How to Get a First in Law
When I was in law school, I was determined to get the highest degree classification possible (which here, in the UK, is called a “first class honours” for undergraduate degrees). Statistically, law degrees have the lowest number of “firsts” awarded amongst all degree subjects. Nevertheless, I frantically googled “how to get a first in law” on a weekly basis (and was frustrated by the lack of new tips each week). In the end, I did get a first and here is how.
1. Treat it like a (flexible) 9-5 job
When I tell people that I put in those kinds of hours into my degree, some find that hard to believe. “But what about the times when you were hungover, or when you had work or activities? Surely, you couldn’t have treated university like a job?” I did – I prioritised my degree (I know not everyone is in the position to do so, but if you are, try to prioritise your studies as much as you can). When I had other things going on, I found other times during the week to make up for the missed hours. This is the only time in your life you’ll have to get a good grade in your degree. (Unless you do multiple degrees, but assuming you don’t). You might as well use any time you have and end up with a good grade.
I am a firm believer that anyone can get top grades. What many people don’t get is that they have to learn the techniques to do so. Of course, hours aren’t everything – quality is more important than quantity. Staring at your books for hours on end might end up taking the same amount of time as a 9-5, but that’s also not going to get you any further. You have to put in the hours, but you also have to do something sensible with those hours.
2. Understand the law
This might sound obvious, but I have seen time and time again how my peers just memorise the law. They learn rules off by heart without truly understanding what the rules mean, what the purpose of them are, and what impact they have. If you understand the law, then you will find it easier to remember and also, easier to apply to scenarios and problem questions. One way to see whether you have actually understood something is by explaining it to someone who doesn’t have a clue about law. If you can explain it well enough for people without any knowledge of the law to understand, there is a good chance you understand the law and haven’t just memorised it. (There is also a good chance you will obtain a top grade if you understand the law.)
3. Be creative
This might sound like strange advice for a law degree which technically isn’t a creative degree like Art or Theatre, but in order to get a top grade, you will need to be creative in your essays and exams. For essay questions and coursework which ask a theoretical question, such as “Is the law on adverse possession justified?”, you need to come up with good arguments as to whether the law on adverse possession is justified or not. Think outside the box. Weigh the pros and cons and come up with arguments that are very difficult to counter. Use examples and analogies that bring your point home.
For my Jurisprudence module, I had to write an essay on this question: “Discuss critically the contribution that feminist scholarship can make to our understanding of questions of power and justice in law, legal institutions and legal theory “. I went to town on examples of feminist scholarship undermining our understanding of law such as South American feminist scholars not recognising that calling for abortion laws in response to the Zika-virus harming unborn babies was not just an issue concerning women, but society as a whole. You get the idea – be creative, think outside the box and go to town.
4. Summarise and then summarise again
Again, this is something, I cannot stress the importance of enough. You need to condense your notes as far as possible. The closer you come to your exam, the less time you will have to trawl through pages and pages the length of “War and Peace”. You will need something easily accessible and digestible. I do appreciate that it takes time to summarise notes, but it is time well spent (i.e. this is one of the things you should be doing a lot of when you are treating your degree like a job).
What I did after every semester was summarising my lecture and textbook notes into large summaries – one for each topic. These would be very comprehensive and pretty much cover everything I heard and/or read about. As I approached my exams, I would summarise these summaries into shorter summaries (no more than a few pages) – again one for each topic. I would then do a final summarising exercise, usually handwriting a 1-page summary for each topic. I know this sounds painful, but this did really work for me. Also, by summarising you will inevitably find that you understand the law better (because you have to think of fewer words to express something).
5. Practise, practise, practise
Please, please, please don’t be one of those people who don’t do past papers or practice questions. (Yes, they exist and if you don’t do past papers or practice questions, please don’t complain about the grade you obtain. That was your own choice.) Many universities have past papers available online. Do them. Do each one of them (even if they go all the way back to the 90s.) If there are resit papers available, do those as well. Start off by writing out full answers in your own time, but then as you draw closer to your exams, do them under exam conditions. Once you know you can write a good answer within the time allotted, you can speed up the process and simply write short outlines in bullet point format for each past paper question.
You would be surprised how often exam questions get recycled. In most exams, I spotted at least 1, sometimes 2 questions that I had already seen in past papers. This was simply because I did each past paper for each exam period (we had 2 per year at my university) over the last 20 years. This may sound extra, but if you do this, you will basically already know the answers to half of your exam.
I hope you find these tips helpful. Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions or if you are looking for any advice.
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