Guest post: Jack Williams’ study advice – A letter to my fresher self

This guest post is by Jack Williams, who studied Law at both St Catharine’s College, Cambridge (graduating with a First Class honours degree in 2012) and Hertford College, Oxford (graduating with a Distinction in the BCL in 2014). He was a College Lecturer at Brasenose College, Oxford in 2014-15. In this blog, he offers suggestions — by way of a letter to himself as a new Law student — about how to study Law.

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You’ve never studied Law or anything even like it before and never felt quite this challenged by something. You’re beginning to question whether you’re ‘doing it right’, and want some advice and suggestions about how you might go about your studies to maximise your grades. So, having now completed two Law degrees, if I were to write to my fresher lawyer self with the benefit of hindsight, this is what I’d tell myself…

First, there is certainly no golden one answer about how to study Law or go about your studies: everyone learns differently and everyone enjoys different topics. Therefore do what works for you; ask and take everyone’s advice on board – they’re trying to help and there’s no shame in asking – but always remember that you’re the one trying to learn and that it’s you who’s going to be taking the exams at the end of the year. Have confidence in yourself.

Second, you’re bound to make mistakes: you’ve never studied Law before, you’ve never been to University before, and you’re here to learn. You’re not meant to know everything at the age of 18/19. You learn by doing – take a risk and try it out. The process of finding out how you learn best and the sometimes gruelling effort you have to put in to learn how to learn Law will be incredibly beneficial and personally fulfilling. It will all click into place; it will happen – once you’ve mastered it, everything becomes so much easier and reading the next chapter, article and case becomes quicker and easier. Keep going and believe in yourself. Don’t keep on doing things that obviously aren’t working.

Working effectively

Third, simply cramming and rushing to finish everything for a supervision or a class is rather foolish if that means that you’re skipping material and not really thinking about what you’re reading and contrasting academics’ and judges’ viewpoints with your own. You shouldn’t be treating supervisions or classes as the end goal or a test; instead you should treat classes as part of the journey. The end of the journey is your complete understanding (and ultimately the exam). This all means that you should be smart about what you aim to get out of your lessons – they’re there to help you. This approach will mean managing your time carefully and being methodical about what you cover and when. It is not an excuse for not doing the work. It might, though, mean that you cover some of the work after the class itself – check what’s on the handout and what’s going to be focused on. Doing the reading properly once (instead of cramming/rushing for the supervision and having to come back in the holidays to start from scratch when you’ve forgotten most of it) will actually save you time and aid your understanding as you’re working on the topic as a whole at one time. It will enable you to see the topic in the round. To master this approach you should be aiming to really comprehensively study the topic the first time round – this means also working from your lecture notes and reading all the extra material and further reading. This will mean you have to look at the whole reading list at the start and split it into the individual topics; warning – this might mean working from different parts of different books/chapters at one time instead of going through one resource at a time.

Fourth, don’t simply highlight your textbooks. A good approach is to type your lecture notes (which saves a lot of time, are easier to read, and are quicker to edit) and you can then add your textbook notes to them. This reduces unnecessary duplication. You should read the textbooks and reading list material alongside your lecture notes as you go (even if lectures aren’t finished) and add textbook notes to lecture notes. You will then have one very comprehensive document which is much better than a variety of different sources and notes with lots of duplication. This will save you time when you come to revise! When it comes to articles (which you absolutely must read – you won’t be able to answer essays otherwise!), you should print these all off (double sided will save paper and money and time printing). These you should highlight. You should also dot little notes on them. Then leave space in the relevant place in your lecture/textbook document so that when you print them off you can slot the articles into the right places. Highlighting/doodling on articles instead of typing them up like you do the textbooks will save you a lot of time which will enable you to read more. The more articles you read, the quicker it becomes as many have duplications and basic case facts and ideas repeated. Also not typing up articles will mean that you still have the original – you may find you missed out crucial threads of arguments when you come back to revise! Putting a two line summary of the main argument at the top of the printed article will also help.

