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The air in the law school library is dense. The lack of windows contributes mightily to the pungent aroma – a concoction of old books, Tara Thai takeout, coffee. Admittedly, it does smell better than a middle school locker room, by a narrow margin. But the density doesn’t come from aroma alone. It’s the people, the critically intense people, exhuming various levels of gnarly bitchiness.

November as a first year law student is crazy as hell. It should be. More accurately, the Thanksgiving holiday marks the spot for stressed-induced eating comas. You’ve had to read thousands of pages from case books, and you’re weeks away from being asked to regurgitate (with some thought) that information in the form of open-book and closed-book exams.

So, in accordance with the combined wisdom of some 2Ls, you sit there in your cubicle, outlining away – until you realize that your outline just hit 103 pages (#FAIL). If you were smart and lucky, you got a hold of outlines from the stone age to last year, and then you realize that your outline is nearing 200 pages (#DOUBLEFAIL).

One bit of advice. An outline is an outline, and should remain an outline. For open-book exams, the purpose of the outline is to make it easier for you to locate the rule and cite to a few relevant cases that support your argument. The volume of your outline is not indicative of its quality. Your goal is to make a series of useful documents that will help structure your answer come exam time. Your outline is less useful in issue spotting; if you don’t know the issue, you don’t know it, so don’t count on the outline to jump out and spot the issue for you. Tabbing your outline to key issues and cases would help. Yes, there will be some exams that ask you to throw in the kitchen sink. But even in such circumstances, the stuff you throw in the kitchen sink should be organized, concise, and to the point.

You’re on your third bold coffee, maybe a Red Bull on deck for later. This is your third Tara Thai dinner this week. Pad thai with chicken is a reliable choice, but it’s a bit drier than usual today. And a little light on the chicken, aren’t we, cheap bastards. But thank God for Sriracha (or Texas Pete). Wait, why is the bottom of the styrofoam container melting…?? Maybe the lemon juice got to it? Is it supposed to do that? Melt? Oh well, eat on (a Torts hypo maybe).

In front of you, next to the laptop, casebook, takeout carton, coffee, Red Bull, and Trailmix, you have one too many supplementary books. Contracts in a Nutshell, Examples & Explanations, Emmanuel’s, Crunch Time. You try to look through them at 20 pages per minute, but alas, it’s just too much information. And why are there so many differences from the professor’s lecture notes? You ask yourself, who do I trust, what do I need in my outline, what’s going to be on the exam. In the end, you go ahead and make the lethal error of throwing everything in. Can’t hurt, right?

‘Twas that time of year, the air dry and chilly, the trees barren of life, sweatshirts and windbreakers, coffee and Red Bull.

To be continued…

 

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Highlighting is a form of art.

You have about an hour before your 9 am Civil Procedure lecture. You plunk down in the library chair, your mind clogged just thinking about the thirty pages of the case book you haven’t read yet. At least you have a hot cup of extra bold coffee in your hands. That first sip is always heavenly – the second and third, pure bliss.

Case book is open, laptop is up and running (only for Facebooking purposes), and you pull out your arsenal of five highlighters and pens. Mindlessly, your eyes dart from one corner of the page to the other, your hand, gripping your favorite green highlighter, pressing down on the page with the weight of the world. That distinct highlighter smell. You figure, hey, the smell actually goes well with coffee.

Twenty minutes before class, and you still have nine eleven pages to go. Now you’re just looking for rules and conclusions. Out comes the pink highlighter, spot a rule there, a conclusion there. You think to yourself, that would probably save my soul if I’m cold-called today, right?

Carefully and skillfully done, highlighting can get you through the most horrifying first year lectures, reminiscent of that scene in The Paper Chase. You know where the issue is, you can spot the rule statement in bright pink, and the key facts are painted in light green as well.

Unfortunately, most of you will highlight 97% of your casebook in five different colors. When Paper Chase time comes – and oh it will come at one point or another, my friends – all you have in front of you are pages and pages in yellow, green, blue, orange, and pink. And frankly, when Professor Paper Chase is breathing down your neck for an answer, you don’t know where to look, you just keep flipping the pages, muttering “umm”, sweating like a pig, your face as red as a pomegranate.

