not only is this an important skill, but you are doing your tutors a massive favour, making it easier for them to award marks.  This is because writing clearly allows you to communicate more effectively, and in less time, allowing you to rack up additional marks.

11. Learn to predict exam topics through hints that tutors give throughout the year

Do not ask them about what will be on the exam, because they will not tell you (and they shouldn’t). However, pay close attention to what they say throughout the year, and you can normally predict exam topics. For example, they may stress the importance of understanding certain points or revising certain topics. However, remember to revise all topics just in case.

12. Condense your revision notes into one page

Create key words and take out what is unnecessary. After hand writing my notes, I used to put them into Microsoft Word, condense them, narrow the margins, use the landscape format and divide my notes into two columns.  Having your notes on one page makes revising easier, and allows you to be more efficient with your time. Just so that you know it’s possible, I have done this with 20 page lectures.

Final word of advice

These tips are just the tip of the ice berg. Regardless of how you study, you need stay focussed and disciplined, and as stressful as exam season in, keep going. Do the work, and it will pay off. Don’t look back wishing you gave it your all.

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