A typical law school class involves a professor cold-calling students, asking questions about the cases or hypotheticals. Sometimes the professor hides the ball, and sometimes it takes quite a while for a student to answer “correctly.” As a new law student, I was not sure what to take down in the two-hour period. I knew that it was not advisable to transcribe every word, and that key points are generally made obvious, but there are plenty of in-betweens! And of course, after class, I wanted to make sense of my notes and identify the major takeaways.
After speaking to professors, fellow classmates, and attending more classes, I find that these principles are helpful to taking and reviewing class notes:
1. Pay attention to how your professor conveys important information
Learning the professor is a necessary step to learning the material. As the class progresses, try to pick up the professor’s quirks and catchphrases for important information. If you hear “there are four things to remember about…,” that’s your cue to start writing those things down. When you review, make sure that you are clear on what they are and why they are important. Other professors even go as far as to say, “This will be on the exam.” In that case, star and circle it! I note this at the top of my outline. Don’t lose easy points by forgetting to discuss the topic in the exam. Other key words to listen for are “always,” “usually,” “rarely,” “never.” If you hear them, you should figure out what factors lead a scenario to fall into a specific likelihood category.
Every professor is different. Some prefer to have the student divine the key point after a lengthy Socratic discussion. Some will only use facial cues to acknowledge an important concept. You will need to get a read on your professor and adjust to their style.
If you are unclear, don’t hesitate to ask the professor after class or in office hours! Professors understand that you may not get everything in the first go. If you want a different perspective, your classmates and teaching assistants are great resources too.
2. Don’t transcribe; use your judgment to filter what is important
Creating a transcription of the class is not ideal for various reasons. It requires typing at such a speed that you are unlikely to understand and digest what is being said. I have also heard from classmates that doing so causes you to be overwhelmed and confused by the amount of detail in the transcription, without knowing what takes precedence.
Instead, listen actively and closely to the lecture and the discussion. Jot down anything that seems to be interesting facts, factors, or implications. Do not write sentences verbatim. More likely than not, you will fail to keep up. Use short-hands, symbols, and visual aids to record important points. Your short-term memory is potent enough that when you review after class, you will usually remember what was said. After class, I look through my notes and highlight anything that I thought were key takeaways.
My notes are not transcriptions, but they are extensive. I have found this to be helpful—my notes often contain little gems or key connections that I did not recognize until reviewing later on.
3. Things you should always jot down and review
Elements. Some concepts, such as adverse possession and negligence, require certain elements. These are often made clear in the case law and reinforced in class. Sometimes, however, the number of elements or how they are grouped depends on the professor. Whenever your professor mentions an element-based concept, note it down and pay attention to common scenarios that satisfy the elements, or fail some of them. You should also think about whether certain elements are likely to be present or absent together. Running through these considerations helps you understand how the elements apply in reality.
Hypotheticals. Professors love changing the facts of the case or imagining a new problem based on the readings. Sometimes they are based on ongoing academic debates and court litigation. My contracts professor raises hypos often, and this gave me a great sense of how he would test us on the final. When a hypothetical is discussed in class, record (1) the relevant facts from the hypothetical situation, (2) the legal question (usually it’s about the interpretation of a term or how a reasonable person would view the behavior), and (3) possible responses (or the correct response – this happens if the hypothetical is intended to test the presence/absence of a certain element).
Public policy implications. Most professors discuss public policy issues in conjunction with the law. This is inevitable, as statutes and regulations are made by public servants and cases often discuss intent, administrability, equity, and similar concerns. You will notice that some professors believe that certain policy themes should always govern how the case turns out. When these are discussed in class, note the policy and its implications in different scenarios. When reviewing, consider how the policy might cut the other way in certain situations, and whether the tradeoffs are properly balanced. Policy interests, like many things in the law, compete, and some are more compelling than others depending on the context.
A great set of class notes will give you a leg up on the exam and offer a sophisticated understanding of the subject matter. Check out this post on taking good class notes, this post for more thoughts on good note taking in law school, and this post for tips to improve your notes. I hope these tips are helpful for getting the most out of your law school classes!
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