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Surviving 1L: Should You Join a Study Group?

My first week of law school, I heard a rumor (which I’m pretty sure was true), that one of my classmates was forming a study group. Great, right? What’s not to like. However, this study group was special — you could only join if you’d gone to Harvard for undergrad!

After I finished cracking up (particularly since this story was conveyed to me by a Yale undergrad), I decided to stay away from study groups, if this is what there were about.

Was that a good decision? Maybe not.

Ways Law School Study Groups Can Be Useful

Law school study groups can be useful in a number of ways:

  • They provide social support, and allow you to commiserate with other (hopefully supportive) friends.
  • It’s useful for most people to talk through novel concepts, particularly in the beginning of law school when you’re learning a new legal vocabulary.
  • It’s helpful to have people you can borrow notes from, if you have to miss class for some reason.
  • Positive peer pressure, and the outside impetus of regular meetings, can help with the natural tendency to procrastinate.

Ways Law School Study Groups Can Be Harmful

On the other hand, law school study groups might actually be harmful.

  • Having a “study group meeting” can be a great way to hang out with your friends and pretend to do work, while accomplishing nothing other than conveying the latest law school gossip.
  • If you learn better by reading and thinking quietly on your own, you’re likely to find group study to be an annoying waste of time.
  • Not every group is supportive, and you might find yourself stuck with people you don’t actually like or find helpful.
  • Study groups can enforce “groupthink,” particularly for the first semester, when no one really knows what they’re supposed to be learning. You can study with a group all you want, but, if you’re studying something other than what’s tested on the exam, there are better uses of your time.

Is There a Middle Ground?

If you’re not sure an official study group is right for you (and that’s a totally valid decision!), but you still want the benefits of having a study group, what can you do? One option I liked was to have various mini-groups that formed around specific projects. If I wanted help studying for a specific exam, I’d ask a couple of people from the class to come over a few times and compare notes. Ditto if we had a written assignment due.

This less formal approach made it more likely that we’d actually focus on the task at hand, since we were only there to work on one project. It also enabled me to work with different people, so I had a better idea whose working style matched my own the next time I wanted a study partner. Finally, it broadened my social circle, so I had lots of people to ask for notes if I had to miss class!

How to Form a Study Group

If you think a study group would be helpful, here are some tips:

  • Keep it small. Once you move beyond about 4 people, coordinating schedules and agreeing on how to move forward will consume increasing amounts of time.
  • Pick friendly people. Law school is stressful enough without having a bunch of jerks in your study group. I know it’s tempting to want to study with the guy who seems really smart when he shows off in class, but do you really want to spend time in a small group with him?
  • On the flip side, select people who are willing to disagree with each other (respectfully). There’s rarely one clear answer in the law, so it’s critical to find people who can look at all sides of an issue and have a real discussion about the legal doctrines. Having everyone nod and smile and say “yes, I think so, too” isn’t helpful.
  • Consider having a couple of less formal meetings in the beginning, to make sure everyone is on the same page about what they’re looking for. Spelling out expectations about the frequency and length of meetings and the general approach of the group when you start can prevent misunderstandings and hurt feelings later on.

One Final Tip

Finally, if you do form a study group, or even if you take a less formal approach and occasionally gather some classmates together, try to be nice to each other! Recognize that everyone’s under a lot of pressure, and that most people are doing the best they can. Try to be considerate, show up on time for meetings, and give a little bit more than you take from the group. If all goes well, you might find that your 1L study group members are your best law school friends. At graduation, you can all look back and laugh at how little you knew when you started, and how far you’ve come since!

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