To Study Group or Not To Study Group?

Yet another stressful aspect of starting out law school is figuring out whether to join a study group and how to find the right group for you.  Study groups are supposed to provide support and minimize stress, and yet, as your classmates begin grouping off, you can start to feel like the kid who wasn’t picked for the kickball team.  Or you might find yourself in a group you didn’t really intend to join and in which you don’t feel comfortable.

Should I Join a Law School Study Group?

I am of the view that study groups are a good thing.  I might be biased because I lucked into a great group from the very beginning of law school, and we studied together all 3 years (and, embarrassingly, were referred to as the “Contracts Mafia” by people in our Contracts class because we were always together, but whatever; we were awesome).  The bottom line, however, is that the beginning of law school is stressful and disorienting, and if you find some people you get along with, the support (both personally and academically) can definitely be a net positive.

How Big Should My Study Group Be?

I think four people is the ideal number for a study group.  Five or more is generally too many.  Every member needs an opportunity to be speaking and flexing the analytical muscles he or she will be using during exams, so too many speakers means it won’t be productive enough for you.  Ideally, you’d have at least three (so as to have enough voices and opinions for a well-rounded discussion), but if you find one person who you enjoy talking to and work particularly well with, one-on-one is perfectly fine.

 

Is My Study Group the Right Fit for Me?

Notwithstanding the overarching benefits of study groups, not everyone finds the right fit immediately.  If you join a group that makes you feel intimidated (like you can’t express your ideas) or if the sessions are not productive (too much chatting, not staying on topic, etc.), then I would rethink that group.  Your time is precious; don’t waste it on something that is not advancing your learning.

For some, study grouping with your closest social friends might work.  For others, that might be distracting, or you may not be on the same page academically as your besties.  Another scenario that can occur is that, in the first weeks, you join up with a group of the first people you met, but it turns out as you get to know each other better, you aren’t clicking us much as you thought.

Whatever the reason, if you are not feeling that the group you joined is enhancing your learning, find a different group ASAP.  There are always people in your class who would benefit from a weekly meeting to go over questions.  Everyone is as freaked out as you are about grades, so don’t be afraid to approach someone in your Crim class who doesn’t seem to have a crew and say, “Hey, would you have any interest in meeting up one afternoon to go over questions from the lectures so far?”  That person will almost certainly appreciate the offer.

What Is the Point of Study Group? 

At the very beginning of law school, when you meet with your group(s), you will feel like actors in a play about law school doing a scene about a study group.  (“Ok—we’re sitting in this room with our text books out…what should we talk about?  Are we doing it right?”)  Don’t worry—you’ll figure it out.  A good place to start is by asking what questions people have.  (As I mentioned in Part 3 about note taking, you should develop a system to flag for yourself gaps and questions in your class notes.  Those notations are ready-made discussion topics for your study group.)  I recommend suggesting that everyone come prepared with a couple of questions, and the discussion will flow from there.  Over time, it will all feel more natural.

 

The funny thing about the Dumb Question is that, sometimes, when people are forced to explain a concept they think they understand, they can’t!

I’ll tell you right now, I was the dumb one in my study group.  I also had a group full of smarty-pants who all seemed to pick things up very quickly, whereas I often felt like I was the slowest to get it.  That meant that I was usually the one asking the question everyone assumed they knew the answer to (aka, the “Dumb Question”).  The funny thing about the Dumb Question is that, sometimes, when people are forced to explain a concept they think they understand, they can’t!  (Haha, whose question is dumb now?)  Seriously, though, there is value in talking through even basic concepts because you’ll be surprised how much nuance and complexity you’ll discover when you talk it out.

(This will be true throughout your legal career.  Regular B&B readers will remember a similar idea raised in the post “Explain It to Someone”.)  Don’t be too shy to ask something that you think may seem obvious to the other people.  It may be the question that drives the discussion in a productive direction.

 

Learning the Skill of Collaboration

Learning to talk it out is a crucial skill that, if developed now, will pay dividends to you as a practicing lawyer.  After all, intellectually challenging material doesn’t stop when you graduate; your first years as junior lawyer will present many opportunities where talking it out with a colleague will enhance your understanding of the issue and ability to complete your assignment.  Talking it out can also provide a “sanity check” during those first years as a junior associate, when you are plagued by insecurity.  In my practice, I often enlisted an office-mate, nearby friend or team member to talk things through to get my thinking on the right track.  The competitiveness in law school for grades on a strict curve has the unfortunate result of making us all “lone wolves,” whereas the actual practice of law is highly collaborative.

The competitiveness in law school for grades on a strict curve has the unfortunate result of making us all “lone wolves,” whereas the actual practice of law is highly collaborative.  Future employers are looking for candidates who know how to work on a team, which almost universally improves the quality of your work.

Future employers are looking for candidates who know how to work on a team, which almost universally improves the quality of your work.  Group study helps you begin to experience how collaboration improves your work, in the otherwise solo enterprise that is law school.

Pace Yourself

Early in the semester, I wouldn’t go too crazy with study groups.  Once or twice a week (total, not per class) would suffice.  The goal is to get the hang of it and make sure you’re not racking up a long list of things you feel like you don’t understand.  That also should be enough to help you assess early on if that group feels like a productive learning environment for you so that you can change course early on if you decide that your current group isn’t a good fit.

Later in the semester, as with everything else, you will ramp up study group.  As you begin outlining (see a forthcoming post on this in the weeks to come), you will identify lots of areas where you have questions, so you will want to meet more frequently to talk through those issues.  Another key aspect of study group closer to exams is to review practice questions from prior exams your professor has made available, and/or a hornbook.  You should first work the prompt on your own, then meet up with your group to discuss everyone’s answers.

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