How to get a First Class in Law
(If you're new to my blog. I am a Law Graduate from the University of Surrey, a top four university in the UK, where I graduated with a First Class Law Degree. I have also been called to the Nigerian Bar and I recently got accepted into the University of Oxford's Masters in Law programme (i.e. the Oxford BCL) which commences in September. I recently started my blog twentytwocrowns.com to empower and encourage students dealing with Law Degrees, Final year or University in general by providing practical tips, advice and lessons drawn from my own experiences.)
How to get a First Class in Law
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Law is the hardest degree to get a First Class in the UK, with only 6% of students achieving firsts in Law in 2009, this number has however gone up 'slightly' in recent years (statistics can be found here and here). In this post, I'd be sharing general tips, advice and lessons that might be helpful if one is trying to attain a first class in law. So things like how to answer questions for law, how to write a first class answer etc. I have divided this post into two parts, the specific tips and the general tips. The specific tips have practical tips on getting a first class, such as how to write a first class answer, how to structure your essays etc. The second part includes general tips such as having the right mind-set, and having the zeal to work hard.
In reading this post, it is important to note that people are inherently different and no two people are the same. Essentially, the fact that I did certain things and they worked for me does not mean the same things would work for you, which is why I make an extra effort to make my advice as general as possible. So I’d say, with reading my blog, the best approach to use is to get the general principles I’m trying to pass across and adapt it to how you work as a person- this is important.
Alright, I have tried to summarise the points into eight points each –so eight general tips and eight specific tips. I'd try and make my points as clear as possible. So here it is, tips to getting a First Class in Law! Let’s go!
1. Work Smart! This is one of the most important points here. With anything you have to achieve in life, you’d hear the advice which is to ‘work hard’ and I talk about hard work in the second part of this post. However, there is no point working hard if you are not working smart. One thing every law student has said at some point during their law degree is this, “I spent so much time on my essay and I still didn’t do as well as I expected.” This is where the problem starts; essentially, making the mistake of confusing working hard with working smart. Assuming that just because you spent so much time on a particular essay, then that should automatically translate into high marks. This approach is wrong and I had to learn this the hard way at university. Now you don’t submit a time sheet with your essay that shows how long you spent on it, so there is no way the amount of time you spent on an essay will be evident to the marker. What you can do however, is to show the marker that your essay is a product of enormous effort and hard work. Essentially, don’t just work hard on your essay, and think because you’ve worked hard you should get good grades, but make sure that it is evident from the work you have done, that you have indeed worked hard. This is called working smart and it is a good way to get high marks! There are several ways to work smart, and I would be going into greater detail in the next couple of points. An example of working smart, is ‘answering the question!’ and I go into greater detail about this later on. Essentially, not going off point on your essay.
There’s no point spending all those hours on your essay, if you are answering the wrong question!
Lol! Let’s be more serious. There are three key things in any essay and all academic writing: 1) Answer the question 2) Display a proper understanding of the material and 3) Structure the answer in a way which is helpful and accessible for your reader and your own answer.
2. Answer the Question! I mentioned this earlier. While this might seem obvious, most students don’t actually do this. This entails understanding what the question is asking you and internalising it, and then devising ways to answer the question in the best way possible. There’s no point spending all those hours on your essay, if you’re answering the wrong question. I was guilty of this in my first year. I remember writing an essay once, and on the first page, the marker wrote “but this is not the question” lol! When he got to the second page, he wrote “now you are answering the question”. So do not beat around the bush. Get right into it! The secret is, most of the time in law, there is a particular tension in that area of the law that the lecturer wants you to address and resolve. So find out what tensions in the law that the lecturer is hinting at, and address this head on! If you think that aspects of the question can be interpreted in different ways, you should not ignore this – indeed, this is one way to write a great essay! One of my best Jurisprudence essays ended like this:
“To conclude, the moral value of freedom is a complex one. To thus assert that the Rule of law guarantees freedom is to oversimplify the facts surrounding a moral concept, which is indeed very complex in nature. Perhaps, the problem lies in how this question has been asked by various theorists; as it attempts to isolate the moral value of freedom as a single straight-forward concept which the Rule of Law through the way it structures authority could somehow bolster, rather than treating the concept of freedom as a complex, multi-faceted one with varying interactions with the Rule of law...”
The marker found this very impressive. The essay question was “Does the Rule of Law guarantee freedom?” I thought there was something wrong with that question. I thought that there was no way to simply agree or disagree with the question, without oversimplifying the issue at hand, and I stated this, and the marker was quite impressed. The paper scored a first. So when writing law essays, do not ignore countervailing ideas to what you are saying. If you think a question has varying interpretations, state this in your essay! Remember, you can only present an idea at its strongest if you are open about its weaknesses!
