What Most Law Students Forget to Do: Think About the Material

If you are a law student, you probably feel that you have a ton of work to do. You are always working and typing. Typing up briefs as you read cases. Typing up class notes (or, really, transcripts of your class). Typing up outlines. Or you may even be copying and pasting from your class notes. Does any of this sound familiar? And then come exam time, you realize that you don’t really know or understand some of the material that you have been typing all semester.

This is such a common story. Students feel they are constantly working, yet learning nothing. So what is missing? Why do students feel this way?

Law students forget that in order to learn material and understand it, you need to think about it.

So let’s take each piece of the law school process.

Preparing for class: Many law students type out long case briefs as they read the case. And the text in that case brief is literally copied directly from the case. Then, come class time, they don’t really remember what they read and they definitely can’t jog their memory by using their long case brief. Why? Well, they didn’t actually think about what they were reading when they were reading for class. They were just taking notes and copying.

So, what if you approach your reading this way instead? You read a case, highlighting and taking notes in the book. Then you try to fill out your brief, from memory based on what you just read. Or you reference the case but you put your brief in your own words. And you keep it “brief” so you can easily reference it in class. Are you more likely to remember and understand the material? Yes!

Taking class notes: The computer allows us to take a multitude of class notes beyond anything that we would be able to do with a pen and paper. And because of this, all of our energy in class is spent trying to capture everything the professor and the students say. (I will admit it: I did this too, so I am not just throwing stones.) What is wrong with this approach?

Well, we are not actually participating in class. We aren’t thinking about what the professor is saying or even really following along. We are just putting it down on paper, hoping we can learn it later. Instead, what if you sat back in class and actually listened to what your professor was saying and tried to identify the important parts of the lecture that are necessary to study for your exam? Do you think you would enjoy class more? Get more out of each lecture? My guess is that you would.

Creating outlines and study materials: One of the most common things students ask is whether they need to make their own outlines. Our answer is, well, yes. But it isn’t just about making the outlines; it is about learning the law through the creation of your own study materials. Outlines are a way to capture your understanding of the law so you can study for your exams (or reference the law during an open-book exam).

Does that mean that you can just copy the text from another student’s outline and call it your own? No! Or can you just copy and paste from your class notes? No. You need to think about the material and capture it in a way that makes sense to you (and is a correct representation of the law). Copying or using another person’s outline means that you don’t actually think about the material before you put it in the outline. And that means you aren’t learning the material or making it your own.

As you go through the semester, continue to ask yourself whether you are thinking about the material, learning how the law works, and really actively participating in your law school experience.

You will be glad you did. This will help you when it comes to exam time and will make you a better lawyer in the end!

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About Lee Burgess

Lee Burgess, Esq. is the co-founder of the Law School Toolbox, a resource for law students that demystifies the law school experience, the Bar Exam Toolbox, a resource for students getting ready for the bar exam and Trebuchet, a legal career resource. Lee is also the founder of Amicus Tutoring, LLC, a company she started to help students find success in law school and on the California bar exam. Lee has been adjunct faculty at two bay area law schools teaching classes on law school and bar exam preparation. You can find Lee on Twitter at @amicustutoring, @lawschooltools, @barexamtools & @trebuchetlegal.


  1. Mr. Christopher Smith says:

    ” A few points ”

    Furthermore just thinking about the material may not be sophisticated enough for articulation.

    It’s cliche : ” use it or lose it “.

    My perspective is conceive information with an instructor’s mentality.
    Meaning I envision myself debating / teaching information among my associates.

    In the articulation of information ( instructional mentality) ,I’ve noticed the capacity to memorize information with the intent debating, discussing, or teaching in later!


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