Nick Dowse's six tips for doing well at law school

[Prologue: as i was cleaning out my computer recently (November 2015), I found this post that I made in 2011 but never uploaded to the website... my bad. Uploading it now for posterity’s sake. Would be interested in your thoughts.]

Recently [sic] I was one panellist of five at QUOTALS’s [now defunct?!?!?!?!] “The Panel” event. It was an opportunity for students to speak with and ask questions of people who’ve successfully made it through law school and who had begun their careers.

I got to thinking about how that opportunity had not been available to me when I went through law school and I thought I would try to compile a list of tips for doing well at law school.

Tip 1: Be committed to the study of law

I saw a lot of people drop out of law school or do extremely badly simply because they were not committed to studying law. In some cases they were simply not committed to studying per se.

What I wish someone had told me at the outset is that law school is not easy. An appreciation of that fact before you get too far in is critical.

Other degrees are easier than a Bachelor of Laws. If you want to do well at law school, you’ll probably have to wind back on the uni bar booze sessions and weekend escapades a bit.

Law school requires something more than a cursory application of intellectual effort. If you cannot commit to something more than that, you will probably not do too well at law school.

That means attending lectures, participating in tutorials and actually spending time studying.

Tip 2: Make friends

When I first started my law degree, I was very shy and did not have any friends. I didn’t make my first real friend until maybe my second year. I realise now that I should have made more of an effort to make friends in my first year. It is so important to be able to talk to friends about law school assessment and issues. I did poorly in my first few assignments because I didn’t talk to other people about what they thought the issues were in the assignment question.

I think it’s very important to have some friends, or study buddies, to bounce ideas off for assessment and to share the trials and tribulations of law school.

The friends I made in law school are my best friends in the world. Make friends early on.

Tip 3: Try hard right from the start

This links in with tip 1.

No one told me how important a good GPA was to a career in the law. There are many people that will say that your GPA is not everything, and that’s true. But it’s a bloody good starting point.

And the trick to having a good GPA is to try hard right from the start. I don’t know much about maths, but it seems to me that if you start off with good marks its easy to maintain a good GPA. You will do yourself a big favour if you start off your GPA with 6s and 7s.

The question is, then, what do I need to do to try hard? Read on...

Tip 4: Don’t study hard, study smart

At first blush, this tip seems to conflict with tip 3. But it doesn’t.

What someone did not make clear to me during my studies was that there is a big difference between studying hard and studying smart. It is one thing to read every case cover to cover for every subject and have a superb understanding of the subtleties in each of the judgments. It is quite another to look only at the headnote of a case, an analysis of it in a textbook and a summary of pertinent points someone has written in their notes.

In my experience, I could do as well on an exam as a person who had read the case cover to cover even though I had not done so myself.

To that end, I recommend you start with what someone has done before you.

I do not see any need to reinvent the wheel when you study. If someone before you has been generous enough to give you their notes, my view is that you would be crazy not to utilise them. There is simply not enough time available to you to literally start notes from scratch and read every case and every textbook and every article each semester. For that reason, I suggest that you start with someone else’s notes for the subject.

“Starting with” someone else’s notes is not the same thing as printing them out and relying solely on them to answer exam questions. That’s not studying smart; that’s just stupid - refer to tip 1. Starting with someone else’s notes still requires you to try hard and study smart. So, what then does “starting with” mean?

Tip 5: Update and consolidate

If you’ve followed tips 1-4 you should have available to you by the end of the semester at least the following:
  • lecture slides
  • notes taken from the lecture
  • study guide
  • textbook
  • tutorial questions and answers
  • someone else’s previous notes

To best prepare for your exam, you need to take the above information and update then consolidate it.

This is the process I followed:
  1. Topic by topic, read through the lecture slides and the notes taken from the lecture
  2. Have the previous notes with you during this process and make sure the same information is in the notes. If not, add the relevant information to the notes in the appropriate spot. Support the information from the lecture with info from the study guide, textbook and tutorial answers
  3. Check that the topics mentioned for the topic in the study guide were in the lecture and are consequently in the notes. Update the notes where necessary.
  4. For each topic, look through the information in the notes and make sure you understand it. This is the most time consuming part - you actually need to understand what the information is. This may involve reading the relevant section of the textbook, or actually reading the section of the statute or the relevant passage of the case.
  5. Find the tutorial question(s) that applies that particular topic and see how the answer should go
  6. Make sure the notes answer the question in the same way - ie the flow of information in the notes matches the way the tutor answered the question. If they don’t, change them around so that the information appears in the same way the tutorial question was answered.
  7. Rinse and repeat for each topic in the subject.
  8. By now, you should have an updated set of notes.
  9. Go through each of the tutorial questions and answer them using only the notes. No need to write full sentences, just do dot points.
  10. Cross check your answers based solely on the notes with the actual tutorial answer. They should be roughly the same. If not, adjust the notes so that they are.