3. Display a proper understanding of the material- A way to do this is to spend time explaining ideas clearly. If you cannot explain something clearly, you probably need to go back for a second and make it clear in your mind. You might be able to fool some people sometimes by fudging explanations, but you will never excel doing this! The marker wants to see that you have properly understood the material! You can’t properly understand the material without reading it! Don’t just do the textbook reading, try and read articles that cover that area. Most times you would find these articles in your core reading or further reading, or in the footnotes of your textbook. It's funny, as law students we tend to run away from the further reading even when they could make your marks increase by a huge margin! The thing with articles and secondary material in general, is that they address the tensions in the law directly and offer varying standpoints on them. They give you different views that you might have been blind to earlier. Whereas the textbook just gives you a broad description. So don’t just put articles that you have not read in your references (lol) Actually read them! They could make your marks increase by a lot!
4. Structure- With structure, everyone is different. If you have a way that you already write your essays and it works for you then that’s awesome, ignore this. However, a clear and failsafe way of writing an essay will have a clear introduction spelling out the general structure and argument of the essay. The second paragraph will explain the question and contextualize it, the third will present a way of constructing an answer to the question and the following three or four paragraphs will build on this in whatever way you think is appropriate for the question itself. Your final paragraph would be a conclusion, but should NOT be plucked out of thin air and say something seemingly at random. If it does, why is it not earlier in your essay? Don’t have surprises lurking at the end of your essay or anything like this; this is not the time for creative writing. This is not to say that creative writing has no merit however (I do a lot of creative writing in my spare time, but this is not what we are here for). In your essay, you need to make sure the reader understands what you are saying. So make sure your conclusion addresses points already discussed in your essay!
5. Do the hard questions! – A lot of the time with law, you get to select the questions you want to answer. And in every exam/coursework, you have the hard questions and the easy questions. You know the ones I’m talking about, that straightforward question on the exam that you just feel is definitely a gift from God. And a lot of law students might not know this, but a lot of the time law teachers put these questions there intentionally. I call them ‘safety-net’ questions, they’re put there for people that haven’t really developed enough depth with the subject matter to discuss it deeper. A lot of the time, you’d see that easy question on the paper and you’d have a sigh of relief like, “yesss! this is the one.” But before you get too excited and see this as a gift from your teacher, you might need to calm down and realize that this is actually a trap, yes! a trap! Especially if it’s law. The reason being, questions like this, although very straightforward and relatively simple, they do not give you the opportunity to engage deeper with the material, and display your analytical skills, due to their straightforward nature. In other words, because they are so straightforward, there is little room to display your brilliance and originality- factors that contribute to scoring high marks on law essays. So while these questions are easy to answer, there’s a limit to how high you can score on them. So you’d probably easily get a 2:1 on these questions, but don’t be surprised when you don’t get a first on them, even though you answered them to the best of your ability. Essentially, there isn’t really anything profound or original (i.e. different from what every other person is saying) that you can say when answering these easy questions. I’m talking about questions like ‘the three certainties’ in property law or Austin’s theory of ‘sanctions’ in Jurisprudence (that’s all I can remember for now but I’d update this page once I remember more examples.) These areas are relatively easy to test on compared to their more difficult counterparts.
With harder questions in law however, you have a greater opportunity to showcase your brilliance. Most times with these kinds of questions, the teacher is hinting at a particular tension in the law that they want you to explore. Questions like this create greater room for analysis; these types of questions are put for people that the lecturer believes will be able to engage with the material at a very high level. Because there is such a wide scope for analysis, there are greater opportunities to display originality and a thorough engagement with the material. This usually equals very high marks in law. If you answer these kinds of questions very well, a first class becomes easier to get. Lecturers are also ready to give high marks for such questions because they are aware of the difficulty in answering these questions. There is a downside to attempting difficult questions however- you either do really well on them or you do really badly. Reason being, when you attempt such a question, a lot is already expected of you from the marker, so if you don’t answer it well (i.e. deliver), you are likely to score a very low mark- lower than you would have, if you messed up an easy question where much wasn’t expected from you to begin with. In essence, with easy questions- a 2:1 is very likely; you’re not likely to fail such a question, neither are you likely to do extremely well (i.e. get a first) on such a question, unless you say something very profound, which is very difficult to do, as the question does not give you enough room to do this. With hard questions however, they are a blessing and a curse- you either do extremely well (i.e. first class) if you answer it very well! Or you do really badly if you don’t answer it well.
