We at the Law School Toolbox have written quite a bit about handwriting versus typing in law school classrooms. And, despite having typed and online versions of virtually everything else in our lives, it’s no secret that we think handwriting is the way to go when it comes to law school classes. Whether you choose to write by hand or type in class, though, the actual nuts and bolts of how you take notes is key.
Several new students have asked me recently how they are supposed to take notes that capture everything the professor says. The short answer? You shouldn’t! With that in mind, here are some common pitfalls we see students getting into and how to sidestep them.
Listen like a lawyer
A lot of students have told me, “I can’t handwrite in class because I am a much faster typist.” Well guess what, the vast majority of people are much faster when given a keyboard than a pen. This doesn’t matter! Being a stenographer and writing down everything that your professor says is not a good strategy for note taking. Why? For several reasons: (1) it doesn’t help you learn to “listen like a lawyer,” and (2) it gives you too much extraneous information to sort through later when reviewing and outlining.
What is listening like a lawyer anyway? Well, imagine you are listening to your opponent’s rebuttal argument in court and you will be given an immediate chance at re-rebuttal once she finishes. If you’ve done moot court or a trial advocacy course, you’ve probably had been in this situation. So, when the other side is up there talking, what are the things you’re writing down? You definitely don’t want to try to capture every single word she says. Of course not! Instead, you jot down the most important components. You abbreviate, you use bullet points instead of full sentences. You have to think on your feet for every moment of that rebuttal and actively try to formulate your response. This is just like what you should be doing in a law school class. You should keep your notes concise and aim to write all of the important material without anything extra. You should be mentally on your game and actively thinking the whole time, even if you never get called on.
Mark the gems
Every now and then, your professor may drop a gem in lecture. This might be in the form of an attack plan, a great hypo to practice on outside of class, a concise rule statement, or an interesting point of law or policy. You should come up with a way to mark these gem moments so they are easy to find later when you’re outlining.
Some law students like to type a key phrase like “prof. says” or even use their professor’s name. This gives you an uncommon word you can later run an automated search through your notes for so you can make a list. When I was in law school, I typed and handwrote, but my outlines were always much better for classes that I handwrote for. So, what do you do if you’re handwriting and you can’t run an automated search? I used to use a reserved color of highlighter that didn’t appear anywhere else in my notes. If there was a gem the professor mentioned, it got highlighted in purple. This made it really easy to tell what was really significant later when it came time to outlining.
Keep your exam in mind
I know most law students think they’re already doing this. They are so worried about exams and grades that they would tell you they are constantly thinking of exams. That’s not what I mean. What keeping your exam in mind means is that you’re not just passively worried, you’re actively thinking in lecture, “how could this help me on the test?” “why is this important in the context of my exam?”
The important thing is, you need to learn to distinguish between what probably won’t come up on the test, and what actually might. So, if your professor is asking someone to recite the facts of a particular case, do you need to write all this down? Probably not, it’s in your case book. What should you do instead? Focus on which key facts the professor thinks are legally significant. What does she emphasize or repeat? Which facts make a difference in the outcome of the case? Why? Usually, there are just a few key facts you really need to take away from a case. The rest is just to facilitate the discussion. Learn to tell the difference between material that moves the discussion along, and material that could actually show up o your test. What about rules and holdings? Should you write down every single one? Yes. But again, they’re already in your case book somewhere, so make sure you’re focusing on how exactly your professor phrases them. What wording does she use? The best way to know what might show up on your test is to study past exams from your professor and hypos from class.
No hypo is too small to practice on!
One common mistake law students make is not practicing hypos outside of class. If it was mentioned in class, you should be writing it up outside of class. Even if a hypo doesn’t show up in the form of a handout or formal exercise, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Learn to spot these! Usually, an in-class hypo will involve your professor slightly changing the facts of a case you already read and then asking whether the result would be different and why. This is another great way to figure out which facts were and were not legally significant in the case. All of these should go into your outline as bullet point examples. But before that, you should work through each and every one of them outside of class.
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