Four Common Reasons for Disappointing 1L Grades and How to Fix Them

Four Common Reasons for Disappointing 1L Grades and How to Fix Them

As law school classes start back up again, many of you are trying to come to terms with your disappointing 1L grades.

People tend to take one of two approaches when the first year didn't go so well. Most students just accept the status quo, decide they're lousy law students, and quit trying. But some students take a different approach: They systematically analyze what went wrong, and embark on a deliberate plan to improve their weak spots and do better in the final years of law school.

It's up to you which category you want to be in, but - if you're in the second category and you really want to do better - here are four common places 1Ls go wrong, with some techniques for fixing each problem.

4 Common 1L Mistakes

I've had a number of people write to me and say they don't know why their 1L grades were average (or worse). Being both curious and helpful, I sometimes ask people to send me an exam answer to look at.

Here are the four most common mistakes I see, over and over. (Seriously, if you don't know why your grades are disappointing, you're almost certainly doing one or more of these things. If you think you're not, look again at your answers with a hyper-critical eye, or ask someone you trust to help you figure out what's going on.)

  1. Being too conclusory. The single, number one reason for lousy 1L grades. No one thinks they're doing it, but you almost certainly are.
  2. Running out of time. Another very common 1L mistake (which carries over onto the bar exam, in many cases).
  3. Not answering the question. Don't even get me started. Terrible idea, and terribly common.
  4. Spending too much time on the easy issues. Yes, it's tempting to analyze really simple issues in detail, because it makes you feel like you know what you're doing. The only downside with this approach, however, is that it leads directly into the other three problems (As in: running out of time -> skipping parts of the question & drawing rapid conclusions for the parts you do answer).

As you can see, these problems are intertwined, so chances are good you're guilty of more than one, if your grades aren't what you'd like them to be.

How to Fix these Common 1L Mistakes

So, what can you do to improve matters going forward?

First, it's critical to identify where your weak spots are.

Do you consistently run out of time? Do you fail to argue both sides of the issue? Do you miss issues, or only answer part of the question? All of the above?

The root cause of most of these problems is the lack of a real exam writing plan. When you sit down for an exam, you should know exactly how to analyze most issues that will arise. How do you reach this point? You've got to synthesize all the material you've learned over the course of the semester, learn it, streamline it, and practice applying it. Failing to do any one of these things can sink the whole ship.

If your 1L grades weren't what you hoped, look holistically at your study approach.

When you read each fact pattern, did you understand what issues were triggered? Did you know how to analyze these issues, in a step-by-step manner? Were you able to finish your essay in the allotted time?

If not, work on improving your overall study tactics.

But, because I promised, here are some techniques for addressing each common 1L problem.

Being Too Conclusory

Personally, I think part of the reason 1Ls are too conclusory in their answers is because no one really explains what "too conclusory" means.

Here's an example:

Mr. Smith is guilty of murder because of X, Y, and Z.

The reasonable law student might congratulate him or herself on the elegance of this statement. After all, you identified an issue (Is Mr. Smith guilty of murder?), you drew a conclusion, and you gave some reasons for your answer. That means you showed your work, right?

Not exactly.

Imagine for a moment you're Mr. Smith's lawyer. If the prosecutor stood up in court and made this statement, what would your reaction be? I hope you'd leap to your feet and say, "Your Honor, I beg to differ. Mr. Smith is NOT guilty of murder because of A, B, and C." (Okay, maybe you'd wait until it was your turn to speak, but you get the idea.)

To do well on a law school exam, you need a split personality. As soon as you think "Yes, he's guilty!" you have to immediately switch to your Mr. Smith-defending alter ego and come up with some reasons why he's not guilty. And then you switch back to your prosecutor alter ego, to think about the counterarguments to the arguments made by Mr. Smith's attorney.

It's enough to make your head spin,'s the key to law school exam success. (And, incidentally, success as a lawyer, because you need to be able to anticipate the arguments opposing counsel will make, so you can figure out how to respond to them.)