Cases

Fifth, before you read the cases, make sure that you’ve read the relevant textbook sections and search your reading list and Westlaw for other case commentaries (especially if your reading list didn’t include any short summaries for the cases it specifically asks you to read). This will enable you come at the case with a very clear idea about its topic and content. It might even save you from reading the whole case if the commentaries were very clear and include judges’ names and arguments. In any event, it might make reading the case much easier and you’ll have some academic opinion to think about and point you towards the right places so you know what you should be thinking about or focusing on.

Sixth, as you’re studying you should be looking to assign a case name or statute to every statement of law you note down, and an academic’s name to every opinion or comment on the law (unless it’s your own theory – and no other academic has previously written it down!). Lecturers’ comments are not authorities. When you’re making your notes, if you ensure that the case, statute and academics’ names are all down the left-hand side of the page, when you come to revision you’ll be able to cover them up and test yourself. Aim to be making your notes in a nice format which is revision friendly from the start!

Seventh, I’ve already hinted this, but you really need to be doing as much of, if not all of, the further reading– at the same time as the other reading preferably. Otherwise make a (clear and easily-findable) list of everything to do in the holidays – make this as you go along, you honestly won’t remember otherwise. Holidays are absolutely crucial for consolidation, revision and gap filling: use your time wisely.

All work and no play …?

Eight, continue to go out and enjoy yourself – if you time-manage well enough, you will still have enough time to engage in other activities such as playing a sport, socialising or holding a number of extra-curricular positions! In fact, you may end up being a lot more time-efficient and stop wasting time/procrastinating as much as you once may have. You’ll also enjoy and appreciate your studies a lot more – the happier you are, the easier you’ll find it to study. You might, oddly, find out that the more you do, the better your grades become…

Nine, be active with law. The more you engage with it the more it’ll make sense. Getting active with law means a number of things: not just sitting and passively reading, but actively thinking about it (i.e. factual situations and what the ‘answer’ in court may be), mooting, going to all the additional evening lectures your university offers, and emailing supervisors and friends.

Collaborate

Ten, continue to work with your friends. Form a study group – share around further reading notes, set each other extra articles not on reading lists and then share the notes around. Meet up before your supervisions or classes 15 minutes before to run over a couple of things. Perhaps even arrange small revision groups together. Definitely have a group mailing list! Remember you’re not in competition with mates. Instead, by sharing notes, sharing thoughts and working together on past exam questions you’ll be able to test your knowledge, get other ideas, get through so much more material than you could have on your own and it will mean you’re much more active with law. It also makes studying a lot more enjoyable and will mean you save a lot of time struggling through alone. Warning though – this is not an excuse for not doing the work yourself (especially the material on your reading lists marked ‘essential’ or ‘basic’): you absolutely must be doing the ‘building block’ work yourself; group study is superb for going beyond your reading lists and for revision of all kinds though!

Eleven, it’s a great idea to be thinking about the exam throughout the whole year. At the beginning of the year, print out all of the past exam papers and examiners’ reports. After you read through each handout or reading list, look through all the exam papers and label the questions for that supervision or class. This will enable you to know what to look out for or what sorts of issues to focus on when you do the reading. It’ll also help to give you an idea of what sorts of things to take notes on. If you don’t know how to answer the question by the end of your reading, or don’t know where to look in your notes, then remember to take the exam question along to your supervision or class and ask your tutor about it.

Stay up to date

Twelve, keep up with the legal news. The best way to do this is to read blogs (such as the one you’re currently reading for constitutional law and administrative law, and http://mcbridesguides.com for tort law for example) and to use Twitter to follow legal academics, bloggers, your law faculty, the courts, other law students and barristers. Retweet everything that looks useful and relevant and then go back to read when you have more time. Mark Elliott has created a very handy list of excellent blogs and twitter accounts which are well worth following. This can be found here.

