these are great questions to ask. i already know this is going to be a long post so here's some headers to split the material up. it's great to see students taking ownership of their legal education. i've seen a lot of the discussion on LSD about these topics this year and last year. there's a lot of varied opinions so i guess adding mine in won't hurt.
LAW SCHOOL PREP COURSES.
i did not take any prep courses before coming to Hofstra. but i do know of several people that did. so this is also going to be a second-hand account.
1. they are cost prohibitive. i am ghetto poh so it really wasn't an option for me. i had to settle for buying used books on how to succeed in law school.
2. if it's a two-day course, i don't know how much help it will be. i know some courses offer a simulated class and you write class notes. however if you're a good note-taker and an active listener, i don't think that this course would help you a lot.
3. it may reduce your anxiety. since it's all new and different, it may be good to get a taste of law school. paying for peace of mind is always a good thing.
4. it may give you a jump start. the first couple weeks of school is getting used to taking notes and briefing cases. if you already know how to do that, then you can spend your time starting to prepare your outlines which you should definitely begin early.
bottom-line, i knew of 3 students that had taken law school prep courses. they followed the suggested regime exactly. i didn't find it helped them excel over others because it really comes down to how you take an exam...which most of these courses don't teach. you could be a mess all year, but if you're able to write a law school exam, you may find yourself at the top of the class.
PLANET LAW SCHOOL
i read this book but got it late in July before i started. so i really didn't have the time to prep the way that it suggests. there's a ton of discussion on this, and the big criticism is that they are going to teach it to you differently anyway once you get there, so might as well not learn it wrong. this criticism is a complete fallacy and for most of the people who read PSII, they can attest to that. also, although there is a fear of burnout, for committed students who treat law school like a full-time job, i don't see their love of learning being halted anytime soon.
that being said, Atticus hits the nail on the head when he emphasizes that all that counts are final exams (with the rare exception of profs who give out mid-terms that are worth 10-30% of your final fall grades). your first focus as a student should be doing well on your finals, and nothing else. of course in order to do well, you have to have a mastery of the substantive law, but a bigger part of it is learning how to play the game of law school exams.
i suggest you get Delaney's two books: learning legal reasoning and how to do your best on law school exams. they are easy to read, and it really took the fear out of the great unknown of first semester.
the other one i suggest is LEEWS. although i didn't take it my first year, i'm living with a 3L right now who is on law review and the board of the moot court association (yes, he's my hero). he swears by LEEWS and i plan on getting the tapes for the coming fall because i'm always looking to improve my test-taking skills.
PSII's advice isn't exactly on point at Hofstra. first, it's not as competitive as the book makes it out to be. second, if you get my first-year profs, many of their exams aren't conventional issue spotters. i had multiple-choice this year, an entire exam of short answers, and take homes. hence this is where learning how to play the game of law school is key.
you have to get past exams for professors. some have them online through the law library website. others circulate through the hands of upper-years...although they are very hard to get. what you can always do is ask your professor what format they are going to use and then use exams from other professors to prep. i don't suggest starting to work on them as early as PSII does, i think by end of October through November is fine.
also, PSII is right on about starting your outlines early (after the second week). it is great to have a good past outline from an upperclassmen as a reference. but making your own really does help you digest the law better. if you guys want, i can get a group together after the first week of school and we can go over how to do it. Hofstra offers seminars on how to outline, but they are held in late September and by then, you want to be in full-swing.
i did very informal ones, where a group of friends would get together and discuss cases and rules. i know of several friends who had formal ones that would meet once a week and go over the material. i found that it did help when preparing for exams to have study groups just so that you can test your memory of rules and in case you didn't understand a concept. but there are several people i know who did it solo...buried themselves in the library or their rooms, and did extremely well. here's my thoughts on study groups:
1. everyone needs to pull their own weight. of course there will be those that understand the subject matter better than others...and find themselves teaching the group. this is always a good thing b/c by teaching others, you are honing your knowledge even further. but if members are coming unprepared and are looking at the stuff for the first time, they are dead weight. sorry to sound cold and callous, but there are many people in law school who want to ride on others coattails. i suggest that you feel out your classmates first. get a sense of who you feel would fit personality wise. make it an odd number. and every two weeks, someone can nominate to oust a non-performing member from the group, and you take a vote. it seems harsh, but having that enforcement provides an incentive for everyone to contribute. and if the study group is good, everyone will want to continue its success.
2. they make you understand the law, but that doesn't necessary translate into doing well on exams. it's great to hash out the rules of law, and play with hypotheticals, but since law school exams are written and not oral, it would be better to practice writing out answers to problems and having each other evaluate it.
3. do them during finals. especially if you have past exams available. then you can all answer them and try to see what everyone else came up with...b/c most of them do not provide answer keys.
i have to go do some errands right now, so i apologize for cutting this message short. i'll definitely try and post later about commercial outlines and primers i found useful.
all the best,
p.s. you guys are making me embarassed with all the thank yous. it's my pleasure! i just hope you guys come up with anything else you would like to know and i'll try my best to answer.