Effective Note Taking

Socratic note taking is an art that most first year law students find difficult to master. Unlike general note taking from undergraduate and high school days, the professors do not generally "follow the book," spell out the important highlights, or even, necessarily, fully discuss the cases. Instead, the professor endeavors to use the modern Socratic method to help law students determine the relevant rules, policies and underlying legal themes.

A true Socratic method is based upon a small group concept in which students are encouraged to ask and answer questions while guided to the truth by the teacher. The emphasis is on oral discussions, not taking notes. In law school, practicality dictates that students answer rather than ask questions. Here, notes can play a vital role in the learning process.

First, it's important to understand the difference between undergraduate and law school expectations. Typically, undergraduate professors tended guide the discussion by "laying it out" by lecture or study notes or powerpoint. Law schools professors question, question, question, question, so you may need to decide the answer for yourself. This involves some self-teaching and at times you might feel overwhelmed by the professor's expectation. However, you need to adjust to the reality and give the professors what they want in terms of understanding material and being able to use the law to answer further questions. So, it's your job to deliver!

Why notes?
Taking notes is an integral part of the learning process. You need to determine if you are "getting" the point of the discussion and if you have zeroed in on the rationale and reasoning of the cases. Finally, notes are a great way to track the professor's progress through the course, both as to the subject matter and as to how the professor got there. You can also use your notes to pinpoint where you got lost.

In another section, pre-class preparation was discussed (See, Preparing for Class - In Praise of the Brief). Suffice to say, you need to get ready for class because the professor will generate many questions - and you need to be prepared to explain.

One way you can help yourself is by trying to read the particular professor in your class. Notice her lecture style, whether she "briefs" the case during the lecture, and how she uses hypotheticals. Note also if she uses policy besides the black letter law, and if she eventually provides an analytic approach to apply the rules. Obviously, you will need to determine this as the course goes along, but this can be an invaluable tool to deciding how to respond to exam questions. For example, once you have decided that a particular property professor uses public policy, you can develop a code system to designate any policy argument that were (or could have been) used in a particular case. This can help you anticipate the professor's questions. All this can then be incorporated into your pre-class preparation.

Notes During Class:
One way to maximize the class experience is to try to take meaningful notes that tell you something when you reread them. If, however, you are lost and confused and don't know what is significant - get as much as you can - and review later to keep the important and dump the unnecessary. This is particularly useful in the beginning of the course before you have learned the professor's style of teaching. Start with your prepared notes, and using some way to distinguish, add your class notes. You might wish to literally divide your notes in half - with the prepared information on one side, class notes on the other. This can help you quickly highlight information that the professor found pertinent and note the additional information that you missed. This process can assist you in learning to spot issues and finding the rationale and reasoning in the cases.

One point should be clarified regarding note taking. When you were an undergraduate - what techniques worked for you? Law students sometimes thing they need to reinvent the wheel and do everything in a certain manner. In reality, if you found typing on your laptop helpful and a way to keep you focused - great! If you find making flowcharts and charts by hand more helpful - do that! Work with what has worked in the past - and add new methods as needed.

Beyond simply taking down facts of the case, rules and analysis, you also need to remember where all these notes are going to ultimately lead you - the exam. And the exam questions will use different factual situations to determine if you can make a leap from these case facts to some other factual situations. In exams, you generally find that the "answer" is not obvious - you will have to explain why the rule does/does not apply. Moreover, you will notice that the exam facts are generally more complex than the case facts. So make sure you add all hypotheticals so that you have even more situations to add to your collection of information (So, for example, you might learn that under the case facts AND this hypo's facts, this rule applied. Or, you might discover that the rule does apply under that case facts, but not under the facts of the hypo.) Hypothetical situations then allow you to practice on a mini-scale how to apply the rules to a new set of facts. So don't forget them in your notes.

Similarly be aware of policy questions, and any other question that the professor considers significant. Highlight these clues to the professor's approach to the topic. Try to particularly indicate the "why" questions - they give the best hints.

Using Notes after Class- the Postmortem
Beyond the obvious ability to answer questions regarding the who, what, where, why of the case, your brief can also serve to critique your legal analysis. After class, take a few minutes to review your brief: did the professor agree regarding the facts? Holding? Did the professor make the same assessment regarding the case and its application of the law? As you move through the semester, these review session should provide more positive feedback as you get better at briefing.

In addition, consider any hypothetical that the professor discussed in class. Would these new facts change the application of the legal theory? Did the hypothetical facts demonstrate that the policy arguments don't make sense? Think about how these new facts apply and incorporate them into any final conclusions you have.

Finally, ask yourself if you have a concept of how the law and theories fit together: can you see the "forest for the trees." Think about referring back to your table of contents, syllabus, or if necessary, an outline to provide context for the new information you have learned from class. You will then be better equipped to brief for the next class' assignment. This process of reduction is vital because it helps you select the important ideas and key concepts.

You may also want to periodically test yourself by reciting from memory some of these key concepts. Law examinations presume you have memorized the law. Help yourself by gradually learning the topics after you have finished a particular section.

Finally, don't be afraid to go back and review and integrate your old notes with new information. Often new material may refer back to prior analysis. You need to be able to make these connections in order to write a good outline and, ultimately, a good examination answer.

To Summarize - the 5 R's of Note taking:

  1. Record the information in class in the method that works for you.
  2. Reduce after class to decide the good from the junk - selecting important ideas, key words and concepts.
  3. Reflect - look at the unified whole of the section of the course and decide what you learned. This is the process of synthesis.
  4. Recite (try to recall what you learned).
  5. Review by integrating new notes into old, making connections that will help you as you outline.
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