When highlighting, think of yourself as an attorney in front of a judge. The judge is probably not a very happy person, and will probably be pissed at you for no reason. He wants specific answers, not endless jabbering of the facts. So highlight the things a judge would want to hear. Not all facts are created equal. Every case will have key facts that determine the outcome. Highlight those. How your word the issue is important. And of course, you should find the rule statement and highlight that.

What every judge and Paper Chase law professor wants to hear is how the rule applies to the facts in this specific case. This is also true for the bar exam. You think this is common sense, but you’d be surprised how challenging this is to law students and practicing lawyers alike (that’s why I got the crabby 1L grades I got).

This is where you should use the margins of your casebook. Make use of that white space. Practice writing the application of the rule in your own words. The judge who wrote the opinion in your case book probably wrote his application in sixteen-and-a-half pages, in very poor English. Don’t memorize that for future regurgitation. Trash it. Trust your brain and re-write the opinion in your own language, preferably in higher-quality English than the judge.

What you highlight and what you scribble in the margins of the case book will determine the quality of your outlines and your exam answers. The successful first year law students are those that figure out what the professor wants to see in exam answers, and implements that in all aspects of case book reading and exam preparation. Just think, apply the facts. That’s what the professor wants to see, and that’s where all the points are. Keep that in mind when you find yourself endlessly highlighting the hell out of your books.

Five minutes before class starts. The coffee is starting to kick in, you kind of read through most of the material, and you have way too much information in your head to digest.

I guess you’re ready to stumble into class.

To be continued…

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Is that a 6? Can’t be. Feels like I crashed into my squeaky mattress just a couple of hours ago. More like passed out. I thought I had coffee after dinner, what happened? Right, forgot that I’ve grown immune to caffeine.

That is a 6, for 6:00 am. I already feel a kink in my neck, the kind that lasts two to three days, and I mutter something as I reach across to silence the alarm with vengeance.

With one eye squinted open, I drag my carcass out of bed and into the kitchen. I’m on autopilot, one hand grabbing the cereal box, the other searching for coffee. I curse the world as I realize that I am fresh out of milk and coffee. No way I was going to get through the thirty pages of Civil Procedure reading I had left without my black liquid gold.

A quick, hot shower, grab a protein bar, and out the door. The cool autumn breeze of the District has now turned into chilling walls of wind, as dry leaves start to pile and swirl in the still empty streets. Not a soul in sight. Wait, maybe I see someone from my section, jaywalking, with what seems to be a fresh cup of coffee in his hand. Lucky bastard.

If jaywalking is a crime (yes, it is), then I’ve committed countless crimes all semester, my eyes darting across the street before strutting towards Starbucks. Hey, it’s not my fault that both crosswalks are fifty yards away. We’re law students, after all.

Sixth-floor cafeteria coffee? It’s cheap, it’s decent I guess. Wait, was it really decent? I thought it tasted like detergent the last time around. Maybe it was just me. No really, it really was detergent. It’s cheap though, maybe a few cents? With this debate engulfing my brain, my legs are jaywalking on their own towards a grande bold coffee.

Civ Pro, man, thirty pages of that is like an eternity. An eternity that feels like stale bread, bland, interesting only with butter and strawberry preserves. Class is at 9:00 am, still got some time. What a way to start the morning. Was this the class with the on-call list? Wait, no, that was Contracts. Right, this one is the one with the deck of playing cards. It’s just that kind of day, a day where your name will inevitably be drawn out of a possible ninety. What are the odds, you say. I’m hungry, cold, and I still have that kink in my neck. The gamble could be worth it. But yet again, I haven’t been called on yet, so this could be the day. Risk it? The humiliation, oh, it would be too great. But hell, even if I read the thing, I probably couldn’t answer any questions anyway. Fail.

Yes, finally, hot, bold coffee dancing on my tongue and sliding down my throat. Hot, but soothing. Soon I’ll feel the caffeine trickle through my veins. My guts will warm, and my brain will jump-start itself. Coffee with a peanut butter protein bar. An ever so slight glimpse of heaven before the day comes roaring in.

With these thoughts, I enter the library. It’s only Tuesday?

To be continued…

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