Tag: Cornell method

Law schoolLaw school prepLegal educationPrelaw

Note-taking advice for law students

It’s that time of late summer when law-school boot camps and pre-orientation prep sessions start happening. I’ll be speaking about legal writing next week and note-taking skills the week after that.

For the note-taking session, I put out a call for help and got some really good responses. Here’s the call for help:

The responses covered lots of good points about note-taking. I’m re-organizing them here into a sort of chronological timeline: getting ready for class, listening in class, and reviewing after class. (Apologies for the repetition of the “parent tweet” asking for help; due to non-existent HTML skills, I can’t get rid of it despite checking the box to do so.)

Before the semester, decide on paper, highlighters, and other equipment.

Effective note-taking has elements of creativity to it, in how you capture the content of what you hear. You may want lined paper, plain paper, or paper organized for a certain note-taking strategy. Someone told me a story about their brilliant law-school classmate who took all her notes on mathematical graphing paper. The point is to prepare in advance with helpful equipment such as paper and pens that will help:

No one really talked about taking notes by laptop, which is a debate too large for this humble post. Extrapolating from the comments above, if you’re going to take notes on a laptop I would advise experimenting with apps that give you flexibility for formatting the page, using color, and otherwise doing more than just writing or typing.

Gain context before class.

The difficulty in listening to learn is that a learner, by definition, lacks the framework of an expert. (It’s sometimes called a schema.) Learners can help themselves build a rudimentary schema before class by preparing generally and specifically.

For general preparation, I was always taught to study the textbook’s table of contents. And there’s always the syllabus!

  1. Beyond the textbook and syllabus, the specific assigned reading itself may provide a framework for understanding what’s about to happen in class. This suggestion from Alex Klein shows the benefit of reading actively before class, rather than reading passively and waiting for class to clear everything up. (Hint: that’s wishful thinking in many cases.)

Listen carefully by focusing on key terms, on classmates’ contributions, and on what the professor says in expressing an opinion.

Is more always better—as in more notes, more accurately reproducing exactly what happened in the class session? #PracticeTuesday co-founder Rachel Gurvich shared a lesson learned from her law-school days:

A complete transcription is difficult and likely detracts from deeper learning while listening. But the difficulty—especially for new 1L students—is knowing what should and should not be transcribed. At first, it may be better to err on the side of transcription:

More experience in the law-school classroom should bring more discretion at what matters most. Experienced note-takers learn to recognize different categories of content as it comes out in class, such as factual distinctions and policy rationales:

Another note-taking skill in the law-school classroom is paying attention to the various perspectives offered, not just by the professor playing different sides of an issue but by classmates:

My own special twist on note-taking was to add a feature I called “professor says.” As I processed what the professor stated and asked, sometimes it would become apparent the professor was stepping out of a neutral role and taking a position on the topic. When he or she did that, I would label that moment in my notes with “Professor Says: ___” Keeping track of those moments helped me to match them up with my notes so I could be mindful of them while studying later. Here’s my guest blog post for The Girl’s Guide to Law School that expands on the “professor says” method.

Use visuals to indicate relationships and other ideas.

One less-than-effective way to take notes is uniformly and robotically writing out text from left to right on every page. A better approach is to practice active, flexible, graphical note-taking techniques:

Review and organize notes after class to prepare for outlining and final-exam prep.

Effective note-taking does not end the moment class ends. Putting those notes in a box until it’s time to study for finals is not the best advice. Rather, the advice is to use those notes sooner rather than later to review and consolidate growing knowledge:

These crowd-sourced suggestions struck me as a good starting place for 0Ls about to become 1Ls. Please feel free to share more note-taking techniques here in the comments or on social media at @ListenLikeaLwyr.