Everyone has their own note-taking style. I’m not going to tell you what format to use (bullets, Roman numeral outline, complete sentences versus phrases). Rather, you should take down the information in a way that makes sense to you (and, more importantly, that will make sense to you later when you go back to review your notes). Style aside, however, it is imperative that you create strong note-taking habits from the get-go.
Give Hand-Written Notes a Chance
I would urge you to STRONGLY consider taking handwritten notes in your law school lectures. I know that 98% of you will completely ignore this advice. (When I started law school in 2005, I was one of maybe 3 people per class who took hand notes, and I suspect today’s law students are even more tech-dependent.) But anyway, here’s the pitch, so just think about it.
First, computers are incredibly distracting. You think that when you quickly flip over to the email that pops up you are “multi-tasking.” But it is actually not humanly possible to both read that email and hear and retain the information being said aloud. Our computers and phones are highly addictive, and the impulse to read that completely unimportant, non-urgent email is really hard to control. Removing the device from the scenario makes it much easier.
Second, the problem with laptops is that they turn students into transcribers of information rather than thinkers actively engaged with the material. Law students tend to think that the most important thing is to write down every single word that comes out of the professor’s mouth. And look, if you plan to go back and actually do something with those transcription-like notes to synthesize them throughout the semester, there could be some value there. But more often than not, what you’re left with is hundreds of pages of typed, unformatted notes—notes that you’ve never really thought about and won’t have time to properly process and distill when exam preparation rolls around. It’s just TMI.
[L]aptops . . . turn students into transcribers of information rather than thinkers actively engaged with the material.
Hand notes force you to process the information while it’s being delivered.
Hand notes force you to process the information while it’s being delivered. Unlike typing, you simply cannot write down every word. Thus, your brain has to distill the information into concrete, noteworthy bits, teasing out the core meaning of what is being presented. Some might call that learning. It is a much more active and effective mode of taking information in. (And don’t worry, if you miss something, you can always ask to take a peek at one of the literally hundreds of class transcripts that your peers have prepared.)
Additional Note-Taking Best Practices
Either way—laptop or hand notes—focus on quality and usability. Develop a system right away to flag for yourself (i) things you missed and (ii) questions you have. (For hand notes, I did things like drawing arrows in the margin; for laptop notes, you could drop “??” or some other unique, searchable notation.) Those flags will be invaluable when outlining and study grouping.
Develop a system right away to flag for yourself (i) things you missed and (ii) questions you have. Those flags will be invaluable when outlining and study grouping.
Recall from Part 2, “Starting Out the Semester,” the importance of referencing the professor’s phrasings, insights and viewpoint in your exam responses. This is where diligent note-taking comes in. Homing in on, and writing down accurately, those nuggets will be the key to creating outlines that will set you up for success on your exams.
Especially if you are taking laptop notes, mentally engage during lectures so that you are not passively transcribing the lectures verbatim. In addition to producing higher quality notes, it will also help you identify areas where you have questions. Likewise, if you are typing and racking up pages, develop a system to highlight items that seem particularly important so that they don’t get lost in all the other noise.
Trust me when I tell you that transcription-style notes will be a real bear to deal with when it comes time to outline—what seemed at the beginning of the semester to be the safe strategy because you “didn’t miss anything” becomes a real problem when you simply do not have enough time to process that volume of typed material.
Here’s an additional practice to consider: if you are committed to typed notes and find yourself generating a lot of material, set aside a few hours a week to go through that week’s notes to clean them up and streamline them. Again, this will be an opportunity to identify questions, format them consistently and, importantly, trim the fat so that they are more manageable during outlining. For a gold star in study habits, you might also take this opportunity to look back at your reading and fold that into your notes. However, you’ll need to balance whatever time you allot for this process with keeping up with your ongoing reading, study group, legal writing assignments—all while pacing yourself so that you don’t burn out mid-way through the semester. This will be a recurring theme (including in future posts regarding when to start outlining and how to pace your study)—you need to be proactive about allocating your time during the semester. Do not get tunnel vision on one aspect of law school (one class, note processing, one legal writing assignment) and let the other things that will determine your grades suffer. You must—MUST—map out your semester, week by week, and allocate your time in a way that you can accomplish everything that must be done.
Finally, if you want to disregard my incredibly compelling case for hand notes and use your laptop, fine, I get it, but a final thought: turn your wifi off and put your phone away. A year or two ago, you were really excited about going to that law school, and now you are paying an insane amount of money to be sitting in those classes. Quality class notes are essential to exam preparation. (Remember what we said in Part 2 about always keeping your eye on the prize?) Establish a practice of refraining from email and texting during class. I promise—that email will still be there in 17 minutes when class lets out.