The benefits of excelling during the first year of law school are many. A student can become a stronger candidate for internships and walk into the second year with extra confidence. A less obvious benefit of mastering first-year courses is getting a strong start on preparing for the bar.
"Every student who takes a bar review course, or who is otherwise preparing for a bar exam, is going to review again virtually the entire first-year curriculum," says Davison Douglas, dean at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at College of William and Mary.
First-year law students, and some 2Ls, usually take classes that cover civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property and torts, core subject areas that appear on the exam.
"If they get a good grounding in that first year in those subjects, that will set them up well, not just for the rest of law school but also for the bar review," Douglas says.
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Many law experts encourage 1Ls to make learning the course materials and getting good grades their top priority. Several schools don't even permit students to work until their second year of school. But J.D. candidates can do a few things to ensure their hours of studying will eventually help with preparation for a bar exam.
1. Discard bad study habits from college: "One of the differences in undergraduate and law school is sometimes in undergraduate courses a student can cram at the end of the semester, learn the material for a short period of time," says Douglas.
"But material that's learned in a crammed fashion sometimes doesn't stay with the student," he says. "It's going to be important for these students to be able to go back and access and remember that which they've learned in the first year."
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2. Practice legal writing: "It's one thing to know the law. It's another thing to be able to express oneself effectively," says Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners. She warns that sometimes students who are well-versed in the law stumble when it comes to writing about it, and state-specific sections of the bar often involve essay writing.
Reviewing NCBE's website can help law students and graduates understand how to practice writing essays for the exam, she says. The site offers sample questions and analysis for answers.
Moeser also encourages students to lean on each other to improve writing. "Have another law student critique what you're writing in order to give you some feedback on whether you're expressing yourself effectively," she says.
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3. Compare class notes with bar-preparation notes: NCBE's site also provides detailed outlines for subjects covered on the Multistate Bar Examination. Because these subjects are usually part of the curriculum for a first-year student, Moeser says it doesn't hurt to get familiar with these resources early on.
"Start looking at [the website] within two or three weeks of starting a particular course," she says.
Moeser encourages students to compare how the subject areas are broken down for the exam with what they are learning in school. Before the semester is over, she says, students should ask themselves: "Do I feel as though I have encountered all those subject areas and have some basic understanding of them?"
"It's a way to essentially follow a checklist," says Moeser.
People studying for the bar often complain that their law school professors didn't teach them anything, says Peter Sell, director of law school counseling at Advantage Testing, a test preparation company. They note the many differences between what they need to know to perform well in school and what they need to know to pass the bar.
Sell admits professors cover general concepts while the exam tests knowledge of specific details, but he also assures his clients that their hard work in school will pay off.
"Doing well in your first year of law school is going to help on the bar, because you do get this big picture understanding," he says. "Later when you study for the bar you're filling in a lot of the blanks."
Corrected 5/23/13: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Advantage Testing.