Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Last-Minute Case Prep is Self-Defeating

cautionPulling an all-nighter might work for law school finals, but it’s a terrible idea for last-minute case preparation.

You’ll be more likely to give bad advice, make mistakes and be sued for malpractice. Your ability to distinguish right from wrong will be impaired. And you will be a general pain to be around.

Of course, you probably already know that, either from personal experience or by observing others. But you might not know exactly why burning the midnight oil is usually counterproductive. Now scientists who study the brain are providing answers.

“The findings suggest that continuous wakefulness has a particularly debilitating effect on judgment and decision making,” says psychologist Scott Killgore, who studied sleep deprivation and emotional intelligence at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. “[S]leep loss is particularly disruptive to the ventromedial prefrontal regions of the brain, which are important for the integration of affect and cognition in the service of judgment and decision making.”

The key words above are “affect” and “cognition.” Staying up all night might give you extra time for more research or to add another tab to your trial notebook. But it comes at a cost: the next day you will be mentally fatigued, emotionally detached and – even worse – you will have only a superficial grasp of your material.

“Cramming is one of the least effective ways to learn,” says this source. “Research has found that many students cannot recall much information after a cram session. They have trained their mind to recite the material without developing a deeper understanding. [I]t doesn’t create lasting neural connections to the material or develop deep comprehension.”

5 Ways to Avoid Eleventh-Hour Panic

The best way to prepare for an upcoming trial, deposition or important meeting is through what experts call “spaced learning.” Review the information over a long period of time – absorbing it, rather than cramming – with plenty of recuperative sleep in between.

“Spaced learning is much more effective for short-term recall and long-term retention,” says this education website. “This gives their minds time to form connections between the ideas and concepts. This knowledge can be built upon and easily recalled later.”

Here are five tips to avoid last-second work scrambles:

  1. Take notes. The mere act of writing – or keyboarding – is an aid to comprehension. Muscle movement helps imprint the material on the brain.
  2. Avoid marathon slogs. Keep prep sessions short. Schedule power blocks of 20 to 30 minutes, then get up and walk around. Turn to another topic or session when you resume. This will improve concentration and recall.
  3. Understand how your brain works. “When you sleep, a part of your brain called the hippocampus replays what you’ve learned while you were awake,” says this article. “This helps you encode those things you’ve learned into your long-term memory. No sleep, no long-term memory of those lessons.”
  4. Stay in rhythm. Our bodies have a circadian clock that responds to cues such as light, food and sound. When our clocks are thrown off, we function poorly.
  5. Call it a day. Sometimes the best plan is to hit the sack. “Let’s say you’re staying up really late working on a problem set that you just can’t crack,” according to this piece in BuzzFeed. “The smart thing would be to go to bed now and try again in the morning. During REM sleep, your brain integrates new memories with other memories you’ve previously learned. This can often result in insight.”


How do you avoid cramming at the last minute?



Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. During the course of his 35- year career, he has been a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, legal editor, Legal Aid staff attorney and insurance risk manager. Today he helps lawyers and firms succeed through marketing, work-life balance and reclaiming passion for what they do. He is available for consultations, retreats and presentations ( Contact or 919-619-2441 to learn how Jay can help your practice.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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