For a lot of law students, if they had to choose between a question where they could either get, a first class or a third class, or a question where they have a sure 2:1, they’d go for the latter. But I implore you to try and take more risks and try and attempt these hard questions. I benefited greatly from this while at University. In my final year, I had a 90 in one of my modules, it was the highest mark in the cohort. There were only four people that picked that particular question I answered. I remember asking people why they weren’t doing that particular question and they’d say things like “it’s difficult”, “it means I have to work harder on it” or “there’s a chance I might fail if I don’t do it very well and I’m not ready to take that chance”. So I’d try and allay these fears in this post; is attempting hard questions difficult and does it require a lot of hard work? Yes! But is it worth it in the end? Yes! Is there a chance you might fail if you don’t answer a hard question very well? Yes. However, is there a chance you could do extremely well if you answer a hard question very well? Yes!! So please don’t run away from these questions. Where everyone sees a difficulty, try and see a challenge! That particular mark ended up making all the difference on my degree.
There’s one tip I’d suggest to making sure you get that first class on that difficult question. Make sure you’re ready to do the work! You don’t get a first class by virtue of just answering a hard question, you have to answer it very well too. When I say work hard, I mean harder than the person answering the easy question on the assessment. Essentially, if you’re doing the hard question on the exam, you have to be ready to work two times harder than your classmates doing the easy one. This might sound stressful but believe me, it’s worth it in the end. I didn’t know this in my second year. I said in an earlier post, that my second year was the year where I’d attend all those extra talks organised by the school of law like ‘how to write a first class answer’ etc. And I remember a lecturer mentioning at one of these talks that answering hard questions was a way to get a first class on your paper. So I remember being determined to answer the hard questions that semester. So I decided to answer the hardest question on my EU law coursework, I felt like I would definitely get a first because I was attempting the hard question. I was wrong. I was so disappointed when I saw my grade on that paper. I realised later that I had worked on that question with the same effort I would have put in if I was attempting the more straightforward questions, which was a very wrong approach. So major key! - answer the hard questions and be ready to do the hard work for it! And just see how much your grades would improve. If you wanna play it safe however, and do the easy straightforward questions, where your 2:1 is secured, that’s fine too; but I wouldn’t wanna go through life wondering what could have happened if I had been bold enough to take a risk!
6. Know what the lecturer is expecting from the question – Make sure you know what your teachers are expecting from the question before addressing them. A failsafe way to do this is by paying close attention in class. A lot of the times, lecturers hint at what they are expecting from your essays during their lectures. I said earlier, that most of the time with law, there is a particular tension in the law that the lecturers want you to explore! In one of my Evidence classes, the teacher said, “if I give you any question on ‘Oppression during Confession Evidence’, what I want to know is when the conduct goes beyond what is normal police conduct and when it becomes oppressive.” She said this to us, weeks before our coursework question was released, and I remember writing this down. When I was working on the coursework, I was way over the word count. This is another tip; the secret to cutting down your word count is ‘relevance’. If anything in your essay does not directly help you answer the question, then it shouldn’t be in your essay in the first place. In addition, because I knew that in answering the question, the teacher wanted us to address when the ‘oppression’ in the scenario went beyond what was normal police conduct; I took out everything that didn’t address this point in some sense. In essence, knowing what my teacher wanted from the question, helped me know what was relevant, and this helped me answer the question. Don’t know if that makes sense. Basically, know what your teachers are expecting from the question before addressing them. A more general way to do this is by reading your grade descriptors or marking scheme. Every school of law has these. It’s where you are told the requirements for different marking ranges. I also found them very helpful during my degree.
7. Analysis! Analysis! Analysis! - When it comes to getting a first class, this is your money maker. Simply put; a 2:2 answer tells you what the law is, a 2:1 answer tells you what the law is and does it very well, a first class answer tells you what the law is and what is wrong with the law! This is the X Factor your teachers are looking for. This is called Analysis. Analysis is what gives you high marks, this is what can give you a 90 in an essay, and don’t believe this is impossible. I used to think there was an unwritten rule about not giving a mark above the seventies in law, but I was wrong. If you write an essay that deserves a 90, you will get it. I remember the second marker on my essay that was scored a 90 wrote that “this is an essay that fully deserves its mark.” No one will bring down your essay for being too high if you are deserving.