Thirteen, if you’re finding life tough, speak to people – your tutor, supervisors, Director of Studies, lecturers or even your law society president. Never be afraid to admit that you don’t understand something or to ask for help. When it comes to academics, before you email them do make sure you’ve honestly tried hard and looked your legal question up as best you can – they likely won’t appreciate it otherwise!

Exams

Fourteen, in exam term, have a game plan. Aim to read through all the notes at least twice. Then make several essay plans per subject – throughout the year you should have noted key essay topics for each topic as you went through (utilising past papers, your own common sense on what the debateable areas in that topic are, what lectures focused on, what’s new or in the legal news, and what you enjoy/understand the most). Ensure your essay plans have lots of case and academic names; make sure you’ve gone beyond lecture notes by looking at the latest editions of all the law journals. After that, then make condensed hand written notes based on your full notes. Then keep on re-reading everything again and again and again and again…. However, you cannot simply be passive and just read though – after you read each page you need to test yourself in your head: cover up the case or academic names. Then, for ones you keep forgetting or getting wrong maybe make some posters and some flashcards. Also make sure, however rough or illegibly, that you have written each case name and academic name at least once so you know how to spell it and also test yourself that you’ve remembered it. Be an active learner.

Fifteen, in your exams (or essays):

  • Always cite case names; always underline case names.
  • Put judges’ names in – even if you simply cite a case name, dicta and then put “(per Lord Denning)” for example.
  • Always put lots of academics’ names in. Academics’ names plus year of article is even better (i.e. “As Williams (2014) rightly argued…”) or just bracketed after a long sentence (e.g. “The study of Administrative law is really fun (Williams, 2014)”. Another thing to remember is that if you’re not just putting the academic name after a general sentence concerning a point you’re attributing to them by putting them name in brackets, then you should put words like “rightly”, or “convincingly” or “lucidly” or “correctly”. This will show that you’re engaging with them and not just regurgitating their names and ideas.
  • Write what you think will be your best answer first, your second best second, etc.Also don’t be scared about doing any Section B’s first, or any part (c)s before part (b)s etc. Do ensure that you label clearly though – the examiner is unlikely to appreciate it if she has to navigate a script with lots of arrows pointing the way between different parts of your answer.
  • Make sure that it’s very clear where your answer to one question ends and where your answer to the next question beings.
  • This might only have to be for a minute if you’ve learnt your essay plans well enough and are lucky enough for one vaguely related to come up. (But remember that the examiner will want to read an answer to the question she has asked: don’t just regurgitate a prepared essay unless you’re asked exactly what your essay plan relates to – you  are very likely to have to adapt it and think on your feet, but at least you will have got the relevant material and some sort of order in mind.) Write 8 or so bullet points i.e. one for each main point plus an introduction and conclusion.
  • Aim for absolute clarity – use pointers like ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘in conclusion’ to thread your argument together; this will make reading your script easier for the examiner and also demonstrate a logical approach to the question.
  • Your essay must have a thesis i.e. an argument. It should make clear what that thesis is, and the main arguments you shall make in the body of the essay in support of that thesis, in your introduction. Indeed, it might be useful to think of your introduction as what you might in your school studies have written as your conclusion. Another way to treat the introduction is as how you would respond to an oral question with the entirety of your answer in circa. 200-300 words. Your introduction therefore should be a clear roadmap and summary of your essay as a whole by listing your main thesis and headlining what each supporting paragraph will state in support of that thesis. Your argument should thus be clear from the beginning; unlike your essays at school which might have carefully considered and balanced different arguments on both sides of the debate, only for you to cursorily come down on one side in your conclusion, you must make it clar from the outset where you stand.
  • Your thesis must not only be advanced positively (and supported by evidence – statutes, case law, academics, judges etc.), but it must also defended against other positions. You must therefore not ignore contrary propositions or arguments from your own; instead you should raise (and explain) them, and reason why they do not fatally undermine your position i.e. you must raise them in order to strike them down.