Study Aids in Law School

The majority of law students do use study aids at one point or another during their first year of law school. Study aids can be very helpful to you if you use them appropriately. Moreover, there are ways to misuse study aids to your detriment. Study aids should never be a replacement for doing your own work during law school.

Study aids are materials other than your casebook that help explain the law. Most professors' take is to read the casebook, brief the cases, attend class (listen, take notes, answer and ask questions), and consult with your professors when you need further clarification. If you've done all that and still do not understand the material, you may decide to turn to a study aid. Study aids are not a substitute for doing the hard work yourself because working with the material, even when it is difficult, is essential to understanding. Moreover, students often mistakenly believe that a generic brief, outline, or analysis reflects their professor's prospective of the law. Keep in mind that different professors look at different aspects of a subject - even their choice of language can be different from the commercial aids.

On the other hand, reading a study aid may be all that's needed to pull together all of the work you've done. It can be like the proverbial light bulb going on in your head after you've read someone else's explanation of the material. Study aids can be especially useful to double-check your understanding of the material as you prepare your course outlines. The types of books that you can buy run from stripped down flowcharts and outlines to huge treatises. Between hornbooks and commercial outlines, there is another category of study aids that offer explanations of the law, but in less detail than a hornbook. Overall, these aids cover every traditional first year course and many upper level courses as well. Today, I want to cover the most common.

Hornbooks are the top of most professors' acceptable list. The good news is that they can provide you with useful background for your reading assignments for class. You will then have a context for your reading, so you can see how the case you are reading fits into the big picture. Specifically, hornbooks are treatises in a particular area of law. Prosser and Keeton, and also Dobbs on Tort; Calamari and Perillo on Contracts; Stoebuck/Whitman and Hovenkamp, and Kurtz on Property are all examples of hornbooks. These books explain the legal concepts and black letter law in the way a non-fiction book or textbook would. Hornbooks are more like your undergraduate books, except more scholarly and detailed. While commercial outlines cover many of the same concepts, they don't cover them in great detail. A hornbook can go into depth by explaining the reasoning behind a series of cases. They can also take you through the legal synthesis process to explain how a group of cases may fit together. Do remember, however, that the hornbook author tells you what the law is, unlike the perfect classroom discussion. It does not the Socratic method.

Hornbooks can also help when you create course outlines. When you're outlining, if you don't understand the concepts from the casebook and class notes, read the appropriate section in the hornbook, and see if you then understand enough to outline. The hornbooks discuss cases, so you probably will see an explanation of many of the cases in your casebook. The hornbook might just discuss the cases in a way that you understand.

Downside: they are big and long and expensive. Don't automatically purchase hornbooks, because the cost can be prohibitive. Use the library's copies for specific problem areas or to give you some assistance with your outlining. But this is a source - do not think you are going to read an entire hornbook. A more affordable paperback version is the Understanding series, published by Lexis Publishing is a good alternative if you find yourself utilizing this type of study aid. As with the treatises (although more limited) this series explains the law of a subject area in a narrative format.

A mini version of these, some say, is the Nutshell series (West Publishing Company), little books that explain the law in a condensed format. Their size--5" x 7"--may make them seem more palatable and less intimidating. Many of them give you just enough law so that you have a clear understanding of course rules, concepts and policy. The bad side of Nutshells is that this series is generally not favored by professors, has few topic headings, and sacrifices a lot of significant detail to fit in the small size. Therefore, "because" and "how," keys to exam writing, may not be extensively discussed in this series. But if you just need the basic stuff - look there. These books are also good to read if you haven't taken a specific bar course and want to review the general law before you begin taking a bar review course.

Narrative study guides
Similar books (although not in size) come under such series titles as Examples and Explanations (Aspen Law & Business), the Inside series (Wolter Kluwer/Aspen), the Mastering series (Carolina Academic Press), and Concepts and Insights (Foundation Press). These series use primarily narrative explanations of various areas of the law. The Inside and Mastering series is new, and therefore not as popular as the Examples and Explanation series. The Inside series contains a narrative explanation as well as some strategies on how to answer questions in a particular area. It also has some good notation regarding the connection of each topic to the entire area of law. The Mastering series is great for visual learners, because it also has charts to demonstrate some of the material. The Examples and Explanations series also contains fact pattern examples of different areas of the law, questions about those facts, and detailed explanations as answers to the questions. This series is rated high with professors and students. In fact some of your professors may have suggested you use them as "suggested" text.

All of these books are more thorough that the standard outline type of book. With respect to Examples and Explanations, the series provides detailed analysis more comprehensive than outlines - and because it isn't as dense as hornbooks - they are easier to follow. But, the big plus of Examples and Explanations is that they give questions - and then explain the answers. You can use this book as a good source of hypos b/f your exam - or as a source for a discussion group with fellow classmates. Because most essay exams ask questions based on facts, these books can help you determine if you know rules and can apply the rules to this new information in a meaningful way.

A significant down side is that these explanations and examples may not reflect your professor's take. Likewise, your professor may use different language when referring to the legal concepts: it would be unimpressive that you refer to a key topic with lingo your professor doesn't use. Moreover, don't ever think that you will do great solely based on how you do in Examples and Explanations or the Inside series.