8. Originality- Imagine you’re a lecturer and you’ve read fifty essays and they’re all saying the same thing. Especially if you’re like me and you get bored easily, then this must be the worst job ever. So with your essays, make sure you stand out! This is called originality! This can take an essay from a 2:1 to a first. How to be original? do your further reading, use articles people are not likely to use, read parts of statutes that were not taught in class. In my final year, my Evidence teacher told us the parts of PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act) that were relevant for the course, she told us not to worry about the rest, she said she was trying to make our job easier. In my first year, I would have considered this a blessing, but now I was trying to stand out, so I decided to read other sections, and I found that they were also helpful in answering the question. In my feedback, the teacher wrote that she was very impressed to see sections of PACE that were not covered in the lectures or tutorials. Often times, teachers might tell you not to read something because they know you won’t read it anyways (lol), but they are usually very impressed when you do! Also, try and do your further reading! It really does make your work, especially coursework, stand out from everyone else. One of my lecturers once said, “you know what I like? students that tell me what I don’t know, don’t tell me what I already know” You know what she was really saying? Stand out!
9. Choose your modules wisely- Making module choices is probably one of the most important decisions you'll make as a law student. I personally believe the particular selection of modules I picked during my Law Degree made all the difference. When it comes to picking your modules, I’d say the secret is to do modules that you love, why? Because working hard on them will not feel like work at all, because you love the module and you'll most likely do better on those modules. I have an entire post with more detailed steps on how to decide what modules to choose, so you can check my blog or click here for that as well!
1) Work hard! – To get a first class degree, how hard do you have to work? Very hard. How hard did I work on my law degree? Very! I literally gave my final year my everything! It involved a lot of blood and sweat literally. And I’d tell you this. There's nothing like graduating with your degree and knowing that you really gave it your all and you deserve the outcome. I remember having this feeling on my graduation day. So use your time very wisely. Don’t drop that assessment till you’re sure you’ve done all you can. Nothing in life comes easy!
In another post, I said that the day I finished my final year, I got into my room and I shoved all my books into a box: every single notebook, textbook, lecture slide, everything, one after the other. Then I zipped up that box and threw it under my bed. I had dreamt of this moment for so long and it was the best feeling! I took this all the way, by the way; I kept that box in the garage! lol Not even in my main house, and I didn’t revisit that box for almost a year. But I’d tell you this; a year later, I was in law school at this point, and I needed new notebooks for some courses, so I wanted to check if I still had any more notebooks from uni before deciding to buy new ones. So I went to the garage, back to this same box. And I opened it. I started to see my notes from my final year, highlights from my textbooks, all my lecture notes from uni. I was surprised at the feeling that came after this. It wasn’t the same feeling of ‘please get away from me’ that I had the day I finished my exams. I was going through all my notes and I was so proud. All my hard work had paid off. I was remembering all the long nights and I couldn’t help but just smile. It was really all worth it. So I’d say this, “pain is temporary, it may last for a minute, an hour, a day or in some cases a year, but eventually something greater will take its place!... but if you quit however, it will last for a lifetime.” To succeed, you have to be willing to sacrifice what you are for what you will become. Don't sacrifice something as permanent as your degree for something else that's temporary.
2) Change your mindset, see it as a challenge! - So the first part about being a law student #lawstudentproblems, is that you’ll slowly begin to realise that everyone else studying a different degree from you isn’t as stressed as you are. This realization will come some time in your first few weeks of uni and I know it could suck! You’d get questions like, "why are you studying so much?" from your housemates and it will seem like everyone else doing a different degree from you is having way more fun than you are, and you’d have the occasional housemate that would tell you that they’re studying only their lecture slides for their exam, sigh, need I say more? So yeah at some point, you’ll think your life sucks and you should have done a different degree where getting a first would have been a lot easier to do.
Well, if you want to have a first, it’s important to get rid of this mentality. It can be a huge disadvantage to your success. I used to think like this when I first started studying law and it didn’t do me any good. I think it’s important to have the right attitude towards the challenges that you face at University. While a law degree can be very intellectually rigorous, it is important to relish this intellectual rigour rather than being consumed by it. In essence, learn to see your law degree as a challenge and not as a disadvantage. Someone once told me that you could play a table tennis match with a five year old and win, but what honour comes with such a match? However, the real test is when you play a table tennis match with a world champion and you emerge as the winner- this is the real honour. In essence, while a law degree is difficult, there is greater honour when you surmount that difficulty as opposed to if you had studied something that was a lot less difficult. When you get a first class in law, there is the initial ‘wow’ when someone finds out, and then there is the second ‘wow’ when they find out you had it in law. So while law is hard, it’s hard for a reason- it’s law! So quickly learn to see your law degree as a challenge and not as a disadvantage. This general outlook will give you the drive and motivation you need to surmount all the obstacles and challenges you would face during your law degree.