In a nutshell, to break the "too conclusory" habit, force yourself to write down the arguments and counteraguments from each point of view. Yes, it can be tedious but it's what you have to do. Here's a handy template.

Running Out of Time

If you consistently (or even intermittently) ran out of time on your 1L exams, here are two things you can do.

  • One, be absolutely scrupulous about figuring out how long each part should take, and forcing yourself to move on. For example, say you have a four hour exam with three questions. The first question has three parts. How much time should you spend on each part? This is NOT the kind of math you want to be doing during an exam. Sure, you can't predict exactly what type of questions are going to show up, but you can get a pretty good idea by asking your professor and looking at prior exams. Almost every professor will tell you how many questions an exam will have, and the breakdown of points. Well before you set foot in the exam room, figure out how you're going to spend your time (including sufficient time for reading the questions and sketching out your answer). As soon as you get the test, write down the exact time at which you're going to move on to the next part of each question. And then STICK TO IT.
  • Write less. I know there will be resistance to this advice, but it's pretty obvious. If you're running out of time, you have to write less. There's really no alternative (unless your typing skills are so atrocious that they're slowing you down, which isn't generally the case). How do you write less? By making every word count. You practice, and practice, and practice some more, until you've streamlined your writing style - and your analysis - to include only the most salient points. Then you can write fewer words, but still answer the question completely.

If you notice that you ran out of time, think about why that happened. If it's just time mis-management, practice with a stopwatch or buzzer, so you get used to moving on. If it's that you're trying to write too much, streamline your outline, and your analysis, so you can hit the most critical points consistently, and efficiently.

Not Answering the Question

There are a couple of different versions of "not answering the question" that students fall victim to.

  • One is just ignoring what the professor asked you to do. Were you asked to analyze the liability of the parties? Well, don't focus only on one potential defendant. Talk about all of them. Alternatively, if you were asked to talk only about the liability of Person X, don't waste time talking about Person Y. Read the question carefully, and do what it asks you to do!
  • The other, more subtle, way of not answering the question is by missing issues. It's common to miss issues the first time you take an exam in a given subject. Unless you're a mind reader, you probably don't know exactly what your professor was thinking when she wrote the exam, or what she wants you to talk about. What's the take away here? You shouldn't encounter your professor's exam style for the first time on the final exam. This is why you take practice exams - so you can miss the issues there, and then remember them forever.

If you feel like you didn't really answer the question (or all of the question), you probably need to do two things. Slow down and read more carefully, and do more practice exams.

Spending Too Much Time on the Easy Stuff

Finally, 1Ls often spend too much time on the easy issues, leaving inadequate time to analyze the harder questions. How can you avoid making this mistake?

Again, it basically comes down to practice.

Part of what a law school exam is evaluating is your legal judgment.

How do you develop that legal judgment? By practicing, and getting feedback (two things that tend to be lacking in law school pedagogy, sadly).

The class discussion can clue you in to which issues are hard and which issues are easy, so it's important to pay attention in class and take good notes.

On an exam, you shouldn't skip the easy points, of course, but you shouldn't belabor them, either. If you find yourself writing a whole paragraph about something that seems pretty simple, stop and think about whether there's something else more difficult you could be writing about. Most likely, the answer is yes. So wrap up the easy part, and dig into the harder questions.

- - -

No one's saying it's easy to figure out what went wrong on your 1L exams. But it's worth the effort. Addressing your weak spots now will lead to improved grades, and - critically - it will ensure you have the skills you'll need to pass the bar when the time comes. Oh, and it'll make you a better lawyer, too.

If you'd like more help, and a structured self-analysis, take a look at my new project. It deconstructs the entire law school experience, so you'll know exactly what to spend time on for maximum results.

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox. A 2006 graduate of Columbia Law School, she was a member of the Columbia Law Review, a Civ Pro Teaching Assistant, a Kent Scholar, and a Stone Scholar. After law school, she clerked in the District of Massachusetts and was a BigLaw patent litigator for two years. Now she helps other aspiring lawyers get into law school, get through, and stay true to themselves in the process. 

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