Law School Note Taking Tips

If you're reading this then mid terms are either here or you’re just a few months away from taking your first law school exam- here are six law school studying tips that helped me do well and graduate 📖 Before I jump into the 6 tips that helped me succeed in law school, let me share with you some background. 

As a first year law school student, I was an "evening" student taking classes after 5pm, and working full time at a university. During this time, I was not sure what I was doing. I felt overwhelmed. I did not know my learning style because I did well in college. Yet, in law school, everyone around me seemed to "get it" while I struggled. As an immigrant, first-generation Latina law student- I definitely struggled to keep up with the many privileged classmates, and struggled to not compare myself to them. To add to the lack of confidence, resources, and skills- I lost a close family member a day before my exam period, and I was not emotionally prepared for my exams but I went ahead and took them anyways. I was placed in academic probation that first semester. I felt like a failure and never had I been placed in academic probation in college nor received Cs in non-math classes (yea, I am not a math person!). Therefore, I needed to change everything to overcome my failure and stay in law school. 

During my second semester, I buckled down to learn 5 things (1) how to manage my limited time with so much work and so much to study (2) how I learned to retain information (3) how to write a law school exam (4) how to outline (5) how to narrow down all the information into something I could "chew" which I could then explain my thought patterns. Some think very logically this way, but being in an institution that was not made to cater to women nor people who spoke English as their second language, nor had generations of professionals in their family- I needed to step up my game. Read a long how I discovered how to succeed and go from Cs to As and Bs. 

1. Come Prepared

Being prepared is everything! Law school is very overwhelming with tons of cases, new legal lingo, multiple resources and everyone is telling you "do what works for you," but if you are like me- what worked for you in college, is not working for you in law school. Writing and reading come easy to me, but I found myself struggling to read 10 pages in my legal books during my first semester of law school. So coming prepared meant breaking down how I learned. First, take a learning test (like this one). I am a visual and part tactile learner, with a smaller percentage being auditory. Therefore, if you are a visual or tactile learner- this article is mainly for you! If you are an auditory learner, I suggest looking up ways you can learn and creating your own steps. 

Second, make sure you IRAC your cases and write down all the questions you have- even if they make seem insignificant. It is much better to ask than be sorry! 

Third, make sure your reading notes are separate from your class notes. Take advantage of the new information you've acquired during class to edit your outline right after class, or that same night. 

2. Create your outlines early

There are various ways to create an outline, here is how a visual and tactile person learns. Professors will tell you the best way to create an outline is by creating a skeleton from your syllabus. They are correct! If you are struggling to understand what this means what you do is, transfer your syllabus sections unto your preferred document and under each section fill in the case names. Then, you will do a short or summary IRAC of each case as you study. By preparing this outline early, you will find yourself editing and deleting information as you retain information. The outline is the thought pattern that will trigger your memory on the day of exam. 

3. Paper over laptops

Let me tell you why- for visual and tactile learners: You will retain so much more information by taking hand-written notes (doodling if you have ADD like me) and you can write down significant information instead of everything you hear (like most do when writing notes on a laptop). At first, everything your professor says will sound extremely important. It is important, but you have to learn to understand what is black letter law, what is actually needed to answer an exam question, and why your professor is explaining specific information repeatedly in various ways. A laptop can be a huge distraction. For example, I learned and did well by earning an A- in torts by drawing out the scenes, writing down the black letter law, and the analysis. I would have missed the opportunity to visually learn for such a class if I had taken notes on my laptop. Don't get me wrong, laptops are super useful in keeping an outline in front of you or looking up terms. However, you really need to keep your attention in class and not on social media when in class or distracted by interesting knowledge beyond the classroom. So if you want to use a laptop, read on! 

Here are some of the best notebooks I recommend and highlighters (that are erasable, perfect for rented books or making corrections). 

4. If laptops: get organized

Sometimes a laptop helps and this is how you can make it work efficiently. I tried various ways to get organized in law school. I used my old Mac book from college for the first semester of law school, and when it quickly died- I replaced it with a $399 mini laptop which is all I could afford at that time. Therefore, I used google docs at first so I did not have to pay for Microsoft's programs (I later found out that my school offered these for free). Using google docs to take notes works well since it's cloud based, but most everything is cloud based nowadays. I liked using my mini laptop for class, but I preferred a large screen for studying and editing my outlines. Which meant using the school's computers. However, I quickly learned to use OneNote and my school notes went to another level. OneNote made it so I could create a notebook for each of my classes, under each class I kept four tabs: reading notes, class notes, questions, and outline. I then preferred to transfer my outline to a Word Doc to create my short form outline for the exam. You can create an organized laptop in various ways, but make sure that you are not getting overwhelmed, writing in various forms, and stick to what truly makes data and knowledge sink into your mind. Retention is key! If you are not retaining information by repetition of the way you are studying, then it's time to change it up! 

By the way, if you are looking for a long lasting and not super expensive laptop- here is the one I use every day for the massive amount of info and work I do: 

HP Pavilion 15 15.6" IPS Touchscreen Full HD (1920x1080) Business Laptop - 8th Gen Intel Quad-Core i5-8250U, 8GB DDR4, 1TB HDD, USB Type-C, FHD IR Webcam, WiFi AC, HDMI, Ethernet RJ-45, Windows 10

5. Find out how you learn

The key to law school studying is the way you learn. I am repeating this point by itself because it changed how I saw law school. Perhaps you know your learning style, and if you do but are struggling to keep up in law school with retaining all the information being thrown at you- then listen up: Learning in law school is like figuring out a puzzle only you can solve. There is only key player, and that is you! You cannot compare yourself to the way others are learning, what others are studying, what they are buying to supplement their learning. I also want to say that there is no shame in asking for help! In fact, I encourage you to find a professor willing to help you outline, figure out how you learn, and review your practice exams. Nonetheless, at the end of the race- everyone is tested the same way but the way you retained that information is up to you. I wish someone would've told me this during my first year of law school, but I am grateful for the mentors I found to help me ace my exams after my first semester failure. 

I want to write the next blog about writing law school exams- but the best way for you to learn is to check out the book "Writing Essay Exams to Succeed in Law School, Not Just Survive."  This book was a game changer and that's how I aced my written exams! Because this method is not taught in school or college, it was super important for me to find out how I could write for my exams. 

6. Narrow down study aids

Getting overwhelmed sucks, everyone has their opinions! Some will love Q&As, case summary books, or nutshell books etc. As a first year, first semester law student- I did not understand how anyone had time to read both the cases assigned AND the supplemental books everyone was recommending to each other. What I learned in my second semester and carried through the rest of law school was this- narrow down what makes sense to you that helps you retain and understand the information. Therefore, what worked for me and what I teach my mentees is this: 

A. Understand the case law assigned by either reading or using a summary study aid of the case, or both. 

B. Fill in your outline as you go, which literally means your first outline will look entirely different than your last outline. 

C. When you do not understand a concept, first go to a study aid- you don't have to use one for every single case you have. I loved reading the "Understanding..." series which were available at my law school library or on amazon. See the list here. Once I understood the concepts, I went back to my outline. If I needed a general idea, then I would refer to a sample outline from Barbri, Kaplan, or Quimbee. 

D. If I needed more clarification, I looked up videos on Quimbee and at any time I had questions- I brought them to my professor. 

This study pattern worked for me, and I want you to understand how your brain works, that you are not alone in this and that although everyone else seems to be thriving- believe me, they are scared and putting up a wall. You are incredible and capable of achieving As and Bs in law school, and you will graduate. As always, if you have questions and would like to see a blog post discussing a topic in depth email me at OfficialLawtina@gmail.com.