There’s no reason to overcomplicate things in law school. One of the best things you can do to achieve law school success is also one of the simplest: attend class and pay attention! On the final exam, professors don’t want to see the law according to Gilbert’s, or Emanuel’s, or whatever other commercial outlines exist. Instead, they want to see you reciting and applying the law according to what they taught in class. This means that taking detailed, comprehensive class notes – that can then be turned into an effective course outline – is extremely important. The following tips will help you get the most out of your in-class experience and ensure that you’re writing down everything you’ll need to know for finals.
Good note-taking requires you to both anticipate where the professor is going with a topic and to separate the relevant information from the less relevant dicta. Following the class discussion and recognizing what is important is difficult, if not impossible, if you haven’t properly prepared for class. Make sure you complete the entire reading assignment and have a solid understanding of the concepts covered before you even get to class. Completing the reading assignment and independently learning some of the concepts prior to class will give you the foundation you need to fully understand the class discussion and take effective notes.
Don’t get distracted by politics, emotions, or opinions.
It doesn’t usually take much to get law students riled up. I’ve seen heated discussions break out over the minimum contacts tests, let alone something really sensitive like capital punishment, reproductive rights, or due process. Add to that professors who aren’t afraid to express their own opinions (thanks tenure) and it can be easy to get distracted by emotionally laden language or policy differences. But don’t let other students’ opinions or a disagreement with your professor’s political leanings get in the way of your primary goal: to record the key rules, concepts and principles that you will need to know for the final. Remain objective and don’t get sidetracked by any tangential topics or conversations.
Consider pre-structuring your notes.
If you struggle to take complete notes or find it challenging to follow your professor’s lecture, you should consider pre-structuring your notes before each class period. Pre-structured notes provide a framework of the main topics that will be covered that day. They generally make it easier to follow along with the discussion and encourage you to take down at least some notes for each topic. To create pre-structured notes, review your syllabus, casebook table of contents, and case briefs, then generate a heading for each main topic and sub-topic. Leave some room between each section and fill in the blank spaces as each topic is covered in class.
Have the right attitude about class.
Good note-taking requires you to be engaged with the material and the discussion. If you walk into class thinking the subject matter is dull and the professor is boring, chances are the class will seem dull and boring, and your notes will suffer as a result. Find some way to get interested in the material or see the value in what you’re learning, even if your motivation is simply that you need to know these concepts to pass the bar exam. Walking into class with a positive attitude and an appetite for learning will keep you focused and engaged, which will lead to better notes.
Record more than just the facts.
Some students, especially 1Ls who are unfamiliar with law school exams, make the mistake of focusing on the facts of a case rather than rules or principles codified in the case. Although the facts of a case set up the dispute that gives rise to the legal rule, the facts are usually the least important part of a case in terms of what you need to know for the final. Thus, while jotting down a few key facts in your notes is a good idea, you should really be listening for the legal concepts and policies that the case stands for. A comprehensive set of class notes (i.e. ones that will help you create a good course outline) will focus more on the legal rules and policies than the specific facts of a case.
Include examples and hypotheticals.
If you’re professor likes to provide her own examples or hypotheticals to explain a concept, it’s a good idea to include these in your class notes. These in-class hypos will not only help you see the ways in which the rule is applied, but similar hypos may also show up in a final exam question.
Handwrite your notes.
Computer note-taking has a lot of advantages – typing speed, ability to structure notes quickly, multiple screen viewing, etc. But sometimes a laptop, and its wonderful ability to connect to the internet, is too big of a distraction in class. If you have trouble resisting the temptation to online shop, use social media, or play games on your computer during class, it’s absolutely essential that you ditch your computer and start taking notes by hand. Handwriting your notes cuts down on distractions, improves concentration, and, due to the natural limits on your ability to write quickly, forces you to focus on what is really important in the class discussion. If you can’t imagine not using your computer in class, try it for just one week. I’m positive you will see an improvement in the quality of your class notes.
Good notes should contain the black letter law, policy arguments, and hypotheticals that your professor emphasized class. They should describe the key legal concepts you need to know and should be the starting point for creating your course outline. It may seem obvious or overly simplistic, but quality class notes are key to law school success, so don’t discount the importance of showing up to class and paying attention!
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Other helpful law school tips:
- The Art of Notetaking
- Taking Good Law School Notes
- More Reasons to Handwrite Class Notes
- Want to Get Good Law School Grades – Become a Self-Starter
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