by Joshua Kahn
This post is for all the 1Ls. We know you are new to campus, wracked by fear of the unknown, overwhelmed by readings, terrified that your entire grade is dependent on a single test… confused about what you’re supposed to do in class, before class and. . . and. . . and. . . STOP!
Now, take a deep breath and repeat: It is not that bad.
The faculty will offer a number of talks this semester about how to outline, what it means to take good notes, how to take a test, etc. And that’s all well and good. You should go. Really. But in the meantime one 3L working at the library would like to offer his short take on surviving and prospering in law school, in addition to all the other worthy advice you’re being bombarded with. This advice is NOT the official opinion of the library or its staff, but, hopefully, it will help put things in perspective.
To Thine Own Self Be True
First, and most importantly, know your own learning style. If you find you remember the somewhat esoteric jurisdiction law in civil procedure when you read the cases carefully, great. If you prefer a hornbook, great. Right now, try both and see what works for you. That’s probably the most productive thing you can do the first month; experiment with different pieces of advice, see what works for you, stop doing the things that don’t work, and do more of the things that do. That way, you’ll be using your time productively by mid-semester.
Preparing for Class
You do not need to show up every day with a typed brief of every case. You do not need to highlight every word of your casebook in your own special highlighter code. If these things help you, fantastic, but they are not necessary or helpful for most law students.
You do need to read the cases, but remember this: Every case is designed to illustrate one point of law. The facts of each individual case are only important in so far as they illustrate that point of law. Yes, getting used to seeing how facts and law interact in cases is good general lawyer training, but it’s not the central takeaway for your grade (however, see the “because” section of this post below).
A word on being called on in class. . . don’t worry about it. As long as you don’t go out of your way to seem like you know everything, it’s not embarrassing to be stumped by your professor (if you are that guy/gal who always talks, your classmates will probably indulge in some Schadenfreude when they watch you twist in the wind).
More importantly, being called on is irrelevant to your grades. It helps professors run their classes smoothly when students know the facts of the cases inside and out. For students, however, spending too much time memorizing the facts of a case that is just there to illustrate a point of law takes time away from potentially more helpful studying. (more on this later)
Many 2L or 3L law students read a case, then write down a sentence or a few words reminding them what it’s about and what the main point is. For example: “guy falls down stairs, stairs not up to code, negligence per se?” Please though, READ the cases.
Every case in your case book is there to tell you some important issue of law. If you can’t write down the point of the case in one sentence after the professor goes through the case in your class, you have probably missed something important. In many classes, the professor will explicitly tell you what this important point is.
Those individual points of law all build into a complete picture of the area of law you’re studying. It’s rare that one case will, say, explain all of contract law (although a few later cases are a good review, and many professors will point these cases out). Nearly all cases either tell you a piece of the basic law (“this is what causation means in torts”), or explain a specific exception to that general rule (“these are the special damage rules for breach of construction contracts”).
You should focus your notes on what each individual point is, and how they all fit together. If you don’t understand these main points by the end of class, ask your professor. Or, go look at a hornbook later and if you still don’t understand, ask after the next class.
Please, please, please don’t focus on the facts of the cases when you are taking notes. That’s almost never the important takeaway—it’s just a tool to help you get to that takeaway. Write the facts down if it’s helpful to you, but know that it’s not the main thing. The exception is sometimes a brief summary of a case can be helpful later, especially for classes where the reasoning of past important cases matter (in 1L, that’s usually the constitutional law cases in Civ Pro I). And, it’s always helpful when the professor tests on it.
At the beginning of the semester, ask your professors if they want you to cite cases or statutes on their exam. Most professors don’t, but if they do, you want to know about it and write that information down. It’s especially common for contracts professors to want those citations. If they do, be more careful about taking notes on specific cases and placing them in your outline later.
I never went to one and firmly believe they are a huge waste of time. I hear they can be helpful towards the end of the semester for taking practice exams and going over the answers together, but during the year, they can be a massive time-waster with little or no productive output. But maybe they’ll be good for your social life, so there’s that.
You shouldn’t worry much about outlines until mid-semester, but for your piece of mind, they are basically a distilled, organized version of your notes. You should have your outline formatted so you know how each of the little pieces of law those cases teach you fit together into a whole, and see how they form nice little rules with different tests and factors to consider.
Extra Things that Help: Practice Problems
Probably the most helpful thing you can do with your “extra” study time, especially early in the semester, is do practice problems. The study aid section of the library has plenty of books with practice problems. Personally, I think most students would benefit far more—at least as far as grades go—from spending less time, say, carefully briefing (note: still read!) or going to a study group and using the extra time to do practice hypotheticals.
Taking Notes BEFORE Class
If you want to be extra diligent, one way to do this is to do your readings carefully, and BEFORE class, write down the key “takeaway” point of law from each case as if you had taken notes in class already. If you understand it well enough to do this, you’re in great shape and class will be both a review and a way to help catch whether or not you are wrong.
I found listening to the life of a law student podcasts well before class while, say, commuting or working out, was helpful. I didn’t take it too seriously, but it exposed me to concepts before class started so my reading and class time was the not the first time I heard an idea. Often, concepts stick more effectively the second and third time you hear or read them, and this is a painless way to get that repetition.
GSU just finished a massive overhaul of its legal writing program, so I don’t have so much guidance to offer here except the following two tidbits.
First, everyone complains that they spent way more time on their legal writing class than their other classes. It just works out that way, but at least be conscious of it and try not to lose perspective.
Second, I found it helpful to just sit down and try to make a good argument, then go back and make that good argument fit into all the stylistic or formatting points they try to teach you. Getting overly caught up in the formatting can hurt the substance of your writing. That said, DO write in IRAC from the start. They’ll tell you what that is in legal writing class (write you exams in IRAC as well).
Without getting too into final exams, which are still very far away, the most important word to your grade is the word “because.” When you write anything in any law school context, ask yourself if you answered the question “because.” It is very tempting to just restate the rule when writing an exam, but adding the word “because” and filling in everything after is what will get you an A.
The Librarians Are Your Friends
This may sound self-serving coming from the library, but, really, the librarians are paid to help you. If you’re stuck on a research problem, they’ll help you. If you have no idea where to start looking, they’ll help you. If you have no idea how to BEGIN a legal research project, they’ll teach you from scratch if necessary. This is more important second semester when you start having to do more serious legal research for your writing class, but if you’re stuck on something, ask them. Very few students take advantage of the librarians’ help.
Summary: What You Should Be Doing Regularly
*Read for class—in whatever depth is helpful to you—focusing on picking out the important point of law the casebook author is trying to teach you.
*Write down sufficient notes on the cases to remember what they were about. This could be a little as a few words or as much as a few paragraphs. But for most people, it’s a few words to a sentence.
*Listen in class, and write down the key point of law each case illustrates. If possible, write how that relates to the other points of law you’ve already learned.
*Take notes on whatever else your professor tells you will be on the test.
*If you don’t understand these key points of law, ask your professor and/or consult a hornbook.
*Optional: Do practice problems, found in the study aid section of the library.
*Optional: Listen to a podcast on the subject matter like http://www.lifeofalawstudent.com.
*Later: About mid-semester, begin outlining.
*Even Later: Towards the end of the semester, take practice exams.