A common question that 1Ls have, and one that I am fielding now as a 2L, is how to prepare for class. With many tens of pages of dense cases and the prospect of cold calling, it is normal to feel anxious wondering whether you are reading closely enough, whether your notes and briefs are enough to help you survive a cold call, whether you are catching the right things to highlight…
How much you want to invest in class preparation depends on several factors: how your professor conducts class—using random cold calls, a panel system, or volunteers, your other commitments—work, extracurriculars, family obligations, your own learning style, any prior knowledge about the subject, and more. In short, this is a very personal process, and I encourage you to try out different things and discover what works for you.
In this post, I talk about different tips and ways to prepare for class, focusing on how to highlight and retain important information from your assigned readings.
1. What to focus on
Before you start reading, check the corresponding syllabus section and the chapter name for the subject matter. Knowing that the case is about, for example, the tort of “trespass,” will provide you with helpful context in your next task.
The main takeaway from each case is the holding—or what the case stands for. Sometimes it is announced in an obvious manner (“The holding is…” or “The court rules that…”), but other times it is buried within a grandiose proclamation, or the holding itself is unclear. In those cases, do your best to extract what you believe the court said and check your understanding later (tip #3). Also note the difference between holdings and dicta (statements that are legally binding versus not).
The procedural history and factual background often occupy a large chunk of the case, but not much is crucial to remember. Retain procedural or factual information to the extent that they are important to the holding. Ask yourself if you need this information in order to apply the rule to other scenarios. It is also helpful to understand what fact patterns would trigger the application of the legal rule in question.
When you encounter a set of cases under one topic, it is likely that they involve different facts and rules, or there has been an evolution in the law. Think about the similarities and differences among the cases, and try to extract the main rule and any sub rules.
In short, focus on rules, not facts.
When you encounter footnotes: read them! The casebook authors could have edited them out, but chose not to for a reason. Sometimes footnotes reveal important rules and exceptions.
Another tip is to look up any words that you do not know. Some might be archaic, but some are legal terms or Latin phrases that often appear in legal documents. Making this a habit will help build your legal vocabulary over time, and of course, enhance your understanding of the immediate case.
2. How to mark up the text and take notes
Here, practices diverge. Some choose to book brief: underlining and writing notes in the margins of the book. Others like to take notes separately, either on a laptop or a notebook. Most highlight the important parts of the reading. One strategy is to use a different highlighter color for distinct elements (facts, holding, etc.). Any of the above is fine, as long as it helps you come away with the relevant facts and the legal proposition of the case, as discussed above.
Inevitably, every 1L will learn about “case briefing,” the practice of summarizing important elements in the case, which commonly include: the facts, procedural history, legal question, holding, rationale, and concurring/dissenting opinions. As a new law student, it is probably a good idea to follow this format for a few cases, as it provides a structure to look for information that is helpful for understanding the entire case. After that, reflect on whether these case briefs are necessary to your preparation.
At this stage, I think that efficiency is key. Some students spend way too long on writing thorough notes and briefs, without distinguishing important elements and achieving true retention. Be critical about your process and experiment with different approaches.
3. Checking your understanding
You can use online case briefs to check against your notes. However, do not rely heavily on them. For example, some cases are complex and stand for multiple propositions within legal different subjects. Thus, the online brief will likely not match yours.
A surefire way to check your understanding is listening closely to what the professor says about it in class. Look out for the elements highlighted, and the questions that are introduced for class discussion. If you picked up what the professor emphasized and were able to follow the class discussion, you are golden. Sometimes your professor might focus on things that you had completely missed. They may be objectively significant elements, or may reveal your professor’s preferences about legal thinking and analysis. Either way, make a mental note to look at them in subsequent readings.
Throughout these steps, aim for a high-level understanding: knowing how the topics and cases fit together. This is, of course, difficult in the beginning, but a fuller picture will slowly emerge as time goes on. Be patient and steadfast, and I am confident that your efforts will pay off.
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