Winning the Law School Mind Game

First things first. One of the most important pieces of advice I received during law school was: “first, win the mind game.” To do this: remember what you know, prioritize something that has nothing to do with law school, make a plan and stick to it, and limit talk of law school and exams.

Before law school, we were all successful students. If you had the grades and the LSAT score to get into law school, you know how to learn and you know how to test. Your academic talent made you exceptional in high school, undergrad, and elsewhere in life. But it does not make you special in law school, where you are surrounded by peers with equally stellar academic records.

“A”s are no longer guaranteed to bright students (which you no doubt are); they are reserved for the handful of students who perform best on law school exams (which you may or may not do). Winning the mental aspect of law school is hard, but it has a direct impact on your physical and mental health and thus on your academic performance. Are you winning?

Here are my top 4 tips for winning the law school mind game.

Preparing for law school exams? Read our other Exam Week posts:
Closed book law school exam preparation tips
How to succeed on open book law school exams
How to succeed on take-home law school exams
10 steps to writing a great law school final paper

1. Remember what you know

Law school is chock full of lore regarding success, much of it absurd and none of it surefire. Nonetheless, given the high stakes, otherwise bright and discriminating law students are loathe to disregard any tidbit of information and advice that might prove useful. My first piece of advice is to remember what you already know. How did you prepare for exams before law school? How did you study? What worked for you? And importantly, what did not work for you? Apply this knowledge to your legal studies. Filter law school wisdom through your own experience and knowledge. Exercise judgment and disregard bad advice.

2. Prioritize something that has nothing to do with law school

It is hard to abide by this, but the most successful and healthy law students I have known took this to heart. Think about how you remained balanced before law school. How did you deal (successfully) with stress in the past? Do that. Or do something else. Cook, run, golf, watch movies, play with your cat. It does not matter what you do, but it is essential that you do something other than law school. And make it a priority.

This is hardest, but most important, before and during finals. I recommend exercise of some sort—that law school stress has to go somewhere, and most people carry it in their bodies and end up sick or injured, either of which could ruin your ability to perform on exams.

3. Make a plan and stick to it

One of the worst parts of law school for me was never feeling like I could take a break. Enough was never enough, and this burned me out and ruined my free time. I learned to deal with this by making schedules. As finals approached, usually about six weeks out, I created a schedule of what I needed to accomplish each day in order to be prepared for finals. Each day I followed my schedule and when I met my goal, I stopped working. Because of my plan, I could set my work down and enjoy my breaks. Per #2, I prioritized non-law school activities by putting them on my calendar.

CAVEAT: To use this tool effectively, you need to be realistic and forgiving. That is, you must set realistic goals and you must forgive yourself if you do not meet your daily or weekly goals.

4. Limit talk of law school and exams

If you moved for law school, then odds are good that your closest friends are also law students. This is wonderful, on the one hand, because they know what you are going through and can truly empathize with your stress, frustration, exhaustion and panic. Therein lies the obvious downside: your friendship is anchored in shared law school experience. In my experience, one of the best things you can do to win the mind game is to avoid talk of law school and exams. Find something else to talk about with your friends.

As for your fellow law students with whom you are not close, avoid all talk of exams. If someone is sharing their stress with you, do not accept it. Some of my law school colleagues seemed to thrive on sharing their stress with others. They were draining, crazy-making, and toxic. Avoid those people. If you are one of them, then you are not winning the mind game. Take a deep breath and go back to #1.

Got more tips? Please weigh in. Got questions? Please ask.

Featured image: “Male hands writing task while examination” from Shutterstock.


  1. Avatar Huma says:

    Great tips, especially the one about prioritizing something non-law-school-related. For me, that was always writing. Now, as I’m wrapping up my first year and heading into summer (that looks like it will involve working at a property law firm, doing bikram yoga, and actually reading for FUN, superwin), I’ve already got two manuscripts that I’m pushing through the publication process. So while I’m working my way through the next two years, I can always point at that hobby and see something else that I did that I was really good at. Aside from a stress-reliever, it’s also just a good morale-booster to continue on with something else you’re good at that has nothing to do with law.

  2. Avatar Nena L. says:

    Great insight, Huma. And kudos.

    Not only does it sound like you’ve found a terrific way to keep perspective and maintain balance, you are also the kind of engaged and interesting person that would make a great colleague.

    Which brings me to a related point: Tip #2 is helpful for the job hunt, as well. In my experience, unless you are at the very top of your class, you need a way to court potential employers. If you’re creative, engaged, resourceful, confident, and (if possible) happy, that will go long way! More on this in future posts. This week is all about exams.

    Keep it up, Huma!

  3. Avatar Bar Advisor says:

    If you want to do well on exams, there is no substitute for attending class and paying attention. If you are one of those students who is constantly texting and browsing the internet on your laptop, don’t be surprised when you get low grades. If somehow you can goof off and still be at the top of the curve, then you are, without question, my intellectual superior.

    Also, share your class notes. You will need someone to return the favor some day.

    Try to treat law school like a job: At school by 8am, study hard, finish by 5pm, then socialize, read a non-law book etc. It will probably seem (and maybe is) impossible to accomplish this as a 1L, but you should be able to do this by 2L. Of course, if you add on a bunch of extra curricular activities or a job (I was guilty of this), you may be putting in some Saturday hours.

  4. Avatar Etan Ben-Ami says:

    As a therapist, the best advice I can give anyone in law school is to maintain a regular sleep pattern and avoid late night cramming. Sleep helps you process information and form permanent memories. Irregular or inadequate sleep increases emotional ups and downs, which interfere with performance.

    — Etan Ben-Ami, LCSW

  5. Avatar lynn says:

    Can you give an example of your schedule (tip 3) and how you set it up? How much down time did you include in your day?
    Thank you.

  6. Avatar Vera Golosker says:

    Thank you for the advice! Something that has worked for me this year has been to consciously eliminate stress. I am a finishing up my first year at UC Hastings College of the Law and I think stress can waste precious time. I try to either be working in a calm, focused manner or fully relaxing and enjoying my time away from studying. I used to feel obligated to stress if I took any time off, but now I realize how balance positively affects my education. I feel so much more ready to tackle the books after a decent break and that hour off at the end of the night never tasted sweeter than after a challenging, productive day of studying. If I feel stressed anyway, I take that as indication that I should sit down and do some more work, or at least plan out what I need to accomplish later.

    I also try to consciously avoid being too result oriented. In law school, there is always more you can study and you are never truly “done” with work. If you put all feelings of accomplishment and self worth on one test day (or one oral argument, job opportunity, etc.) the result will be anxiety and, eventually, an overwhelming feeling of disproportionate defeat. Therefore, you must connect with your own feeling of accomplishment for putting in effort. I try to appreciate getting up in the morning for the consistent intellectual challenge that can take law school from bearable to actually enjoyable!

    • Vera Golosker, J.D. Candidate 2012, UC Hastings College of the Law
  7. Avatar Vera Golosker says:

    Just wanted to add that this change away being very result oriented has ironically been a positive influence on my results in school and of course, on my emotional stability which I think can allow a student to better handle academic rigor. Yoga helps tremendously too! :)
    – Vera

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