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How to take notes as a law student

How to take notes as a law student

I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say:

Taking notes as a law student, where professors lecture in lightning speed, but they still take hours to finish the subject, is stressful and annoying.

Or, is it?

Well, it turns out that taking the perfect notes that will help you during the exam time may not be as consumptive as you’d have thought. All you have to do is pick a great note taking system, which fits you and stick with it.

In this article, I’m going to show you exactly how you can improve, what methods you should try and what mistakes to avoid.

If you want to know more, all you have to do is read on…

So I’ve tried to make this list as easy to navigate as possible.

Simply click one of the links below and as if by magic, you’ll be transported to the section of your choice:

I. Why taking notes is essential for your success in law school?

Depending on how well you organize, there are a few reasons for taking notes during class. Not everyone processes information the same way, so it is crucial for students to develop systems and strategies that serve the best for them.

Using a trial and error approach can help any student fine tune what type of structure and organization works best for them, but there are few general basics.

  • By taking notes, you will fill the gaps in your knowledge. Even if you are on top of your reading, your notes will be dot-point reminders of what you need to go back and reread when the class is over.
    This way your knowledge will consolidate and clarify any issues that you may have, plus you will use the repetition principle.
  • If you are behind your reading, taking notes will do the minimum required. This way you will record any cases or cases that the lecturer focused on so that you can add these to the top of your reading list. As an ultimate solution, if you are running out of time, at least you can do is reread and understand the leading cases and concepts from your notes.
  • Your class notes will be useful in understanding how your professor thinks about the law. Learning your teacher's style and preferences can be a powerful weapon in exams, especially in oral exams where you have the opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge, your presentation/speaking skills, as well as your ability to communicate.

II. What should you include in your law school class notes?

law school class notes

The undergrad approach to note-taking - students write down what the professor is saying without actually processing what is going in class - won't do you any good in law school.

As a law student, you need to understand that effective note-taking is a cyclical process.

Your case briefs are your foundation for the class notes. By creating them, you are setting up notes that you can rely upon in class.

During class, you should take additional notes about what happens in it, and I do not mean jokes or gossips that your colleges tell or who made fun of himself by giving an appropriate answer!

Many law students stop taking notes at this point, but there is a third step to creating the perfect notes.

After your finish your classes, you should spend a little time reviewing your notes, elaborating upon things you did not have enough time to jot down during class and correct any errors in your records.

Also, don't forget your case briefs, review them and clarify what you did not understand in the first place.

By completing this review of your class notes as soon as possible after the class has ended, when you still have all the information fresh in your memory, your notes will be bullet-proof.

With all these things said, there are five critical things that you should include in your class notes:

1. Black-letter law: Whenever you stumble upon a clear statement of law, you need to write it in your notes. Do not be fulled by the Socratic method and think that everything is up for debate, cause it is not the case!

In every law system, there are rules, and it is crucial that you know what they are when it is time for an exam.

2. Areas of ambiguity: Law is rarely straightforward, that is why you should take shelter in the areas of uncertainty. You might find a traditional rule and a modern practice, that they lead to different outcomes, and you do not know which one to take for granted.

In this case, write them both down, with a big note that says AMBIGUITY, and try to clarify it with your professor.

3. Notes on how to apply the law: You have made progress throughout black-letter law and areas of ambiguity, but it is not over yet. Implementing the law to a particular factual scenario is essential, be sure to write it down.

Whenever your professor starts his crazy hypos, try to capture them, they are designed to prepare you how to deal with the vagueness, and it is an important skillset for exam time and in your legal career.

4. Policy arguments: It is always useful to know what policy considerations drove the rule to change.

Here, in Europe, in the first year of law school, we study Roman Law, for most of us, it seemed antique. After we had dived into it, we changed our minds and loved it, as it can still be applied today, and it is a great foundation to build on your civil law knowledge.

Questions like, why did the rule evolve, and if not, why not, are clarified.

Having a sharp list of the policies behind each version of the law will prove priceless during any exam when you can get extra points by explaining the pros and con of affirming a particular version of the legal rule at issue.

5. Your professor's quirks: Finally, but not least, it is useful to make a note of your teacher's particular areas of interest.

If you find certain topics or phrases that come up every class, note them down, even if you consider them as silly or off-topic. There's a good chance they will show up on the exam, one way or another.

III. A three-step approach to your note-taking

three-step approach to your note-taking

As you get concerned with the complexities of note taking, you may forget the simple things that can make life a lot easier. Four directives can summarize them:

ALERT - so you are knowledgeable of and prepared for the class content and situation.

ORDERLY - so you can process the information in class now and for review later.

