How to work with a study group

By Kala Mueller

Like outlining and gunners, study groups are a true staple of the law school experience. I, along with many others, had never studied with a group prior to law school. However, the complexity of the law and learning to “think like a lawyer” challenges your brain in a way it’s probably never been challenged before. Under these circumstances, it feels natural to lean on and process what you’re learning with those around you who are grappling with the same difficult concepts. Study groups can be a great source of moral support and help you gain a better understanding of the material.

On the other hand, let me offer a word of caution. While study groups are really beneficial for some students, others will fare better on their own. It’s easy to get swept up in the law school current and do things a certain way simply because that’s what everyone else is doing. I remember dutifully partaking in the mass sojourn to the library reading room after class each day and feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my skin the entire time I was there due to anxiety. It wasn’t an environment where I could study effectively, but I continued those daily trips to the library for most of the first semester because it felt like that’s what I was supposed to be doing. All this to say study groups can be a wonderful and useful tool, but if they’re not an effective way for you to learn, it is perfectly fine to forego them and chart your own path.

Take Some Time to Determine What Will Work Best for You

There is no shortage of opinions on what makes for an effective study group, but the reality is that a lot of the first year of law school is trial and error; there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The groups I studied with formed organically from friends I made within my small group section (we had all of our classes together) and were informal. Even if you ultimately want to establish a more structured format for your group, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to take a more casual approach in the beginning while everyone is getting their bearings. This way you can ensure that you’re with people who are productive, mesh well with one another, and are pleasant to be around.

You should keep your group relatively small, but even within that framework there is flexibility. Limiting it to no more than four is generally wise, but having just one other study partner could be what’s most effective for you. You also need not be exclusive. Although it can make scheduling a bit more challenging, you might study with different groups or partners for different classes. Working well with a broad swath of people is an important skill for most lawyers, so this can be doubly beneficial.

Be Mindful of the Risks and the Steps You Can Take to Avoid Them

(1)  Groupthink – a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group – can be a real problem in this context. In many cases, those who are opposed to the decisions or overriding opinion of the group will remain quiet, preferring to keep the peace rather than disrupt the uniformity of the crowd. This tends to be especially prevalent early in law school when no one feels particularly confident and you’re still getting to know one another.

It’s important to have a group of intellectually diverse people who are willing to respectfully disagree with one another and look at all sides of an issue. Having the ability to present and defend your opinion is important both in the classroom and in the practice of law, and “teaching” your classmates helps you too. If you can explain a concept to someone else, you are more likely to do well when tested on it. This is a benefit of study groups that is sometimes overlooked.

(2)  Time is precious in law school, so it’s important not to waste it. Two or three one-hour meetings each week should be sufficient until you get closer to finals; don’t overdo it. Having a defined start and end time and an agenda can help boost productivity and keep you on track. A group “mom” or “dad” who keeps everyone in line (i.e. makes sure that the group is sticking to its agenda and refocuses the conversation when it starts to get off track) might naturally emerge; if not, you can appoint one. Be sure to eliminate distractions during your study sessions. That means turning off your phone (and instant messaging) or keeping it in your bag. Commit to studying for an hour and then give yourselves some time to socialize at the end before the group disburses.

(3)  Be careful not to mistake the collective understanding of the group as your understanding. You won’t be taking your exam as a group, after all, so it’s important that you, as an individual, have a solid grasp on the material. Make sure you do hypotheticals or practice exams on your own to give you some reassurance that the concepts remain as clear in your own head as they seemed during your group study session.

(4)  Don’t let the group lead you astray. If there are a lot of divergent opinions on a topic or it seems to you that the consensus of the group may be incorrect, the best thing you can do is go talk to your professor and ask for clarification. Ultimately, their opinion is the one that matters most.

Kala Mueller writes for The Girl’s Guide to Law School®, which is a leading resource for women (and some men) embarking on a legal career. The entity also includes the Law School Toolbox® and Bar Exam Toolbox® which provide free resources, tutoring and a variety of courses and tools to help law students and bar exam takers succeed with less stress and anxiety. Mueller is the assistant director of career services at the Nebraska College of Law.