Note-taking & law school outlines
Tips for developing your law school note-taking and outlining system
Law school is very different than undergrad
Your first year of law school will be unlike any previous educational experience. You may be surprised to learn that, instead of working assignments and exams throughout the semester and earning grades, your entire grade for most law school classes will be based on your final exam score. Additionally, you will prepare and learn the rules of the law outside of the classroom, on your own time, and come to class prepared to apply what you have learned.
Quickly developing a system to take notes in law school, and then translating your notes into law school outlines, will help ensure your study time is productive and reduce frustration. The habits and systems you put in place for yourself early matter greatly to your final grades, eventual class ranking and employment opportunities.
Everything starts with a good law school note-taking strategy.
Develop your law school note-taking system
There are as many note-taking strategies and systems as there are note-takers. Your system may evolve from semester to semester and maybe even from course to course. What’s important is that you find a note-taking system that works well enough for you quickly, and stick with it.
Decide what goes into your law school notes
Writing, re-writing and applying key concepts and takeaways in your own words is critical to truly understanding and retaining the information you are consuming. When taking notes, remember that full transcription or regurgitation is not helping you process, apply and learn the material.
Here are some specific things that you should consider including in your law school notes:
The black-letter law
These are the specific rules of law and the elements that comprise those rules. Much of the time, you’ll be expected to learn the rules outside of class and then apply them during class discussions.
Note any exceptions or areas that are not as clear cut, whether it’s because the facts are more ambiguous and subject to interpretation or because the outcome might be different based on which rules apply to the situation.
Write out stories or scenarios (hypotheticals) to apply the law
Write out a story or a scenario to apply the rules and the elements. Applying the rules and elements to real-life context helps you truly learn and understand beyond regurgitating bullets on a page. It can also help identify areas on which you need to get more clarification. Be sure to capture any hypos your professor covers in class.
Rule evolution and changes
Note why, how and where the rule changed as well as any considerations that drove the change.
Nuances your professor focuses on (especially if she repeats something)
Even if the “why” is not apparent to you quite yet, take note if your professor repeats a phrase, topic or area of interest. Recognize recurring themes throughout the professor’s lectures. They are being repeated for a reason, and you’ll likely encounter them on midterms or final exams.
Tips to get started note-taking
Take your time
Everyone going into law school knows how to read but not everyone knows the nuances of critically reading an assigned case and thinking like a lawyer. It’s a skill that you will develop quickly, but one that needs to be learned and cultivated. Speed reading and note-taking may have worked in other aspects of your education, but it won’t do you any favors in law school.
Law is a technical language with technical meanings. When you’re reading cases and taking notes, slow down and keep a law dictionary at hand. If you don’t understand a word, stop and look up its meaning. It could make the difference in your ability to properly grasp and interpret the information you are consuming.
Go beyond writing down what your casebook or professor says to think about overarching legal concepts. Connect new topics you learn to the subjects and information you’ve already covered in the past, mentally and on paper.
Put pen to paper
Some law students prefer to keep a separate notebook for each class, and others prefer a binder for each class to easily add and rearrange loose-leaf pages.
Studies show handwriting notes helps you better understand and retain legal concepts compared to typing your notes on a computer. Handwriting slows you down just enough to force you to engage more methodically with the material. Find a pen that you like as well as an assortment of highlighters. Make sure to buy some extras to always have on hand.
If you choose to take notes on your computer, turn off all of your notifications and close other windows and distractions. Determine the best software to take and store your notes. Many students use Microsoft Word or OneNote and create folders and sub-folders to organize documents by class and topic. Make sure to set up Autosave so you don’t lose all of your work in the middle of class.
Develop a grouping system
Some students find that activities such as developing a color-coding system makes it easier to identify and group like information across their notes — things like cases, rules and vocab. Also, many visual learners benefit from creating a flow chart or a tree diagram to organize processes or ideas.
Many find a case nicknaming system helpful so that it’s obvious which notes are related to the same case without having to re-write the entire case out each time. Writing frequently used words and terms out fully once and then abbreviating in future uses also saves space and time.
Transition your notes to law school outlines
Effectively using your subject notes to create law school outlines is a time-honored law school tradition. Outlining is an active learning process that will pay huge dividends at final exam time. Simply put, outlining is synthesizing and meshing notes into an organized structure that is meaningful and understandable to you and that, ultimately, helps you study for law school final exams.
Law professors, law school academic support professionals and most experienced law students wholeheartedly agree that you want to start outlining early in the semester. You should be outlining no later than midway through each semester, so by October, for example, in the fall semester. This will give you a few weeks to develop your outlines and use them to study for your final exams.
Decide what goes into your law school outline
Generally, your law school outline should consist of:
- the rules from the cases you study,
- your summarized class notes,
- the professor’s hypotheticals and
- any other material that the professor has brought into discussions or alluded to in lectures.
Create your law school outline
Creating your own outline, rather than borrowing, is highly recommended. It may be time-consuming, but expressing the relevant principles of the law in your own words will help your comprehension and understanding.
As with most things, there is no one right way to create a law school outline. Here are some recommended steps to get started.
First, gather all your foundational information into one place — case briefs, class notes, casebook and maybe a study aid like a BARBRI outline or handed-down outline. For help acquiring law school outlines that make the most sense for your classes, you can start by reaching out to your professors or to upperclassmen to share their old outline for the same course. You can work with both to build your own robust outline.
Cover all your options. BARBRI provides great first-year and upper-level outlines with BARBRI 1L Mastery Package and 2L/3L Mastery Package study aids.
Create a framework
The table of contents in your casebook already has the makings of an outline. Use it as a map for yours. It clearly lays out the major area of law, the related subtopics and where all the cases fit into the discussion. If your professor teaches to a course syllabus rather than following a table of contents, lay out your outline using the syllabus in a similar manner.
State the rule thoroughly
Add a clear and complete statement defining the rule of law (i.e., “Battery is ….”). Do this for each rule based on what has been laid out by your professor, a case you read, information from a commercial outline or hornbook, or some other source (i.e., the Socratic Method in the classroom). It’s critical that you understand and can clearly state the rule.
Break down the rule into its elements
Next, break down the rule itself into its component parts, or elements. Each element then needs to be defined (i.e., list out all four elements of battery and what they entail). The order should follow the way in which the elements were laid out in class by your professor, or how they track in your casebook. It will serve you well on the final exam to take the time to dissect each rule in this way. You’ll likely be asked to write about element(s) of battery, for example, on the essay exam rather than the rule itself.
Follow each element with hypos
Law school exams are based around hypothetical situations. The more practice you have, the more comfortable you’ll be in applying law from cases to new hypos when you encounter them. You’ll have to grapple with unusual fact patterns and be able to determine which rule should be used to solve the problem created. The practice of illustrating how the rule works is helpful to truly understand and learn the rules of law.
Unless you believe your professor will expect you to know them, you can leave case names or citations out of your outline.
Remember, your objective is to summarize the law you have learned in one cohesive review tool that will enable you to be successful on final exam day.