Listening 101 for law students

New law students file into their first law school class, take a seat, and mentally prepare themselves. The reading has been long and difficult. Now it’s time for class, where everyone can sit back and soak in the professor’s brilliance while all the confusion is clarified.

Uh, no.

The first reading assignments in law school are certainly difficult. The first listening experiences — i.e. what happens during the first few classes — are often at least as hard.

Courtesy Flickr/Stuart Six
Courtesy Flickr/Stuart Six

The actual, real solution to this problem is not what students want to hear: Over time, you will become a better listener. The jargon from learning theory is that you need to build cognitive schemas (i.e. mental frameworks) for understanding the details of law school. (An earlier post touches on this point.)

The good news is that even if your cognitive schemas are as unfinished as the Empire’s Second Death Star, there are steps that can help with more effective listening.

1. Prime yourself to hear the key concepts.

Try to get a sense of the basic concepts and vocabulary of the day, before class. Using the resources that work best for you, make a note of the key concepts you expect to hear the professor talk about. By anticipating the key vocabulary of the day, you will be able to listen better when the professor talks about it. Essentially, you are “priming” yourself to listen to what is important and to learn.

Obviously, the assigned reading is the most important source to consult. But keep in mind that the reading will often be extremely detailed or may illustrate the opposite of what the professor ends up emphasizing. Thus you may want to consult a study guide alongside the reading. The casebook’s table of contents is also an invaluable guide to key words and the course’s overall structure.

(Priming works in other ways you may want to think about as well. If your classmate always complains “Professor X really hides the ball,” then that comment may prime your brain to think class will be confusing. Or it may help you calm down and listen by accepting you’re not the only one who feels confused.)

2. Think about how you are going to take notes.

A lot of people were talking this summer about how taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptops. You should weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourself. Criteria you might want to consider include:

  • What helps you focus on class?
  • What helps you recognize and write down important terms and concepts?
  • How do you show relationships among ideas?
  • What helps you differentiate what the professor says as a definitive statement versus a proposition to examine and perhaps destroy?
  • How will you record the main point of Socratic dialogue between the professor and the student?
  • What worked best for you in previous situations where you needed a mix of detailed and highly conceptual notes?
  • (This one is speculative for 1Ls who have never taken an exam, but still important to think about.) What will help you later when you need to review and consolidate the ideas of the class in studying for the final exam?

The notes themselves ultimately are the key evidence of that student’s listening, according to Moji Olaniyan, the Assistant Dean for the Academic Enhancement Program at the University of Wisconsin. Dean Olaniyan said that when she works with a law student on listening issues, the notes are the place she starts.

It bears noting here, law students should take advantage of offerings from academic support and enhancement programs. And seek personalized advice and help from academic support experts sooner rather than later if you have a concern about reading, listening, or other academic functions.

3. Consider a time-tested note-taking technique.

You don’t have to go to Cornell to use “the Cornell method” for taking notes. Lawyerist, a legal blog, recommended this method for lawyers. 

It has a lot to recommend it for law students as well:

  • It encourages organizing your notes by broad topics and important questions.
  • It creates a place for recording details.
  • It requires a summary for consolidating your knowledge after a listening event.

Whatever note-taking platform and technique you use, these three goals — (1) broad topics; (2) details; (3) summary — are an excellent way to think about how to take notes  in a law-school classroom.

Once you get comfortable with basic note-taking in the law school classroom, consider supplementing with more nuanced approaches. One example is what I call the #ProfessorSays method, which means marking particular points the professor went out of the way to emphasize by labeling them “Professor Says: . . . ” or something similar. Then you can go back to the notes and refresh your memory on what the professor really focused on.

4. Consolidate your knowledge.

After class, take a few minutes to reflect on “what just happened?”  Write down the main points you heard. Write down questions and words to look up. Can you think of hypothetical fact patterns that relate to what was just discussed? Return to the reading and highlight any key passages discussed, if it wasn’t already highlighted.  A more organized approach is the “minute paper” method.

Keep in mind also that writing more notes and summaries after class could be a form of busy work you assign to yourself. The entire purpose of this step is to help your brain learn. If you feel like you’re writing and writing but not sure what exactly what all that writing is doing, try something different. Perhaps explain to a study partner — out loud, and without looking at your notes — “what just happened.” (Listen to yourself: can you actually explain it, or at least explain what it is you need to explain?)

However you do it, try after each class to consolidate what you just learned. Even knowing what you are still confused about is a valuable form of knowledge.

5. Compare notes.

Many students find study groups invaluable; others, not so much. They have benefits but aren’t a panacea, as this pragmatic post from Lee Burgess at Law School Toolbox points out. If you are a more social learner, consider literally comparing notes with a classmate. Ultimately, your listening, reflected in your knowledge and your note-taking, should help you learn and prepare for exams. But looking at how someone else does it may help you to adjust your own method to what best suits your needs.

6. Don’t forget other kinds of listening.

Sitting in a law school classroom, taking in the professor’s brilliance and making your own brilliant inner model of the law is, at its best, really great.

But that’s not what lawyers do every day. They work in small groups or one-on-one with people. They interview clients and negotiate with other parties and depose hostile witnesses. They listen to emotional situations and get lied to and hear their own inner voices reacting to whatever they are hearing from the people around them.

As a brand-new law student, you may or may not have the opportunity to model this kind of listening. If you do, count yourself lucky. If you do not, keep in mind that even the most powerful, effective, excellent listening in the 1L classroom is not in itself sufficient to make a great lawyer. Highly analytical listening is just one skill that lawyers need. Many incoming law students will find this thought consoling.

Thanks to Professor Anne Ralph of Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law for prompting this post. 

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