Law School Notes
Are you wondering how to take law school notes? If you are not a genius, like Mike from Suits, you will need to learn the best how to take notes during a classroom discussion. Many new law students fall into the trap of thinking they need to write down every word said during a class. This is a mistake! The key is engagement, rather than mindlessly copying everything you hear in class. Here are a few things that will help you in determining what you need to write down from a classroom discussion.
One thing you should be aware of is that most of a classroom discussion is irrelevant for the final exam. Additionally, copying everything you hear stimulates the wrong part of the brain, as I discuss in my episode called Handwrite or Type Notes.
When taking law school notes, you need to keep the end in mind. So ask yourself, “During a classroom discussion, what do I need to help me in the final exam?” The vast majority of law professors test you on your ability to apply laws to a set of facts, NOT facts from cases read and discussed throughout the course. (Just as an aside, check out this article on how Supreme Court justices write their opinions. So step number one in the classroom is to figure out the rule that your professor will test you on. Over a typical one and a half hour classroom session, you might have, at most, half a page of notes dedicated to the rules needed for exam purposes. Keep in mind that each case usually represents one rule and then only one or two sentences per rule.
Second, a few professors might also want to provide students with policy rationales. If your professor is going to test you on policy rationales, then yes, capture these rationales when they come up in class. If your professor makes past exams available, the best way to find out if he or she tests on policy rationale is by getting an exam from a previous semester along with the best student answer. Just remember, few professors actually want this information on an exam. And even the few that do will not usually assign too many points to policy rationale. So don’t sweat too many bullets over this material!
Third, anytime your professor tells you that something is important, write it down. This is a major clue that you are likely going to see it on the final.
Fourth, listen for recurring words and themes the professor keeps repeating. Those may be important in helping you determine what he or she might place on the test.
Fifth, if the professor writes information on the board, like a numbered list or rule of law, put that in your notes.
Now let’s discuss what NOT to write down. Not everything your professor says or asks needs to go in your notes. In fact, most of a classroom discussion is directed at getting you to understand the facts and law from a particular case. Do not write down facts from a case to help you understand it better. Unless this is a constitutional law class, you will never need to know the facts from that case again. For example, if you read Pennoyer v. Neff in your Civil Procedure class, you might be tempted to write down some additional facts that the professor provides to help you understand the case. Don’t write those facts down as they are completely useless for exam purposes.
Also, don’t write down what your classmates say. Unless the professor tells you that the colleague just articulated a correct rule of law, much of what your colleagues say is irrelevant.
Taking notes is important, so make sure to primarily rely on what your law school notes, and not on what you find in study aids.