One of the most challenging parts of law school - particularly in the early years - is getting a low mark for or failing a law assessment. I know. I failed my first Torts exam. And like most other law students, I was horrified and embarrassed as I had never failed an academic task before. I got down on myself and wondered - What had I done wrong? Was I smart enough to be at law school? Would I ever work out how to do well?
The big mistake I made (and which almost every law student makes whether they do well at law school or not) was to think that my grade reflected my intelligence and my ability to study law. It didn't. Instead, what this mark indicated was that I still had work to do to get on top of the subject matter, and learn how to structure my study notes and answer law hypotheticals in exams.
In other words, I needed to work on my skills at studying law - not my intelligence. Very few students fail a law assessment because they are not suited to studying at law school. Almost all of us fail because there is some skill or technique involved in studying, learning the law or answering problem questions that we haven't yet mastered.
The key to dealing with this situation - indeed the only thing that will make a difference - is to get the right feedback on where you have gone wrong, and how to improve your technique for writing law answers. No amount of negative thinking, procrastinating or complaining to your friends about your mark will help you do better next time.
Unless it is clear to you exactly what you did wrong (and how to improve), the first thing to do is to make a time to talk to your lecturer or tutor and get more feedback. While the reason for your low mark may be obvious (for example you didn’t complete all the questions in an exam), the written feedback on your paper is unlikely to contain the detail you need to really understand what to do differently next time.
Generally speaking, lecturers are happy to meet with students to discuss a poor mark or fail. If your poor performance was due to something beyond your control (such as illness, the death or illness of a family member, an accident, trauma or other significant event) that affected your ability to study or complete your assessment, you may be eligible for supplementary assessment or a review of your mark. Don't delay in discussing this with your lecturer or student advisor however as there are usually strict time limits on when you can lodge such an application.
If you don't feel you get enough feedback in this meeting on what you need to improve when answering law questions, don't stop there. Reach out to a law tutor or the academic skills and learning centre at your university. The sooner you work out what legal skills and techniques you need to you improve - the better you will feel and the sooner you will see a change in your marks.
You can also reach out to us at Law School Success. We are committed to helping law students improve their marks by identifying where you fell down in assessment and what you can do differently in the future. And this sort of feedback really works. As one past student commented:
(Law School Success) addressed what law school doesn't teach you that you should know and master as a law student. For writing great essays, (Kath) outlined what markers are looking for, the factors that academics take into account when designing exams and importantly, the technique for giving your markers precisely what they seek. Structure, format, and argument are the three components of the technique. I liked what Kath mentioned about how you won't have to work as hard in law school once you've mastered the technique. I can't recommend her session highly enough.
Another student who had failed an exam wrote:
After receiving a horrendous mark for an exam, I was on the verge of dropping out of law school. Kath's name was mentioned to me by a friend and after my first chat with her, I knew that she'd be pivotal in turning my marks around and learning the techniques to succeed in law school. She assured me that I wasn't too stupid for law school, as I had been telling myself, but that I just needed to learn the techniques and strategies to succeed. She was right. She helped me review an upcoming essay that would have received a Pass mark and helped me turn it into a Distinction! It was the first time that I felt I could actually do this law school thing!
So please, if you think we can help - reach out.