Atty. Rami Hourani
I came from a family where there were no lawyers. I didn’t really have anyone to approach to ask for advice on how to approach the ordeal of law school. I would ask my fellow classmates but realized that most of them were just as clueless as I was. I found out who weren’t clueless, unfortunately that was only on graduation day when they received their diplomas and academic distinctions.
As a consequence, my performance for the first half of my law school tenure was very mediocre. I found my balance eventually and did rather well in the latter half of my law school life. My initial cluelessness though formally closed the ability to distinguish myself academically. In writing this article I hope to help someone who might be in a similar situation to the one I had found myself in.
#1 Buy a Bottle of Melatonin
Let me paint a picture. You are at or around the time you typically sleep. You’ve just spent a little time watching TV/Netflix. You finish off one last episode, it will take an extra 30 minutes to get to the end of this one but you just really need to know what happens next. You crawl into bed, pull out your phone and scroll through a social media feed or two. It’s about an hour past the time you know you need to go to sleep but you don’t think about it, it’s how you’re used to going to bed. You lie in bed a bit and notice that you lie there for a noticeable amount of time before you are able to drift off to sleep.
You wake up the next day. You have to get up at a certain time because of work/law school/family responsibilities. You have a lot to do and so you get to them in the order that they occur to you. You got less than the amount of sleep you are used to and so you are slow. You get less done. You’re more irritable. You can’t give things your full attention. You wind up taking more time to get through your tasks for the day. When you finally get everything done, you are exhausted. You sit down at the end of the day and continue watching that show you just couldn’t get off from the day before. (Wash, Rinse, Repeat)
If this situation seems familiar, you probably have something called bad sleep hygiene. Now I am not a self-development guru nor will I claim that I am any kind of authority on sleep. What I will say though is that the quality of the mind you can bring into your waking hours is critically important for any kind of success, and especially in success in law school. The situation I outlined touches on many things your relationship to entertainment, your time management, your relationship to your smart devices, your level of mindfulness and so there are many things to possibly improve upon.
If you are in law school though, it’s hard to go on a self-improvement journey when you are inundated with case assignments and dry legal material to read. You need a quick fix in the mean time.
I am not an Medical Doctor, I am a Juris Doctor. so I will not discuss Melatonin or how it works. I will say a few things though. First, and most important, you should ask your doctor is melatonin is right for you. Second, it is not a drug, it is a supplement so it can be bought over the counter. Third, you take it and after a few minutes you’ll easily be able to drift off to sleep. Fourth, being overly reliant on anything for your day-to-day activities is probably not a good thing.
If you are in the rut that I mentioned earlier and you are in the thick of law school, consider getting a bottle of melatonin. A good night’s sleep can turn a 6 hour study session into a 4 hour study session and give you more hours in your day. Once you have the extra head space, you can begin practicing things like better sleep hygiene, religiously keeping a planner, and mindfulness meditation so that you can go without melatonin as well as experience the benefits of a more orderly and self-directed life.
#2 Don’t Use Miniature Codals, Make Your Own
These are sold by bookstores in law schools and in malls. Law students jump to the conclusion that these are required reading in law school. Do not be confused. These are tools for lawyers who need to be able to quickly pull up the individual provisions of laws that they may encounter in their practice. A lawyer does not need the context or an understanding of related provisions because he/she already knows it.
For a law student who is struggling through the basics the only utility these miniature codals give is to serve as material to cram before a large exam. I would encourage you to make your own codals. This way you can tweak them to suit the needs of law students.
- You can use bond paper so you don’t have to flip the page every minute.
- You can make the font larger than that found in minuscule codals.
- You can put space around the provisions so you have a lot of space for marginal notes.
- If you keep them digital you can add as many notes as you want as the semester progresses so by the time midterms or finals roles around you have a reviewer you are already familiar with.
This process is easy to do with civil, remedial, labor, criminal and commercial law subjects. It is harder to do with political and tax law. In the former group provisions are relatively self-contained. This means provisions seldom refer to each other at all and so this note taking method adapts very easily to them.
Political and tax law are difficult to adapt a note taking style to for different reasons. Each provision that is discussed in Political law is a constellation of meaning unto itself. The simple phrase “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws” [Art. 3, Sec. 1, Phil. Const.] is the legal basis for many different standards of due process. If you were taking down notes diligently, you’d go multiple pages before landing on Art. 3, Sec. 2.
Tax law is difficult because the provisions inter-relate frequently and they do not make sense without the Administrative Issuances that interpret them or the case law that defines them. You will just have to trust that the syllabus provided to you will list them in an order that makes sense and do your best to make adjustments as they make sense to you.
#3 Understand the Significance of Stare Decisis
A law student is inundated with many Latin phrases in the course of his law school life. It is common for law students to give all of them the same level of attention. There is one however that you should intimately understand the significance of: Stare Decisis.
The principle of stare decisis, for the benefit of lay people, is a rule that courts cannot decide in an issue in a manner contrary to previous legal decisions. This is a important because it means that once the Supreme Court makes a decision on a matter other courts must follow their logic until that rule of law is overturned. Let me explain why stare decisis is important for law students.
As a law student you will be reading a lot of cases and a short list of 15 cases could be over 400 pages of reading. While there is no way around reading the cases in the original if you want the best understanding of the case law, trying to remember everything is a foolhardy exercise. If you break down each case into its components though you’ll get a list like this:
- Petitioner’s Arguments
- Respondent’s Arguments
- Issues the Court will Decide
- Applicable Principle
- Application of the Principle
- Result of Decision (Who won or lost and by how much.)
As a lawyer you will never encounter a case that is exactly like the one you read in law school. What is important is that, when you put down the case you are reading, you keep with you an understanding of the Applicable Principle and how the Principle was applied. This is because the principle of stare decisis makes that principle to apply to all cases that may be filed that concern the same issue. This means that the meat of what you need to learn when you read a case is only a small part of the entire decision and it is only that part that you need to note in detail. (Hopefully as part of your self-made codals.)
In the utter paranoia that envelopes a law student in that first year of law school its easy to jump to the conclusion that you must absorb everything you read. The net result of the attempt is that you are burnt out and seldom able to coherently express yourself in recitation. Once you realize you are not principally tasked to read, but reading to find principles the sooner you will start to make sense of your case list.
I hope that this short article has been instructive for those who are setting off on this journey.