SYSTEMATIC - so you can build a habit and pattern, so you will not miss anything important.

UP TO DATE - so that your well-designed note taking system gets done.

Step 1 - Before the Lecture

As already sad, before each class, you should read the assigned case brief, at least twice, to get an accurate perception of them.

Never start your reading with your highlighter in your hand, that is a big no-no, rather, read the case as a short story.

This will facilitate you to get a broad idea of the situation and help to generate a more focused second reading.

Throughout the second reading, feel free to highlight, but I would advise you to take notes instead, as you will be much more focused now that you have a general sense of the case.

Plus, highlighting is not helping you remember, and notes will always do a better job than a highlighted sentences.

Following your reading of the case, actively review each case brief before class by asking yourself:

  • Why did the Court focus on particular evidence in reaching their decision? Where does fact persuasive or non-persuasive?
  • Did the Court ignore the other facts? Moreover, if so, why?
  • If the circumstances were changed, would the result be the similarly?
  • By doing this and reviewing each case, you will better understand the lecture, feeling more comfortable when called on.

Step 2 - During the Lecture

While listening, try to work each brief along with the professor's lecture actively.

Carry extra pens and pencils for editing and unforeseen obstacles (UFO's).

Don't doodle because it distracts. Keep eye contact when not writing.

Take notes on your professor's lecture style, if he utilizes hypotheticals if he provides you with the law and the relevant, rational approach to applying the law, and if he includes black-letter law, public policy or both.

Getting familiar with the professor's style will have a significant impact on your exam success and will keep you on track with your learning.

Step 3 - After the Lecture

Academic skills centers and other authorities on effective study skills consider reviewing and editing class notes to be the most important part of note taking and essential to increasing learning capacity.

With the information fresh in mind, right after the class, review and supplement your notes and case briefs and fill all the holes that you might find.

Were you confused during the lecture? Not a problem, write down your questions and ask your professor during office hours.

Additionally, the important thing is that if you find any disagreement between what you believed was important/unimportant and what your teacher considered was important/unimportant, figure out where your interpretation is incorrect.

IV. Note taking systems

As you might know, there are plenty of ways to take your notes, but not all of them will offer you the benefits that you need. Find one that suits you best and don't let it go.

1. The Cornell Method

This method implements a systematic format for summarizing and organizing notes without laborious recopying.

After you finish recording the notes in the main space, use the left-hand space to label each concept and detail with a keyword or "cue."

You can buy a notebook, like FocusNotes or Cornell Notebook, that are already made for this system, or you can rule your paper with a 2 1/2 inch margin on the left giving a six-inch area on the right in which to make notes.

While in class, place any information in the central area. If during the class, the professor moves to a new point, skip a few lines.

In your spare time, finish phrases and sentences as much as possible.

For every significant bit of data, write a cue in the left margin.

To review, cover your notes with a card, leaving the signals exposed. State the cue out loud, then say as complete as you can the material underneath the card. When you finish, remove the card and see if what you told matches what is written.

If you can say it, you understand it!

Benefits

This method is well planned and systematic for writing and reviewing notes. A simple format for pulling out major theory and ideas. It is straightforward and efficient, and it saves time and effort.

This is the method that I recommend for every law student because it is the "do-it-right-in-the-first-place" system.

Limitations

None

When to use

Used as often as possible in any lecture situation.

2. The outlining method

The outlining method

Dash or indented marking is, in general, a good way to take notes, this way the idea that is the most general begins at the left and with each more certain group of facts organized with spaces to the right, and the relationship between the different parts is carried out through indenting.

While listening to your professor, try and write in point, in an organized pattern based on space indentation, by placing the major points farthest to the left and the most specific ones to the right.

You can also use Roman numerals or decimals to mark and label the indentation, but it is not necessary as the space relationship will indicate the major/minor points.

Benefits

This system will keep you well-organized if done right, it also reduces editing and it is an easy way to review by turning main points into questions.

Limitations

The outlining system requires more thought in class for a healthy organization.

Moreover, as we all know, the law does not show us relationships by sequence when needed. Besides, this method cannot be used if the lecture is too fast.

When to use

The skeleton format can be utilized if the speech is given in outline organization, being either deductive or inductive (where the draft is reversed with the minor points start building to a major point).

Take into consideration that you will need enough time in the lecture to think about and make organization decision when they are needed.

3. The Mapping Method

Mapping is a visual illustration of the content of a lecture. It is a process that maximizes effective participation, affords immediate knowledge as to its understanding, and emphasizes critical thinking.

Benefits

If you are a visual learner and you can track your lecture regardless of conditions, then this format might help you.