Following this process should allow you to update an existing set of notes. In the process, you will also consolidate the information from the lectures, tutorials, textbooks and study guide into the notes so that they can be your sole point of reference in the exam.

Tip 6: Learn how to answer exam questions

The correct way to answer exam questions is a skill that you can, and must, learn. It’s like riding a bike: it’s not something you know how to do naturally, but once you pick it up, you’ll always remember.

The essential starting point is to adhere to one of the numerous acronyms that guide you through an answer. ISAAC, IRAC etc etc.

Practice is key. Take the opportunity to do as many practice exam questions as possible. Run your answers past your tutor to make sure you got the right end of the stick (sometimes subjects even make the suggested answers available).

In exams, I never write in full sentences, and I never waste time writing out full citations. Just write enough detail for the examiner to know you know what you’re talking about and the shorthand version of the case authority (no year and citation etc, just party names).

Some well-reasoned thoughts on marks

I was reading a blog post this morning on an entirely different topic, which, incidentally, is also something I’m very interested in. But I came across this passage in the blog post which really resonated with me and I’d like to share it with you:

Do good marks necessarily mean that you’re smart? I don’t think that they do. Sometimes it just means that you’re good at picking what the teacher or lecturer wants to hear. Sometimes I’ve had very smart kids in my classes who haven’t done so well for one reason or another (they mucked up the timing in the exam, they got the wrong end of the stick in a question, they misread something, they picked a bad essay question). Intelligence is not merely a matter of doing well in exams; there are all kinds of intelligence out there.

This is 100% correct: getting good marks at university is all about picking what the lecturer wants to hear. Lecturers lose sleep over the fact that they’ve shown their students a concept and no one seems to get it. You will impress the examiner so much if you can just show them what they want: in the exam, repeat to them the concept they so desperately want you to “get” and apply it to the current situation. That’s how you can get 7s. I have already touched on this concept previously in my FAQs blog post here.

But some people just aren’t good at exams. I have known many of these types of people throughout my time at university. The trick is how to avoid stuffing up your timing in the exam, reading and rereading a question until you understand its intricacies, not misreading something, realising that essay questions are just too hard to do; take your chances with the problem questions!

At the end of the day, the author of the above passage is spot on. Good marks at university are not an indicator of your intelligence. I’m positive that most employers want to see that you will be a valuable member of their team, not just a freak who happened to excel at university. That said, good marks go a long way to getting your foot in the door, so it is important to try as hard as you can at university.

Quoted blog post available here:

Chinese version of site

I have launched a Chinese version of my site at:

All the notes, of course, are still in English.


I have finished my law degree at the end of 2010. I therefore won’t be adding any new notes.

Screen shot 2010-11-27 at 11.28.14 AM

Although I’m now finished, I’m always happy to answer any questions you have (but please be reasonable)... just Contact Me and I’ll try to get back to you.

All the best with your studies - may you all receive 7s.


Semester 2 2010 - Download Statistics

As has now become habitual, I thought I’d post some download statistics for the semester just gone: Semester 2, 2010.

The semester dates were 12 July 2010 - 13 November 2010. I have calculated the following statistics based on that timeframe.

My notes were downloaded 18,554 times during the semester.

I had 11,752 visits to the site during semester, from 6,256 unique visitors. Analytics report here.

























































Notes from Sem 2, 2010 Added

I have added my LWB433 Professional Responsibility notes to the Law Notes page.

Semester 1 2010 - Download Statistics

As usual, I thought I’d post some download statistics for the semester just gone: Semester 1, 2010.

The semester dates were 22 February 2010 - 22 June 2010. I have calculated the following statistics based on that timeframe.

My notes were downloaded 13,005 times during the semester. That is EPIC.

I had 9,687 visits to the site during semester, from 4,869 unique visitors. Analytics report here.

That seems like a lot of people to me... I’m positive there aren’t that many law students at QUT....

Download Count
Grand Total

Just remember, the examiners are going to know if you are using someone else’s notes if you just copy them out verbatim (which wouldn’t get you a very good mark in any event). Remember to update. Remember to apply your notes in a way that shows the examiner you know what you’re talking about.

Best of luck for your studies!


Notes from Sem 1 2010 Added

I have added my notes for the following subjects from Semester 1, 2010:

  • Evidence (LWB432)
  • Civil Procedure (LWB431)
  • Commercial and Consumer Law (LWB459)

All the best!

Some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

I get quite a few emails from you lovely people that visit this website. I thought that, to save myself the ongoing agony, I’d prepare a short FAQ in the hope that someone will read it before sending an email.

What marks did you get?
None of your business Happy. I’m a very humble person and I don’t like to gloat. But I can tell you one thing for sure, I hope you all get 7s.

What is your GPA?
Once again, none of your business Happy. I’m a very humble person and I don’t like to gloat. But I can tell you one thing for sure, I hope your GPA is 7 (yes that means you get a 7 for every single subject for your entire degree). NOTE: my GPA is definitely not 7, far from!

