Surviving the GDL: Interview with Ben Zelenka Martin

Each year, the 3 Verulam Buildings prize is awarded to the City GDL student who achieves the best overall marks on the GDL course at City. The winner from the 2014/2015 academic year was Ben Zelenka Martin, who came to the GDL having completed a BA in PPE and a BPhil in Philosophy, both at Oxford. Raphael Attar, who started the GDL this September,  sat down with Ben to talk about the study techniques he employed in his GDL year, and what advice he could offer to those just starting out on the course.

Raph’s Disclaimer: owing to a technical snafu, my recording of our conversation is lost in the aether. What follows is my paraphrase of Ben’s words, though Ben has kindly approved my recreation of his advice.

Raphael Attar

Raphael Attar

As a newcomer to the GDL I’m finding the size of the reading list we’re given each week a little daunting. How did you tackle the sheer volume of reading that’s set on the course?

Don’t do it, to be frank! It just isn’t possible to read it all – in Tort you might be given sixty cases to read in a single week. Read the assigned chapter in your textbooks each week, that’s all you need to do at first. As you get closer to the exams you can expand your reading in those areas you’re looking at answering exam questions in. Certainly when you come to write your research paper you will want to go back and dig into the reading on that topic.

You mentioned reading around the areas we’re looking at answering exam questions in, should we be going into exams knowing what questions we’re going to answer? How will we know what to expect on the exam?

You absolutely need to focus your revision on specific topics, you can’t prepare for every topic in sufficient depth. There will typically be ten questions on the exam, of which you have to answer four – as a rule of thumb it’s a good idea to prepare six topics in depth. Some subjects are more predictable than others, but you can pretty much tell from the syllabus what topics the exam questions are going to cover. In some subjects there are central topics that you will have to know, no matter what questions you answer – offer and acceptance in Contract is a good example. Some subjects are also more interrelated than others, in Land for example it’s not really possible to separate out the topics and just learn some.

What was your approach to note-taking in lectures?

The key thing to take away from a lecture is the cases. Everything you write in the exam has to be grounded in a case. I was struck when looking at example distinction-level exam answers [available on Moodle] by the density of citation – at the end of virtually every statement of principle there would be a case. When taking notes, I was aiming for something like David Herling’s lectures – a list of cases listing the facts, ratio, and any obiter comment. Don’t neglect the facts! I discovered partway through the course that some problem questions will be based on a slight tweak to the facts of the case – “what would have happened if this circumstance had been different?” – and it’s a lot easier to answer those questions well if you have a good grasp of the facts as they actually occurred. I wouldn’t worry much about writing down the broad principles or historical evolution, those should arise from the cases themselves.

That brings me nicely to my next question – did you have any particular techniques you used to memorise this vast quantity of cases?

Yes, so working from this long list of cases I then put them all onto flashcards – the name on one side and the principle on the other. I’d use these to practice recalling the name from the principle and vice versa. As I got towards crunch time, for each topic I had a sheet of A4 on which I wrote down just the sub-topics and a list of cases beneath each. From these I would mentally sketch out a full set of notes – the facts and principles of each case and how they informed one another.

On top of the course itself there’s a lot of push towards doing extra-curricular work and it can be hard to work out how much to take on without jeopardising your study. How much did you do and how did it affect your academic work?

I worked with Vocalise [Ben is now involved in running the scheme], with mooting at City and at Gray’s, I entered an essay competition that I didn’t get very far in and I did a lot of mini-pupillages as well, so quite a lot. You absolutely do have to do that stuff. How did I manage my time? You find a way. Firstly it just requires a lot of hours, longer days than you will probably be used to working. You also need to get used to working in situations that might seem difficult or unusual – I spent an hour each way on the tube every day and I used that time for reading.

You really need to be both organised and strict with your time. On Sunday you should know how you will be apportioning your time for the week. Knowing that in advance will avoid you having any dead time – you can’t afford that this year. Whether it’s preparing for a moot or for tutorials, you need to set yourself deadlines and really keep to them. My rule was to spend a maximum of five hours preparing for a tutorial. Spread across four tutorials a week, that makes twenty hours. When you factor in the time actually spent in the tutorials, then fourteen hours of lectures, mooting, and whatever else you have on, that makes for a busy week. If you hit that five hour mark and you haven’t finished you need to be strict; stop and move on to the next thing. It isn’t worth it to jeopardise one subject at the expense of another. It’s better to learn 80% of all your subjects than to learn 100% of five of them and nothing in the others. If you know 80%, catching up on the remaining 20% isn’t impossible.

I have heard from some people that a pass at GDL is all that really matters in terms of career prospects and thus there’s not a great deal to be gained from going for a Distinction. What’s your take on that?

I don’t think that there’s a general rule that can be applied across the board, to some extent it depends on the area you want to go into. Certainly in commercial law there is a focus on academics first and foremost. If you look at the barristers taken on by the top sets in recent years, they do tend to have distinctions and I don’t think that’s an accident. I can’t really speak to other areas as I don’t have that experience.

Lastly, do you have any other advice you would give to those of us just starting out on the GDL?

Textbooks – I found I really didn’t get on with some of the ones I was given by City. If you’re finding them hard to read or digest you should absolutely shop around – by that I mean go to the library and read some alternatives, ask your lecturers or tutors for recommendations, find one that works for you.

I would also say not to undervalue the written assignments. There’s a tendency for a lot of people to think of them as not worth much of their time as they don’t contribute to your final mark, but there are really not many opportunities to get feedback on your legal essay writing across the year so you should make the most of them.

Lastly, it may sound a little trite, but you will need to depend on each other. You’ll miss lectures doing mini-pupillages and need to catch up on notes. You may be reading different textbooks and come across different cases you need to know. Sharing that knowledge and helping each other learn is incredibly valuable. I think it could be a really good idea to set up a shared Dropbox with other people on the course to share notes.

Many thanks, Ben.

Thanks to Raphael Attar for putting together these great questions and encouraging Ben to pass on his tips for success. You’ll be seeing more pieces from Raphael and the other Lawbore student writers in the coming months.

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