There is little thinking need, and you can easily see the relationships between points.

It is also easy to edit your notes by adding symbols, marks and color coding.

You can review your notes by covering lines for memory drill and relationship.

Moreover, taking a step forward, you can put the most important points in flash or note cards and piece them together in a table or a larger structure at a later date.

Limitations

You might not fully understand changes in content from major points to facts.

When to use

The mapping method can be utilized when the lecture material is thick and well-organized.

4. The Charting Method

The Charting Method

If the class is structured in a chronological manner, you should set up your paper by drawing lines and labeling relevant topics in a table.

The categories are determined by the lecture that you cover, but set your paper in advance by columns. As you listen in class, write the information into the appropriate category.

Benefits

You can keep track of conversations and dialogues where you would normally be confused and lose out on relevant content.

It reduces the amount of writing that is necessary and provides an easy review mechanism for both memorizations of facts and study of comparisons and relationships.

Limitations

There are almost none disadvantages except on learning how to use the system and locating the appropriate categories, as you must be able to understand what's happening in the lecture.

When to use

When the content is substantial, and it is presented fast and you want to reduce the time you spend editing and reviewing at test time, then the charting method is a great system that focuses both on facts and relationships.

5. The sentence method

This one is quite simple, you just write every new thought, fact or topic on a separate line, numbering as you progress.

Benefits

It can be slightly more organized than the paragraph, and it gets more or all of the information.

Limitations

You have to review your notes a few times and determine the major/minor points from the numbered sequence by yourself.

It can be difficult to edit without having to rewrite by clustering points which are related and also difficult to review unless editing cleans up the relationships.

When to use

You can use this method if the lecture is somewhat organized but dense with content which comes fast.

Also, use it when you can hear the different points, but you do not know how they fit together.

V. Taking notes by hand or digitally?

Taking notes by hand or digitally

As laptops become smaller and more omnipresent, and with the arrival of tablets, the idea of taking notes by hand just seems old-fashioned to many students today.

Typewriting your notes is faster — which comes in handy when there's significant information to take down.

However, it turns out there are still advantages to doing things the old-fashioned way.

In the study issued in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles attempted to test how note-taking by hand or by laptop changes the learning process.

"The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can't write as fast as you can type. Moreover, that additional processing of the material that they were doing benefited them." - Mueller

Because typing is faster than handwriting, using a laptop will make you transcribe everything you hear.

So the question goes, is it better to have a more complete, transcribed notes on a laptop, or to process the information better but have less to look back at by handwriting your notes?

Mueller and Oppenheimer found out that longhand notes may have superior external storage as well as excellent encoding functions, so that when you write information down by hand, your brain retains the information and it processes it to create a bigger picture, while writing digitally is more passive, your brain being less used, flying pass the information that is typed.

In short, the scientists showed that students learn better when they handwrite their notes instead of typing them.

Since handwriting is slower than typing, students taking written notes must think more about what they are writing.

They have to filter out less relevant data, as well as put incoming knowledge in context with that from earlier in the lecture. That cognitive processing aids the learning to stick.

If nothing more happens after the lecture with those notes, the students who use pen and paper will have a better understanding of the material.

If you are looking for a good app for your laptop/tablet/phone to keep track of your notes, OneNote by Windows is by far the best one, and you can download it from here.

If you are going to use the traditional approach, spare yourself some time and buy a notebook like FocusNotes or Cornell Notebook and utilize the Cornell method to have bullet-proofed notes.

VI. The most common mistakes

1. You write down every single thing the teacher says without listening. Taking notes during class should be 75% listening and only 25% writing.

While you listen, you should always be working the new concepts in your head to solidify them; this is the best time to recognize questions about ideas that you do not completely understand.

Also try to keep each sentence as short as 1-5 words long, this way it forces you to record only the critical information.

2. While taking notes, you do not think about the topics that your professor is lecturing.

Getting distracted and not understanding the new complex ideas that are being introduced at a fast pace it is a big no-no for any student. Your notes are practically useless if you do not understand the underlying concept.

3. You do not ask questions while your teacher is lecturing when the ideas are fresh in mind.

It is a cliché, but if you have a question during class, it is likely that another student has the same issue. Regardless, questions show that you are interested in learning, not pleasing.

By waiting to ask questions, you will end up going through the rest of the lecture missing a piece of information that might be substantial for the exam, so don't wait until the class is over (if possible).

About the author

    Dan Cristian

    Law student with a passion for design, business, tech, and online. I am sick and tired of the old fashion learning methods; that is why I use my free time to help build a community of law students that can share their tips and tricks.