I had an International Law professor in law school who forbade us to take notes in his class.  One reason was that he wasn’t covering anything that would actually be on the exam.  (Because international law is constantly changing and evolving, it was the professor’s view that the most important part of an international law education was learning how to identify and teach oneself a set of applicable norms and rules at any given time, not memorizing, for future reference, the then-existing state of international law.  At the beginning of the semester, the professor proposed three possible areas of study, and the class voted to select two that would be taught in class.   The third was the subject of the exam.)  The other reason was that the professor believed that scribbling down notes prevented students from truly engaging with, and understanding, the material being taught.  By the end of the semester, comparing my experience in that class with others, I was convinced that he was right.

I’d always been a bit of reluctant note-taker in my pre-Biglaw life, and my experience with that International Law class served to reinforce the habit.  So when I began working at the firm, in meetings, I tended to err on the side of active listening with limited writing, trying to maximize my level of understanding in the moment, as opposed to taking copious notes for future reference.  That approach paid dividends.  It allowed me to focus on whether I truly understood what I was being told and to ask important follow-up questions in real time (which, as we discussed in our “Staffing Meeting” post, is key).  But it also started to get me into trouble.

If there was any delay between the instructions and related task, I’d often have trouble remembering certain details—doubly so, if I was running on little sleep.  (Spoiler:  you’re almost ALWAYS running on little sleep in Biglaw).  Moreover, as I began juggling three, four, and five different deals at a time, it became even more challenging to keep the applicable facts and instructions for each deal straight from the others.  I’d routinely find myself grasping at straws in the corners of my mind, trying to plug recollection gaps that inevitably appeared before having to reach out to senior team members for refreshers (a particularly awkward thing to do, if you’re pushing on the limits of a delivery deadline and then have to reveal to your supervising lawyer that you’ve just now been able to turn to a task).

It took me a while to muster the discipline to change tacks and begin taking more notes more often, but when I did, things became markedly easier overnight.  Gone were many of the awkward refresher runs to seniors.  I started working much more efficiently and effectively from minute one, not only because I avoided wasting time, but also because my work was more tightly focused by and directed to fulfilling the complete set of instructions—including all the relevant nuances that I likely wouldn’t have recalled from memory.  As each year went by, I became more and more committed to keeping detailed notes, and the job became easier and easier as a result. By the time I was a senior associate and running deals, my view on note-taking had flipped 180 degrees.  I always erred on the side of taking too many.

From that experience and evolution, I’d offer the follow note-taking tips.

ABN (“Always Be Noting”)

First, as a Biglaw associate, take notes furiously.  Always. My partner mentor in London used to say that, in meetings, associates should be either speaking or writing.  I agree.  As you get more senior, you’ll get better at identifying, ex ante, which information in a meeting is truly irrelevant and can therefore be excluded from your notes.  But until that time, err on the side of caution.

Do as Others Say, Not as They Do

Second—and relatedly—don’t take your note-taking cues from lawyers senior to you.  The further down the seniority ladder you go, the higher a lawyer’s note volume should be.  And never, ever, ever not be writing when someone senior to you is.

…don’t take your note-taking cues from lawyers senior to you.

Early on, when I didn’t know much about anything, I tried to watch the partners and seniors to see what they were writing down in meetings to emulate their approach.  The thing is, you never know what they’re choosing to write down and why.  For example, the background information the client is providing on a call might be hugely relevant to your team, but the partner and senior associate may already know it from a past deal or have access to it in a prior email exchange that you haven’t seen.  Or they may simply be expecting you to get it all down for the team.

I’m not saying that watching what and how your supervising lawyers note isn’t developmentally valuable.  It absolutely is.  But you need to put yourself in the best position to succeed based on your own circumstances, personal characteristics, and limited experience.  You’ll never know exactly what you’ll need/be expected to recall in the future, so I would highly recommend that you note as much as possible until your own experience teaches you that information can—unequivocally—be omitted from your notes.

One last point on this, simply from a cosmetic/optics perspective.  In a meeting, there are few things more frustrating and off-putting to a senior associate than watching a junior associate sit idly while valuable information is being served up (one hundred-fold if you’re making the effort to get it down and they’re not).  Just one more reason to always be noting.

Kill Some Trees

Third, I’d recommend keeping dedicated notebooks for each matter, and always noting the meeting date, topic, and participants conspicuously at the top of each entry.  It might seem like a bit much at first or a pain to have five or six notebooks flying around your office at any one time.  But you’re going to need to reference your notes both immediately after meetings (when you’re being asked to complete a task, for example) and in the weeks and months (and sometimes, if the matter dies and then comes back to life, years) ahead.  If your notes are scattered among a collection of notebooks or interspersed with notes from other matters, finding what you need in the future will be an immensely frustrating and time-consuming task.

Additionally, it’s a common occurrence that a questions come up in meetings about things that happened earlier in the life of the matter.  Do what you can to always have your full matter-related notes on hand when you’re in meetings and organize them so that you can quickly put your finger on something that happened earlier in the life of the deal (hence, the date/topic/participant tips above).

Do what you can to always have your full matter-related notes on hand when you’re in meetings and organize them so that you can quickly put your finger on something that happened earlier in the life of the deal.

Avoid having to say “I’ll have to dig it up and get back to you” or “let me just run to my office really quickly.”  Things move fast in Biglaw.  Help yourself be ready for it.

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