Thursday, June 3, 2010

Study Groups: Good Idea or Painful Waste of Time?

Ok, I'll be honest.  You could grab about 10 random law grads, and I'm willing to bet that each would have strong feelings about the answer to this blog's topic.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret... "you" being the 1L: none of you know what you are doing.  This is completely acceptable!  It's just that 1L paranoia begins to set in rather rapidly as you begin law school, and you--along with the rest of your colleagues--will all pretend (consciously or not) that you DO know what you're doing.

This fact relates to study groups in a very poignant way: namely, a bunch of people who don't know what they're talking about getting together and putting forth their ideas does not appear helpful at the outset as a means of study.

You'll here over and over as a 1L that by the time you reach your third year of law school, you just "get it."  This is really true.  And it becomes both laughable and painful to study next to a bunch of 1Ls who are in a study group... not because they don't know what they're doing but because the "knows-better" 3L is drawn like a moth to the flame in the desire to help.  Either that, or the 3L wants to cover his/her ears, scream at the top of his/her lungs, and run for the hills before the 1L study group sirens lure the 3L into spending a good chuck of his/her own study time "helping" the group.

Here's the deal.  Whether study groups will help you during your first year simply depends.  (Get used to that answer; it's a popular one.)

How study groups can be helpful: small, focused, and--ideally--working out practice exams.  The study group experience that I wasted my time in the least was when the 3 or 4 of us (tops!) had a practice exam in front of us, and, after digesting it on our own in silence for a while, outlined all of the issues that we saw on a big dry-erase board.  If I missed something, my friend didn't, and vice versa.

How study groups can suck the life out of you: too big, too much time, a leech, and too much focus on trying to figure out the "truth."  Let me break it down for you.

(1) Too large of a group means too much time will be spent talking; you want to keep things succinct, and it's just impossible with a large group (5 is too big, I think).

(2) If one person doesn't know what the hell is going on, like, at ALL, you have got to cut that person loose.  This is the leech.  My group avoided this by setting forth ground rules at the very beginning of the semester.  The ground rules went something like, "If you keep coming to the group and add nothing of any value, we're going to let you know that we don't think it's very efficient to study together anymore.  Nothing personal." (Turns out that we did have to let one of our friends know that we didn't think we should study together.  That was rough, but--hey--having set this all out in the ground rules at the beginning made the ousting a whole lot easier.)

(3) The "truth."  Well, if you follow my blog, you know that I like examples.  Let's say that the issue is whether someone consented... to anything.  "Consent" is the legal issue.  A fact will tip you off as to that issue.  So, in the fact pattern, you will have Person A ask Person B if some outrageous/horrible thing is ok to do; Person B will shrug.  Note: You will never get to the truth of this matter.  Almost all of the issues on your law exams will be like this.  The whole point is that, in the future, as a lawyer, you will have to argue your client's version of that fact.  Does a shrug sufficiently consent?  Who cares?!  As a student, the professor wants you to see that this is an arguable issue because the facts are not clear and the outcome on this issue could go either way.  Read my other blogs for how to deal with this stuff.  Right now, I just want you to know that if you (or someone else in your study group) spend time on trying to discover or argue the "truth" of an issue that should be clearly arguable given the facts, you are wasting your time!  If you must, note the facts that support, say, consent and those that don't.  The time to argue will be on the exam, not with the study group.

If you do decide to work in a study group, my advice is to resist any temptation to make that your default study method.  Each person should be coming to the table with some value.  So, before you meet, do some practice exams or something on your own so that, individually, you can at least have an idea as to what the hell you're doing by the time you meet up.  Like, you will all need to know the rules of law and rationales to cases (see my blog on an alternative to outlining for a detailed explanation) before you get together.  Otherwise, the group may very well amount to a wheel-spinning session, and you don't want that.

Until next time...


  1. On behalf of all the upcoming 1Ls out there, thanks for all the great advice & please keep posting!

  2. Thank you! I will. :) If you (or anyone) has a particular topic that you'd like me to address, please feel free to leave a comment and let me know.

  3. The only thing I'd be more specific on is "Feel free to not be in a study group. Your friends may try to convince you that this is daring/dumb because we all need help but don't listen to them." My GPA went up a full point by studying on my own and not in a group. It allowed me to just study entirely on my own and focus on what I knew to be my own weaknesses. I was also able to work at my own pace without distraction. And in law school and bar studying there's simply no time to waste.

  4. I agree, Kevin. Yes, my grades definitely improved when I studied on my own. However, I wasn't sure whether that was the reason or whether it was because I just knew what I was doing more my second semester (and year and so on).

    I absolutely think that people should feel free to not be in a study group, so your point is well taken. However, if people want to know some of the common pitfalls as to what can make study groups bad, I hope they can find some of those things here.

    One thing that 1Ls might not realize if they start out studying on their own, however, is whether THEY are the sucky ones to begin with. This may sound harsh, but--hey--if you (the entering law school student) are Mr. Truth-Finder (as discussed above), you might never realize how much of your own time you're wasting if you don't have another perspective to be there to kick you in the butt when you do that.

    If you try groups, though, and find them futile, I have two words: move on. And then, of course, read some of my other blogs. :)

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  6. You are very welcome, Bettina. :) Thanks for leaving your comment.