Commercial Outlines
Almost every student uses a commercial outline at one time. Commercial outlines can be very helpful in laying out the black-letter law and giving you rules to memorize, if that is what you are looking for. Some outlines are geared towards certain casebooks, so some students find those particularly helpful. The problem with commercial outlines is that some students use them in place of reading and working with the material on their own. These outlines are intended to supplement your work, not replace it.

What kinds are there? Well, the two that are best known are Gilberts and Emanuel on about every subject imaginable. From an article I read regarding study aids, it appeared that Emanuel was considered a better source - probably because it has more than simply the black letter law. In fact, in response to these "examples" books, it appears that many of the outline study aids have added study tips, exam hints, and some questions. Other outline book include Crunchtime (Emanuel), which has capsule summaries, flowcharts, exam tips and sample questions, Black Letter (Thomson/West), which includes some examples and analysis, and Law Outlines (Casenotes), which contains capsule and complete outlines and limited exam questions.

Overall, commercial outlines can help you get the big picture if you are lost in details. Some students just need a boost and this can give it to you. While a good syllabus and table of contents of the book may be valuable, these outlines can help you separate the details from the main ideas and concepts. These outlines are also good to make sure that you did not miss anything big, assuming that the professor covers it. Rather than spinning your wheels or not having any sense of outlining - check one out. Remember, however, even if you know the black letter law from a commercial outline, you still need to take the next step and learn how and when to apply it to new factual situations. That's how you really learn legal analysis.

CALI is short for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction. These are interactive computer exercises and questions that test your knowledge of the material and help improve your test-taking skills. The CALI lessons provide interactive exercises in which you enter responses to questions based on fact patterns and receive an instantaneous evaluation of your answer and prompts to guide you to the "right" answer. You learn the law and how to apply the law to a body of facts--the key to doing well on exams. Some of the CALIs are mini-tutorials on a particular subject. Most CALIs tell you how long it should take to complete the exercises, and they range anywhere from 10 minutes to one hour. You should have received one when you started law school. If not, check with the library. So, if you have difficulty understanding a section of the course, CALI can help walk you through the basic law.

Canned Briefs
Now we get to the Cliff's Notes of law school casebooks: the canned briefs. The two big ones are Legalines and Casenotes: Legal Briefs. Of all the comments I received from the professors - there was a universal opinion regarding canned briefs. It was: DON'T USE THEM!!!

Seriously, you need to read the assigned cases. Canned briefs can't be used as a substitute for reading the cases in preparation for class. Note only is this book the kind of study aid frowned on by faculty, there are essential truths that you need to recognize: they aren't very good and critical case reading is an essential legal skill. You won't have canned briefs in practice (or LRW) so you need to learn the process.

Regarding their use, common wisdom says that you can get the first one or two questions answered from the professor - but any subsequent hypo or in-depth question won't work when the "analysis" consists of two sentences.

Miscellaneous (Flashcards. Tapes. etc.)
Flashcards are sometimes helpful for students. While it might be better to create your own, some sections of the law tend to lend themselves as flashcards. Flashcards are also useful if you need to learn a lot of information and need to review for details. Students can also practice short hypotheticals to test their knowledge and to get acquainted with the kinds of facts that will raise a particular issue. If you like this sort of first step before hitting the longer essay questions, do yourself a favor and write out the answers - don't just talk them out. Remember it is in the explanation of why you decided as you did that you can get lots of points. Look to use flashcards when there is certain language or facts which trigger a legal theory; this is when flashcards are helpful to chunk all that material together.

Tapes are great for the oral learner - particularly if you drive solo a long way. However, if you either 1) start and stop the tape at random points (again, you need to cover a section to make sense) or 2) you don't learn well with just the spoken tapes will not prove very valuable. A better choice might be a discussion group where a group of students get together to "talk it out." Again, depends on the students.

Exam Prep Books
Students who do well in law school general practice sample questions prior to their exams. In this category, there are four different series which present various questions and answers in particular courses. They are the Exam Pro series, Siegel's, Q & As, and Finals. Some of them announce the issue and thus are more helpful in understanding the area you are currently studying. Others are multi-issued questions, so issue -spotting is part of the process. Some are essay questions; others have multiple choice questions. And while the best way to practice is to use your own professor's exams with model or sample answers, students do not always have that advantage. No matter what, students should practice both during the semester and in preparation for the exams.

Final Thoughts
Too many study aids can be overwhelming. If you try to use too many, you will be adding to your workload, with little likelihood of getting much additional useful information. You will also be spending too much money, because study aids can be expensive. So pick only when you need it, and choose wisely.

Another point to remember is that outlines and such can help with learning black letter law - but you also need to learn recognize issues and to apply these rules. During exams many questions do not have directives identifying the issues to be discussed. So get your outline in reasonable order sufficiently early in the semester so that you can practice answering hypothetical questions, preferable the professor's old exams. Don't forget to write out the analysis because it is a great way to learn the fundamentals of the law, as well as how to properly analyze and apply those rules of law.

All of these steps are parts of learning to become a lawyer. So, read cases, synthesize, outline, study, and practice: but make sure you do it in a timely fashion and don't rely on a last-minute "magic" book. And to paraphrase one professor - sometimes the best study aid is junk food and candy bars! So use what works - just remember that there is no substitution for using legal analysis to process the cases and class discussion into legal rules, outlines and an exam strategy.

copyright 2009 Joyce Savio Herleth

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