How to Succeed in Law School

Law school admissions shouldn't just be about getting in the door. It's also about setting yourself up for success once you get to law school, and then getting successfully OUT the door to launch the kind of career that inspired you to go to law school in the first place.

I've observed a couple of points along that trajectory where people sometimes trip up. So as you celebrate your various admissions offers (yay!), be mindful of the kinds of skills you'll need to be successful once you get to law school.

What skills are those? I'm working on a number of postings on this subject, and if you'd like to see more of them, please let me know in the comments. And of course we'd love to hear from current or former law school students who have wisdom to share about succeeding in law school.

So, to kick things off, here's a meta-point, from which subsequent postings will follow. 

Meta-point: Being a successful law school student is not the same as being a successful college student.

You worked really hard to get to this point. You got good grades, took tough courses, and sweated your way through logic games. And that's just the academic effort you invested to get here. Those of you who have great undergraduate grades and accomplishments and who stress-tested yourselves in rigorous classes and programs are rightly proud of your achievements.


Law school often catches people off guard in its intensity and difficulty. Just because you were a superstar in college does NOT necessarily mean you'll be a superstar in law school.

Part of that has to do with the winnowing that takes place in graduate school admissions at competitive schools. Law school admissions officers would rather pick the college superstars than the college mediocrities, so it can be bewildering when you first get to law school and find yourself surrounded by classmates who are (mostly) as illustrious as you are. If you were used to being the big fish in college, remind yourself that you're swimming in a different pond now.

Or, as management guru Marshall Goldsmith likes to say, "what got you here won't get you there." That principle applies to the different stages of your education and professional training, too.

So when you get to law school, do not be complacent, and do not be overconfident. Be aware that studying for and succeeding on law school exams can be quite different from studying for and succeeding on undergraduate exams. You might have to pick up some new skills and habits along the way, or develop your existing skills and habits further. 

Law school success tip #1: Learn how to listen.

Listening is supposed to be the key to life. Talk to experts on any topic from marriage to management to pet care, and you're advised to be a good listener. That sounds pretty facile, though, in a vacuum. What does good listening mean in the context of succeeding in law school?

Here's an interesting observation from Dan Goldman, who was a successful law student, is now a successful lawyer, and regularly intersects with and coaches law students. He's noticed a bad habit in some law students. Here's what he describes as a fairly typical scenario in an email exchange I had with him recently:

He can't stop talking for long enough to focus on the right things.  He's an obviously smart guy, but he has a very hard time listening -- like, really listening. He listens for just long enough for him to know what to say back, and then he sort of shuts down the larger conversation -- and law school, as we know, is all about the larger conversation. He'll take pains to nod and affirm what you're saying, but you just kind of know he thinks he's gotten what you're saying early on and is impatient and ready to move on.

The other problem is that he's given himself far too many sources.  He uses numerous study guides for each class (Nutshell, Gilbert's, etc.) and I think he's confusing himself. What he really needs to do is get into a good study group, listen to what he's hearing from his profs and his classmates, and learn to write and respond to his particular audience.

Legal education, when done right, is hard. Really hard. If you think you've gotten a particular point quickly, slow down. Talk less, and listen more. (For the time-machine files: DO NOT ask me about my Civ Pro II exam; it remains a sore subject at Casa Ivey. I definitely needed to listen more to certain discussions, especially to the Erie parts. Live and learn.)

Would you like to see more blog postings on law school study skills, and how to succeed in law school? Thumbs up or thumbs down? Any advice to share from your own law school experiences? Please post in the comments.


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).