Note taking at law school

Note taking at university can take many forms – you can use a pen and paper, tablet or laptop. I recommend you try as many formats as possible, but you must understand why you’re taking notes (and it’s not to scribble down every work the lecturer says).

It can be pretty easy for new students to get hung up on what to do for their first few lectures – this is a (relatively) quick post on the whys and hows of note taking.

tips for note taking at law school

Why take lecture notes?

The reason for taking notes will depend on how organised you are.

  • Fill in the gaps in your knowledge – If you are completely on top of your reading, then your lecture notes will be dot-point reminders of what you need to go back and reread when the class is over (that is, what you didn’t completely understand when reading it the first time round). This will help you consolidate your knowledge and clarify any issues you may have.
  • To do the minimum required – Unfortunately, we all find ourselves at this point somewhere along the way! If you’re behind in your reading, then lecture notes are to record any case or cases that the lecturer focused on so that you can add these to the top of your reading list. You don’t want to be in this situation for very long, but when you don’t have enough time to do everything, you should at least read and understand the main cases and concepts.

It’s also very important to remember what lecture notes are not meant for, which is writing down every last word the lecturer says! More on this below.

Effective note taking

You will quickly notice that everyone has their own unique way of taking lecture notes. However, some ways are far more effective and useful than others.

It’s easy as a new student to make the mistake of writing frantically, to the point that you have copied every last word the lecturer has uttered. This is a big mistake, because you are focusing so hard on writing that you don’t have any time to really think about what the lecturer is saying (and in particular, what the lecturer is placing emphasis on).

When you decide to take notes, you should only write down brief notes to job your memory when you come back to them.

For example, you might have finished your readings for contract law, but when you cover the Masters v Cameron case in class, you realise you didn’t fully understand the three classes of contracts. It’s easy at this point to step into auto-mode and start writing everything down, but stop and think about it; you already know you missed a critical point, so whatever you do, you will be reviewing the case after class. Give all your attention to the lecturer and make sure you understand what he or she is saying.

All you need to write down is:

  • Masters v Cameron
  • three classes
    • 1 – parties reach finality of terms, but will restate later
    • 2 – complete agreement, but conditional on execution
    • 3 – no bargain unless execution
  • also fourth class – another case – Baulkham Hills

That’s it – this could take 10 or 15 minutes for the lecturer to explain, but these are the key points. If you leave the lecture with a half page or full page of notes then you have been inefficient (and probably have a pretty sore hand). I know that it feels like a great safety net, but its not necessary.

At this point I should say that in law (and I’m sure in many other disciplines), your original lecture notes will never make it into any open book exam. They will be messy, unorganised, and incomplete, and you will have almost no time to navigate them in a time pressured exam. And besides, the preparation of your exam notes will require you to start from scratch anyway (I’ll be writing a post on this soon).

It’s all about learning, and as you get more experience in lectures, your notes will shrink. Consider this a (very) good thing because it means that you have learnt what the important parts of a lecture are, and that you are filtering out all the fluff.

The Cornell Notes method

The Cornell Notes System will come up a lot if you search for note taking tips in Google. Seriously, no law student I know would have time to invest in this – there is simply too much reading to get through to even consider following this method (just reading the Wikipedia page makes my head hurt).

Effective note taking
I wouldn’t even know how law students have the time to use this method when taking notes from textbooks, let alone lectures…

Hey, if you have time after the mountain of reading to do this, then all power to you. Personally, I would focus on noting down enough information so that you can simply remember what case is being discussed, read it after class, and then using any extra time you have during the semester to prepare your exam script.

So… pen, tablet or laptop?

I have read so much advice on this topic where people just go completely overboard. You must do this, you can never do that! It’s ridiculous. Just pick one and see how it goes. Don’t like it? Then swap over and see what happens.

Use whatever option is easiest right now. Consider how fast you can write or type, whether you want to carry a laptop around, whether your tablet has a detachable keyboard (or whether you can actually use the onscreen keyboard effectively). Cost is another factor.

My note taking technique changed a number of times throughout the degree. I started with a pen and paper notebook. I can still recall how sore my hand was after an hour of solid writing after those first few lectures!

I moved onto a laptop, and instead of actually listening to what important cases and concepts the lecturers were focusing on, I sat there and tried to transcribe the every word that was spoken.

When I figured out that I didn’t need to take so many notes I moved back to a pen, and at times, a laptop when I could be bothered carrying it.

lecture notes can be taken by pen, tablet or laptop
Just pick one and see how you go!

Honestly, at the end of the semester you will be preparing for the exams by using the notes you took when studying, not from your lectures. You’re own lecture notes will only play a small part in your exam preparation.

Note taking software

You will find reviews of different software and apps in a simple Google search.

I’m pretty boring, so I just used Microsoft Word for taking lecture notes (or notepad if I couldn’t be bothered waiting for my ancient laptop to load Word). It’s easy and almost any PC has it installed. Mac users can just use the equivalent (which may very well be Word).

In my opinion, the type of software doesn’t particularly matter, so there is no need to go out and pay money for any software package.

One last thing…

We all fall behind with weekly readings every now and again. Just remember, don’t go back to writing everything down. It only feels like you are being productive.

The best thing you can do is write down what the lecturer was emphasising and then make sure those cases and concepts are at the top of your reading list. When you find time to tackle them, at that point, you will do all the learning.

And as always, if you try these tips and hate it, keep experimenting – everyone is different, and you just need to figure out what works best for you.

Good luck!

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