Class note taking is one of the most important skills to develop in law school. Good notes will help you keep up during class discussions and will also become crucial when it is time to outline and study for final exams. With that in mind, here are ten rules for better law school note taking:
- Choose a method of note taking and stick with it.
There are many options for law school note taking from sophisticated software programs to the old-fashioned paper and pen method. Try some out early on in the semester, but decide quickly which one suits your learning style best and then keep going with it (a good place to start is with GavelNote’s state-of-the-art note taking software specifically for law students).
- Prepare your own notes before class.
Whether you do the classic case brief or something more free-flowing and whether you are using computer software or handwritten notes, use a different color or entirely different pages to separate class notes from your personal notes. As the semester wears on, you should see the two increasingly converging; if not, you’re probably not picking up important concepts and what your professors wants you to focus on. If you are struggling, go to your professor’s office hours to seek clarity.
- Write down important concepts, rules of law, and lines of reasoning.
These things may be difficult to pinpoint at first, but you’ll get better at this as your law school years go on.
- Pay attention to recurring themes in your professor’s lectures.
Does your professor bring public policy into every discussion? Does he or she painstakingly parse words of statutes? When you find these themes, pay special attention and take particularly copious notes as to how the professor’s reasoning is flowing; this way you know what questions to prepare for both for lectures and exams.
- Review your notes after class to make sure you understand what you have recorded.
If something is unclear either conceptually or factually, now is the time to clear it up either with your classmates in a study group or with the professor.
- It is not necessary to write down everything the professor says verbatim.
This holds especially true if you’re using a laptop. It can be tempting to transcribe lectures if you have the typing ability, but you’ll be losing valuable time in which you should be engaging with the material and group discussion. This, after all, is where learning takes place in law school, not simply from memorizing and regurgitating rules and laws.
- Do not write down what your fellow law students say.
Yes, they’re smart and some may even be right, but unless your professor puts her explicit seal of approval on a student’s contribution to the discussion, it’s most likely not worth a spot in your notes. You will not be tested on your fellow law students’ opinions, so there’s no sense in recording them for posterity.
- Do not waste time writing down facts of the case.
All the facts you need to discuss a case will be in your casebook. If particular facts are important, highlight, underline, or circle them in your textbook with a note in the margins to remind you why they are important.
- It is often helpful to review several days of notes at the same time to try to make connections and fill in gaps.
This review process will help you at the time with class discussions and later when you’re outlining and studying for exams.
- Do not forego taking notes because you can get the notes of a classmate.
Everyone processes information differently, so you are always going to be the best person to record notes for your future study sessions. It’s great to compare notes, but your own notes should always be your primary source for studying. This is why commercial outlines and those prepared by previous law students aren’t always the most helpful either. Throughout the semester, your professor gives you a map of what the exam will be like throughout the course; it is your job to record it and study it.
Law students often have a hard time figuring out what to include in their class notes. Although the answer to that question will differ depending on the subject and the professor, here are some general strategies for law school class note taking:
Pay attention to what the professor says in class.
If a professor indicates that something is important, make a note of it. If your professor states that there is a 3-part test for some legal concept, make sure that you write down what those 3 steps are. If the professor talks about overarching themes or compares two cases to each other, note that as well. In other words, your best guide for what you should be taking notes about, what is important from assigned readings, and what might be tested on the exam is your professor. This is one reason why taking good notes in law school is so important. Students who take few if any notes won’t have this important information later when they start synthesizing course materials and studying for exams. On the other hand, students who are not selective and simply create a complete transcript of everything that happens in class won’t be able to differentiate between important information and unimportant information.
Remember that in the long term what the professor says in class is much more important than what your fellow law students say.
Law students often struggle with how to take notes when the professor uses the Socratic Method. When taking notes in this situation, focus your notes on what the professor has asked and what the hypotheticals are about. Keep in mind that student answers may not always be accurate and on-point. Depending on what is going on in class, the professor may not take the time to point out a student’s inaccurate statements and provide the correct answer. There is also another benefit to this approach—rather than transcribing the student’s response to the professor’s questions, you can be engaged in that discussion yourself. Follow along mentally with the discussion, answering the questions in your head and comparing your answers to the other student’s answers. Make note of things that you can’t answer on your own, so that you can go back and review that material later.
Make careful note of any hypotheticals.
Professors use hypotheticals as a way of helping students learn the nuances of the law. Maybe you have read two cases that illustrate differences in how courts resolve a legal issue. The professor may use additional hypotheticals, involving the same legal issue but different facts, to help the class better understand how courts apply the law to resolve that particular legal issue. Law school exams are based around hypothetical situations, and the more practice you have with them, the more comfortable you will be in applying law from cases to new hypotheticals when it’s time to take your exams.
Sometimes professors begin class by summarizing what was covered in previous class sessions, or they may spend a little time creating a context for the current day’s reading assignment.
Professors also may summarize important points from class materials at the end of class. Make sure that you take notes from these summaries, as they provide additional insight into what your professor views as important.
An essential skill for law students is knowing how to read and brief cases. Most of the reading that you’ll do in your first year of law school will be cases. In fact, those expensive books that you have to buy for law school are usually called casebooks, rather than textbooks, for that very reason. Reading a case is very different from other types of reading that you have done—there’s a lot crammed into one case that you will have to unpack in order to make use of your reading in class and on exams. That is why one of the most useful tools you will have in your law school classes is your case briefs.
So, what is a case brief, and why should you create them? A case brief is a document created by and used by a law student. Your case briefs will summarize the important parts of the case in your own words. The way that the court wrote the opinion in the case may not be the most helpful approach for you to use it in class, and creating a case brief allows you to focus your attention on key aspects that will be helpful both immediately and in the future.
Case Briefs and Class: The initial reason why a law student briefs a case is to prepare for class. Cases in law school textbooks vary in length, and it is helpful to have all important information from the case summarized and organized in a way that that you can easily refer to in class. Briefing cases can also help you to process what you are reading in a case. If the professor calls on you in class, you will have thought about the case in advance in a way that will help you to respond to the professor’s questions and hypotheticals. If your professor uses the Socratic Method in the classroom, your case briefs can be especially important reference materials if you are called upon.
Case Briefs and Legal Research and Writing: Another reason why a student may brief cases is to pull out important information for legal writing. You may brief cases as you are completing research or writing assignments for your Legal Research and Writing class. In this context, case briefing helps you to identify important information that you will need from cases to complete your legal analysis and arguments.
Case Briefs and Outlines: Finally, case briefs also create the foundation for further study. As you read and brief additional cases and take notes in class, you will begin to synthesize these course materials and develop a more comprehensive understanding of that subject’s law, a process that many law student refer to as outlining. Good case briefs continue to have value long after the initial class on that case is over.