Taking notes is a vital skill needed to succeed in law school and your legal career. Although notetaking might seem like a simple task, the wrong approach can be detrimental to your learning, while a productive one can enhance it tenfold.
Effective notetaking will improve your retention, material comprehension, and your listening skills. It can even help you identify what content will come up in exams.
In this guide, we'll cover various notetaking tips and tricks that will change your law notes from pages of confusing, unfocused chaos to pages of clear and concise words where you can find the necessary information in an instant.
Before we delve any further, though, it's worth noting that while the strategies below are renowned for their effectiveness, not all of them will work for you since everyone learns differently. So, be sure to test them all out. That way, you'll be able to determine which strategies work best.
Choosing the Method: Handwritten vs. Typed
Many law students type up notes, but studies have shown that sticking to old-school pen and paper can seriously improve your retention of the material discussed. In fact, it was found that laptop users performed worse academically and felt less fulfilled (and more "disconnected") from their education.
Of course, it goes without saying that each method has its fair share of pros and cons. We'll quickly cover what these are below so you can determine which notetaking method is right for you.
Handwritten: The Pros
- It helps you to understand the content better as it forces you to process what is said; you can't transcribe it word for word.
- It trains you to identify the most relevant information.
- It's better for memory retention, both long term and short term.
- It's less distracting; you only have the pen, paper, and your professor to look at.
Handwritten: The Cons
- It takes longer to write notes.
- It can get messy and illegible, especially without a proper structure.
- You can potentially miss information. You're unlikely to catch everything your professor says, especially if they speak fast.
- It can cause hand strain.
- There's no backup. If you spill coffee over your notes or lose them, they'll be gone forever.
Typed: The Pros
- It is more time efficient; the average typing speed is around 41 words per minute (WPM), while the average writing speed is significantly lower.
- You can more easily organize, structure, and revise your notes.
- You can back up your notes.
- You can have online resources that aid your understanding of the lecture open at the same time.
Typed: The Cons
- It promotes "mindless" notetaking; you're more inclined to switch off and take notes verbatim than truly process the content.
- It is a lot more distracting. From social media to email notifications, there are temptations everywhere.
- It can make revision harder. If you didn't fully engage with the lecture content initially, you'll undoubtedly take more time to understand it when reviewing.
Find an Appropriate Notetaking Style
Once you've decided between handwritten or typed, you'll need to find an appropriate notetaking style. It should suit your learning approach as well as help you find and retain necessary information with ease. While there is a myriad of notetaking styles out there, we highly recommend trying out the Cornell Method to start.
The Cornell Method
Devised in the 1950s by Prof. Walter Pauk, the Cornell Method is a notetaking approach known for making notes more organized and easy to review. It involves writing less to gain more and encourages students to apply the knowledge they have learned, not just memorize and "regurgitate" it.
The Cornell Method is quick and easy to grasp. An in-depth video guide that goes over this style in greater detail, including how to use it, can be found here.
Other Notetaking Methods
If the Cornell Method doesn't feel right for you, there are other well-known methods you can try here.
Keep in mind that certain notetaking methods may work better for different classes. After all, every professor has their own teaching style and the information discussed in each class will also vary.
How to Take Notes in Law School: Top Tips and Tricks
We'll now dive into the tips and tricks that'll transform your notes, your learning, and ultimately, your grades.
Make Notes Brief
Your notes should be brief and only capture the most relevant information. This allows you to quickly grasp the gist of the content when reviewing, and it also forces you to process and think about the information.
Here are some tips that will help you keep your notes brief and concise:
- Use abbreviations and symbols. You can design your own system or take inspiration from those commonly used in legal documents.
- Jot down unfamiliar words or concepts you don't understand; you can look them up later.
- Don't write notes in complete sentences; you'll be more inclined to just memorize the content and disconnect from it. Instead, opt for short phrases or bullet points.
- Be selective in what you write down: see our advice for this below
For tips on how to take notes in class more quickly, check out this guide on shorthand techniques.
Keep Notes Clear and Organized
Besides using an appropriate notetaking style, there are a few other ways to make your notes organized and easier to review.
Color Code Notes
Color-coding notes makes it easier to find the necessary information and link different sections together.
How you color code — and what you color code — is ultimately up to you and your preferences. However, we recommend color-coding hypotheticals, rules, reasoning, concepts, important dates, and noteworthy figures at the least.
Whichever color-coding process you choose, make sure you're consistent and stick to it.
Bold Key Words
It goes without saying that bolded words stand out and catch your attention first. However, make sure you're selective. If every other sentence has a bolded word, then the bolded text will no longer catch your eye, defeating the point of its purpose.
Use Charts and Tables
Charts and tables break down walls of text into more digestible content and their visual nature can help you better remember the information. Moreover, they're particularly useful for organizing "comparison-type" content (e.g. presenting case comparisons).
Leave Space Between Lines
Always leave some space after every line you write. This will allow you to add more information easily when revising your notes. Similar to charts and tables, spaces also make lengthy content more digestible.
Write Notes Down in Own Style
It's important to note down the information in your own voice instead of just copying the professor's exact wording. In doing so, you'll avoid any unintentional plagiarism, and you'll also be forcing yourself to actively engage with the lecture content.
This process can even help you identify where your weaknesses are; if you're not able to rewrite the content in your own wording, it's a telltale sign that you don't fully understand it.
Review and Edit ASAP
It's also crucial to review and edit your notes as soon as possible after the lecture, as the content and class discussion will still be fresh in your head.
During the editing process, make sure to edit phrases or words that are illegible and look up anything you didn't understand in the lecture. You should also reorganize or rewrite any "chaotic" content.
After you have reviewed your notes, speak to your professor if you have any remaining questions or would like further insight into what was covered. Don't be afraid to reach out to your professors; they are a valuable source of knowledge.
What to Do Before Notetaking
Before attending a lecture or seminar, make sure to look over the reading, presentation slides, and handouts. This will give you a gist of what it'll cover, and it will help you identify the key topics to focus on when notetaking.
Determining What is Important
Taking notes that are brief, clear, and concise is only half the battle. You also need to be able to identify what's essential to jot down. Here's what to look out for:
- Repeated words, themes, or concepts — they are likely to show up in the exam
- Information that is written on the board
- Terms that the professor spells out
- Hypotheticals that the professor provides — these can potentially become exam questions
- Recommended methods for answering a question
- Words which are emphasized, either verbally or through non-verbal cues
- Summaries of main points
- Phrases such as "remember to", "don't forget that", "to recap", "as I mentioned earlier", "the main points are", "the steps are", "that's correct".
- Lines of reasoning
Make sure to also note down any questions you come up with, as well as concepts you don't fully understand.
Becoming a Pro Notetaker
Law school will no doubt be one of the toughest and most challenging experiences you'll face, but effective notetaking can help mitigate some of the difficulty. It will improve your critical thinking skills, make the course content easier to process and even help you retain information better.
From efficient notetaking styles to tips that'll improve clarity, we've covered it all in this in-depth guide on how to take notes in law school.