What It Takes To Be a Top Law Student

Characteristics of top law students

7 characteristics and traits that successful law students possess

Law school is challenging for even the smartest students. In addition to smarts, learn what characteristics the most successful law students possess.

The rise of law school tuition and the increased competition for entry-level jobs has prospective law students asking the following question with more urgency:

What qualities predict law student success?

This article looks at the qualities necessary to succeed in law school. While no one factor can predict law school success, law school professors, admission staff, and practicing attorneys generally agree that the following 7 qualities are important.

1. Reading and writing proficiency

One of the most important skills in law school is reading comprehension. Not only will you be asked to read a massive amount of information in law school, but the text will often seem incomprehensible. Scott Turrow, award-winning writer and lawyer, compared reading cases during his first year of law school to “something like stirring concrete with my eyelashes.”

In addition to learning how to read complicated legal texts, law students are expected to learn how to write like attorneys. As Bernard Bell, a professor at Rutgers Law School explained, “learning how to read and write legal terminology go hand in hand, as both require students to have a firm understanding of what it means to think like a lawyer.”

Enjuris tip: There are countless books intended to help law students improve their reading and writing skills. One of the more popular books is 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor's Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School by Andrew McClurg. Check out our list of must-read books for law students.

While you’re not expected to know how to read legal opinions when you start law school, it’s a good idea to seek out as many experiences as possible that require rigorous and analytical reading and writing before embarking on your law school journey.

2. Time management skills

In order to succeed in law school, it’s imperative that you develop good time management skills.

Most law school courses are graded on a comprehensive exam at the end of the course. First-year law students often make the mistake of thinking they can wait until the course is nearly finished to begin studying for the exam. The problem with this approach is that there’s too much information to prepare for an exam (in addition to all your other exams) at the end of the semester.

Instead, law students must develop the ability to manage their workload over the course of the semester. This means studying for all of your exams throughout the entire semester while also keeping up with your new reading and writing assignments.

Along these lines, many law students make the mistake of thinking they don’t need to read the assigned material before class so long as they pay attention during class. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t prepare you for the Socratic method. What’s more, most law professors assume you have done the reading and spend the class period going beyond the text. If you’re not familiar with the assigned text, you’ll be lost within the first couple of minutes of class.

Enjuris tip: To improve your time management skills, consider developing a routine before you begin law school. As part of this routine, you should:

  • Find a quiet place to study
  • Join a study group with similar goals as you
  • Study at the same time, in the same location, every day
  • Use a planner to schedule your time throughout the day
  • Download a free app that will help you stay on track

Studies, including one published by the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, have shown that the correlation between LSAT scores and law school success isn’t as strong as most people believe.

What’s more, the vast majority of your fellow law students scored similarly on the LSAT.

So what separates you from the pack?

Professor Angela Duckwork recently published a book called Grit, where, based on decades of research, she argues that grit—a combination of perseverance and passion—is as important as intelligence in predicting success.

While there may be no clear way to develop ’drive’ or ’grit’, you might ask yourself how you handle adversity and how truly motivated you are to become a lawyer before applying to law school.

Enjuris tip: Wondering if law school is right for you? Take this short quiz created by The Princeton Review. On a more serious note, be sure to check out our article discussing how to tell if you really want to be a lawyer.

4. Focus

Research shows that young people are losing their ability to focus. While this is bad news for the country as a whole, it presents a particularly problematic hurdle for law students. During law school, you will be asked to focus on dry, complex material for long periods of time. Whether or not you can do this will impact your chances of success. 

Some tips to improve your ability to focus include:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Meditate
  • Reduce interference (i.e., turn off your phone and close your computer)
  • Stay hydrated
  • Take notes by hand

5. Skill in briefing cases

In your legal writing class, you will be taught how to "brief" a case. Briefing is a way of identifying and organizing the various components of a legal opinion, including the procedural posture, facts, issues, legal principles, and the holding.

The benefits of briefing cases are plentiful:

  • Briefing helps you prepare for class (and reduces anxiety surrounding the Socratic method)
  • Briefing helps you to see how a case fits into the “big picture”
  • Briefing helps you understand and distill complicated fact patterns (a skill you’ll need for your exams and law career)
  • Briefing gives you a head start on creating outlines for your exams

The downside to briefing is that it increases the amount of time it takes to read a case. Because of this, many law students stop briefing cases as soon as the reading becomes overwhelming. However, students who manage to successfully brief their cases throughout the entire school year put themselves in a better position to succeed. 

6. Willingness to create outlines

In law school, you’ll  become intimately familiar with outlines. In short, an outline is an attempt to reduce all the material from a course into an organized study aid. Outlines may range from 20–200 pages.

As you might imagine, outlines take a long time to create. Because of this, many law students (often those who wait until the end of the course to begin studying for the exam) opt to purchase premade outlines from any number of commercial publishers.

The problem with purchasing an outline is that most learning actually occurs during the process of making the outline. If you don’t go through this process, you’re less likely to master the subject matter.

7. Openness to ask for help

Law students are often reluctant to admit that they don’t understand something. As a result, law students who are confused about a particular legal point might avoid asking a professor or classmate for extra help, banking on eventually figuring it out and saving themselves some embarrassment.

The problem with this approach is that legal principles tend to build off of each other. As a result, if you don’t understand a particular point, you’re unlikely to understand subsequent points. By the end of the course, you’ll be completely lost.

Successful law students aren’t afraid to visit a professor during office hours or pull aside a classmate to ask for help.

Want more information to help you prepare for law school? Check out our other articles in the Enjuris student center.

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