Do you have any tips for, like, doing well in exams?
Not really. My main tip would be to find out what the examiner wants. What are they looking for. I usually go and see the unit co-ordinator and say quite frankly to them “what do you want to see from me in my exam paper?” They’re usually more than happy to tell you. Make use of your tutor; tell them you want a 7 and what are they really looking for in your exam answers. Make links between topics in the subject. Don’t arrange your notes into “week” order. Put them into “thought process” order. My brain works best by following steps, flows: step 1, do this, step 2, do this. To get a 7 in a subject, the criteria is that you show:
“evidence of an exceptional level of achievement of unit learning outcomes, such as: thorough and well reasoned critical analysis and evaluation of concepts, theories and practice from the field of study, creative and insightful application of well integrated theoretical and practical knowledge to professional contexts.”

So you need to be able to MAKE LINKS between different weeks, and not treat the topics as distinct and separate, unless of course they totally are. And write like a lawyer. Make the examiner think you know what the hell you’re talking about. Don’t just blurt everything you have down onto the page. A lawyer’s tools are his/her words. On that point, make sure you’re able to spell words properly. Seriously.

Do you have notes for [insert random subject]?
Does it look like I have notes for [insert random subject]? If I have them, they’re on the website. Sheesh!

Why do you put your notes online?
I don’t really know. For some reason, I have always been willing to share my notes. My mantra has always been “sharing is caring.” As I once explained to one of my friends, “I don’t care what everyone else gets, as long as I get a 7.” That’s my thing. That’s why I put my notes online.

What is a kneecaps document?
One of the things me and my friends find helpful to use when studying is to have a tabular document that is basically a hint sheet that says “if you see these kinds of facts in a question, talk about A, B and C.” We first used one of these documents most extensively in the 2nd-year subject Equity. One of the “look for this in the facts” things was something along the lines of... “If you leave this house I’ll break your kneecaps” (which, for your information, meant that we were supposed to talk about ‘Undue Influence’ in having the contract set aside in equity). We didn’t really have a short name for documents of this type. The next time we went to create one, it was colloquially referred to as “that kneecaps document” and this has stuck since. For subjects where the kneecaps document has proved actually helpful, I’ve always included it in the documents I have uploaded on this site.

When do you graduate?
The end of 2010. I have a graduate job at Blake Dawson, and I’ll be starting there in 2011.

How come there are less and less subject notes towards the later years of your degree?
I did lots of other stuff at uni in my final years... I did work experience subjects and worked overseas and stuff. So naturally there are no notes. Sorry!

Have you ever spilt coffee/tea all over your notes and computer about 2 hours before you’re meant to sit the exam?
Funny you ask. Yes I have. It sucks! Here’s what it looked like (I had already taken away my notes and tried to dry them using a hairdryer (not mine, I swear)). Also, I know my mug says “Nicholas the greatest” - it was a present. I’m not that much of a loser.
This was a couple of hours before my LWB431 Civil Procedure exam in 2010. My printed exam notes were partially destroyed (but still useable in their crispy, brittle state) but my computer’s keyboard was totally ruined! Sad

Semester 2, 2009 - Download Statistics

I thought I’d continue the trend of posting some statistics about the site. Like last time, I was completely overwhelmed at the interest in notes on the site. I received many “thank you” emails throughout the semester and even a few after the end of exams.

Without further ado, here are the statistics for Semester 2, 2009 (calculated from 20/07/2009 - 14/11/2009):




Notes from Sem 2 2009 Added

I have added some notes from Semester 2, 2009.

These include:
LWB334 Corporate Law
LWB486 Intellectual Property Law
LWB484 Electronic Commerce and Technology Contracts

New Notes Added

I have just added Commercial and Personal Property Law (LWB332), Administrative Law (LWB335) and Internet Law (LWB482) notes to the Law Notes page.

Please note: Commercial and Personal Property Law (LWB332) has been canned, and is now subsumed into Property Law A and Property Law B. Administrative Law LWB335 used to be Administrative Law LWB331. Its content is the same, except that it now covers Freedom of Information, the Ombudsman and Crown Immunity from Statute. Read More...

Statistics for Semester 1, 2009

To say that I was totally overwhelmed by the interest in this site since I set it up in January 2009 would be an understatement.

Now, I don’t really have any basis for comparison because none of the other sites offering notes on the interwebs allows you to see statistics for what was downloaded. So I thought it would be cool to give you an idea of what went on behinds the scenes here in semester 1, 2009, and more specifically, during swotvac and exam block...

Since the site launched, there have been at least 1515 unique visitors to the site. To date, 541 of those have occurred in June alone. There have been in excess of 3000 visits in total.... WTF!

But that’s just unique visitors, here are the statistics for each set of notes that was downloaded:

















My Law Notes Now Available

My exam notes that I have used are now available at:

The ones early on in my degree are obviously quite crap, but the 2008 ones are, generally, much better.

Enjoy! Sharing is caring Happy