How to take notes in law school isn’t difficult, if you use the Cornell notetaking method. Developed at Cornell University over 50 years ago, it has been used by people around the world to better organize their thoughts. Once class is over, you will have a better way to find what you covered in class, and to connect ideas covered in previous sessions.
Handwrite or Type Notes
This has become an issue because many students wanting to take notes in law school on their computers during class. While it is possible to use this method on a computer, the preferred method for taking notes during class is by hand. I’ve discussed this extensively in a video called Handwrite or Type Notes. The problem with typing notes is that the mind uses a different part of the brain when typing. And that part of the brain doesn’t retain information very well.
The first step is to have the right paper. While you can search for Cornell Method paper and purchase it pre-formatted, you can easily format any paper, lined or blank, with a ruler and pen. To format the paper yourself, go two inches (5 cm) from the left side and draw a line from the top to bottom, dividing the paper into two columns. You will take your notes in the much larger right column, and leave the left column alone during class. At the bottom, draw a horizontal line two inches (5 cm) from the bottom, which you will also leave blank during class.
During class you will place all of your notes in the right column. Don’t try to outline your notes during class. Instead, focus on the content of the discussion. Now, if there is material that is sequential in nature, then you may want to number it. But don’t try to place the material into a much larger organizational system during class. For example, suppose that your Torts outline you have Trespass to Land under section III(C). That is fine, but don’t worry about that during class time. So if your professor says there are 5 elements to Trespass to Land, then by all means write down 1 through 5, along with the elements. Just don’t worry about aligning it to your outline during the class discussion. By the way, I made a video on Trespass to Land that you might find useful.
Next, don’t take verbatim notes. Instead, capture the most important ideas. Since they are your notes, write telegraphically. You have likely seen movies where someone received a telegram. Because people paid by the individual letter they sent, telegrams sound choppy, yet they are completely understandable. You can employ the same technique and avoid words like a, an, the, or for. Also, use abbreviations. In law school, many students use a capital K for contract, a p for plaintiff, and d for defendant. These are your notes, so create abbreviations that work for you.
Shortly after class, you will use the left side column, which is called the cue column. Cue, spelled C-U-E, are your cues for helping you understand what is in your notes. You should write down key words in the cue column that correlate to your notes in the right column. For example, suppose your class discussion was about mutual assent for a contract. In the cue column you might write down “offer” in one spot and then further down the page you might write down “acceptance.” One advantage of using key words is that you can then find those key words on other pages where they appear, allowing you to tie concepts together, even though they might have been discussed at different times during class, or even over several classes.
Finally, the blank section at the bottom of the page is a summary section. After you complete the cue section, summarize your notes on that part of the page. This is critically important, because each time you engage with the material you learn it at a deeper level. Much more so than will occur if you only reread your notes. This is very similar to the Elaborative Interrogation technique, which helps create new connections between concepts.
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