Law School Notes

Man in blue suit.

Are you wondering how to take law school notes? If you are not a genius, like Mike from Suits, you will need to learn how to take notes during a classroom discussion. Many 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.  Additionally, copying everything you hear stimulates the wrong part of the brain, as I discuss in Handwrite or Type Notes, and which is also discussed in the scientific study “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard.”

One thing you should be aware of is that most of a classroom discussion is irrelevant for the final exam.  That’s right, 95% of what you hear in class will not be necessary for the final exam!  The key for law school success is to separate the important from the unimportant.  Here are a few things that will help you determine what you need to write down from a classroom discussion.

Keep the End in Mind

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 during class 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 you only need a sentence or two for each rule.

Policy Rationale

Shirt with sweat, so you won't sweat it when you take law school notes

Second, a few professors might want you to provide them with policy rationales on an exam. If your professor is going to test you on policy rationales, then yes, capture the policy 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. 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 rationales. So don’t lose too much sleep over policy! In most cases, you can create your own policy rationale, rather than providing the exact policies that were covered in class.

Professor Clues

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.  For example, when I teach Torts, I tell students that they will see a products liability question on the final. Also, your professor may say something like “this is very important, so listen.” Again, a clue that you are going to be tested on this.  If you have to, place a star or some mark by this in your notes.

Themes

Fourth, listen for recurring words and themes the professor keeps coming back to. These may be important in helping you determine what he or she might place on the test. Also, if your professor is an expert in an area that they teach, prepare for some of that to appear on your exam.

Writes on Board

Fifth, if the professor writes on the board, put that information in your notes. This is especially true if the professor rarely writes on the board.  If the professor is writing too quickly, see if you’re allowed to make a picture of the board with your smart phone.  However, if your professor writes lots of information on the board, they might be doing it for discussion and not exam purporses.

Don’t Do

Now let’s discuss what NOT to write down. Not everything your professor says or asks needs to go into your notes. 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 the case 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. The purpose of the Socratic Method is to get students to get to the right answer. But along the way, there will be dialogue that is just not necessary.

Taking notes is important, so make sure to primarily rely on YOUR law school notes, and not on what you find in study aids.  As I explain in more detail in this video on study aids, there is a right way and a wrong way to use them.

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Taking Notes in Law School: The Content