3) Believe it’s possible- There’s this saying that the battle starts in the mind. You can’t achieve something if you don’t believe you can. And I’m here to testify that it’s never too late to be whoever you want to be or achieve whatever you want to achieve, even if you only have a few weeks left. There’s this quote by Misty Copeland, “you can start late, look different, be uncertain, and still succeed”
I started late. I came into my degree two weeks after classes had started in my first year. I was also very uncertain in my first year. My point is, you can do it! In fact, the only person stopping you from achieving your goals is you! I believe that when chasing your dreams, all you need is one person that believes in you, just one, and there’s no rule that says, that person can’t be you. So start from today to believe that you can get that first and you’d see that you will!
4) It’s never too late! - The number one problem in my opinion that law students face is time management. And it’s not your fault believe me. There’s just too much to read. Cases, statutes, the core reading, and then the further reading! sigh. So often times, it will feel like time isn’t on your side. And by now, following the current school calendar, most people are already half way through their second semester. So for a lot of people reading this post, you’re probably thinking ‘well all this is nice, but it’s too late now’. Well believe me now when I tell you it’s never too late to succeed! While I started working for a first from the first day of my final year, the key decisions and steps that I took that gave me a first, I’d say were made in the last few months of my degree, so it’s never too late! I have an entire post on this on my blog so you can check that out or click here if you’re still in doubt that you have time.
5) Do You! - I cannot stress how important this is. To get a first, the first thing you’d probably be doing is making a plan of how to achieve this, which I believe is very wise. This means, you’d probably be deciding how you want to study and the methods you’d like to use to achieve your goals. When deciding this, it’s very easy to try to do what everyone else is doing and I strongly advice against this, because believe me when I tell you that, no two people are the same, so what works for Tom isn’t necessarily what’s going to work for you. And this applies to my blog as well, the fact that I did certain things does not mean the same things would work for you, which is why I make an extra effort to make my advice as general as possible. So I’d say, with reading my blog, the best approach to use is to get the general principles I’m trying to pass across and adapt it to how you work as a person. This is so important. Even I had to learn this the hard way. So I’d give an instance to illustrate this.
In my final year, note making was a thing! Everyone had these big bulky notes that they had made for each course. Mind you, before final year, I had never made notes before, at least in uni. When I say make notes, I mean like my own personal notes. I’ve always just read from the textbook. I was also fond of taking down notes of what the lecturer said in class. So I’d use my textbook and my lecture notes from class. Making notes was never my thing, but in my final year, making notes was A THING. Everyone had notes, like every single person I knew! I remember the look of shock I’d get when I told someone I didn’t have notes. The next thing they’d ask was, “so how do you study?” I always found that question a little condescending. So after a while, I decided to start making notes. If everyone was making notes and most people wanted firsts, then they probably knew something I didn’t. I did this for three weeks and I realised that I was not about that life! I just couldn’t do it, I found it quite stressful and it was taking up so much time that I didn’t have. So I stopped making notes and went back to using my textbook; but I always had that decision at the back of mind because I knew so many people who were aiming for firsts, and they seemed to think making notes was a key factor to getting one. At the end of the day, with 0 notes, I still had a first. Am I saying you should stop making notes? Nope! What I’m saying is, there isn’t just one specific formula in manoeuvring this thing called life. That’s why we were all created differently. So if Charlie is studying a certain way and you’re not, this does not mean you won’t succeed. So learn quickly what works for you and how you learn and be confident enough to stick to it!
6) It’s not a competition! - Be willing to help your classmates- I think I need to say this louder for the people in the back. In law, people are very competitive! I am sure so many people can relate to this. It might actually even be a law thing. The TV shows aren’t lying, you see this kind of stuff in 'How To Get Away With Murder' and other legal shows. However, I believe that it is very important to help people when you can. So please be your sister's keeper on your law degree. While doing this might not contribute directly to getting you a first, I’m putting this here because I genuinely believe that being good to people is important and I believe there is a reward for this.
7) The God Factor- Finally, I think the most important thing I learnt during my University journey was to put God first. I cannot over-emphasize how important this is. While working hard is very important, it is only God that can crown those efforts with success. I remember always praying to God for strength and direction at every step of my University Degree. A University Degree can be physically and emotionally draining, so whether it's through your local church or friends and family that encourage you in your faith, a strong standing with God is important. Pray to Him, speak to Him. Ask Him to guide you in everything you do and He would guide you and strengthen you. When you're lost and confused let Him know. Delight in Him and He will give you all your heart desires! God and my faith definitely made all the difference for me.
I hope that was helpful! I would update this page if I remember any more tips!
Check out my blog for more posts like this.