Law School Life: Organizing Law Notes in Eleven Steps

This post was inspired by one girl in one of my second year electives.

She was obviously good friends with the professor, and was always teased about her excessive tabbing of her notes with flags.

Seriously, the girl had about ten dollars worth of page flags in one giant binder.

"BUT I HAVE A SYSTEM!" She whined playfully.

That was the day, when I realized: I may need to step my note-organisation up. I needed a "system."

To make my stance clear: We don't all need to be the girl who does excessive tabbing- but we ALL need to have a system.

This is an amalgamation of tips that I found work the best for me in the organization of your notes. Take what you can from them, and hopefully one of them will set you towards a system of your own.

Organising Law Notes in Eleven Steps:

1. Have Two Sets of Notes

You heard me. One that you take in class while actually trying to keep up with what the professor is saying, and one master set that you transfer your class notes to at the end of each week, flag issues you might not understand, and generally clear up points of contention/ make your 'good set of notes' legible for exams.

I also usually kept track of little points to focus on clarifying in these notes on a To-Do List on my phone, just to not let it completely slip my mind by the end of the week.

By having two sets of notes, and keeping your 'Master Set' relatively clean/organized for the end of term, you won't spend your entire exam study week between end of term and taking exams frantically scrambling to make your notes 'exam-accessible.' If you implement this system correctly, you should actually just have a few clarification points you should be able to clear up during office hours during that week, or just do a few practice exams in your time frame, while everyone else is running around like a chicken with their head off. It's also super-helpful if you have a class where you need to allocate more time to studying (-hem hem- Constitutional Law for me), and you can do so freely without worrying about your other notes being completely out of whack.

Plus, by checking in throughout the term at the end of the week and realising what you don't understand then, you can shoot an email to your professors at the end of that week, clarify whatever you don't understand from that week's material, and then not have all the things you don't understand pile up until the end of term as a result (And trust me: By that point, because the law tends to build upon itself, if you don't understand something in the third week that's a pivotal point, you probably will be missing a large chunk of applicable knowledge by not approaching the professor right off the bat by the twelfth week. Don't be bashful. Be proactive).

2. Table of Contents

Which leads me to keeping a solid and updated Table of Contents. Many word-processing systems now automatically update your Pages the more you work (I.E: If your notes for conveyancing points change to page sixteen of your Property Law notes rather than fifteen, you won't have to change them manually), so changing numbers shouldn't be an issue; especially if you complete your notes on systems like Pages. Table of Contents save me in any note-taking scenario I'm in.

3. Page Numbers

Of course, Table of Contents are useless without page numbers. I always make sure that no matter where they're at the bottom of the page or top of the page, they're at a place where you'll automatically be able to flip to and look in your exam-writing frenzy.

4. Flags

Of course. Even though you might have a Table of Contents and Page Numbers, sometimes you just know that there's a set of facts or a test from a case that's probably going to be questioned. Don't waste time flipping for that test in the general area: In law school, I labelled all the cases/legislation with tests on flags by their test names, so I could easily access the flags when needed. (I.E: If I knew it was likely that there was going to be a Charter of Rights and Freedoms test on the exam, I made a flag with 'Charter Rights' written on it. Sure enough, it always came up!).

5. Colour-Coding

I use colour coding for different sections within my notes, and for certain facts of a case. I think some people just respond to colours as sorting techniques, and I'm one of them. See if works for you!

6. Keep Cases and Case Facts/Ratio in Tables

One of the ways I was able to organize intricate case details separate from notes was by keeping all the cases we considered in tables, which helped seperate things visually from the rest of your notes, and keeping you from getting muddled.

7. Be wary of the Note Policy your Law School Employs

Some note-taking systems may be out of the equation based on what your law school employs.

When I was attending law school (2016-2019), one of the biggest aspects of law school was a focus on writing your own notes, and having an automatic policy of zero on a final exam if your notes resembled someone else's too closely.

Mostly this was done to deter people from keeping a Google Drive where they worked on a master set of notes as a group and then all used the same set of notes for the exam, or all of us just regurgitating a mysterious master set of notes sent around by a now-graduated law god. I also know of some law school societies that have note databases from their Law School Student Societies that basically everyone can use as a basis for their notes, and apparently that's completely fine. It all depends on your school.

But you need to be absolutely concrete in your knowledge of your law school's note policy.

I'll give you my two cents (which is probably why you're here in the first place): The problem with relying too much on these sort of previously created notes is while they can be helpful to clarify points, people who rely too heavily on these notes as their sole source of information usually don't learn the material as effectively themselves. I'm not just saying this as a "goody-two-shoes," it's just a fact. I saw students whose notes would mostly be based on these master sets of notes, only to not understand complex areas of the law when it came to exam-time, simply because they hadn't taken the time to study the cases properly, or understand the application of law.

My law school didn't have an issue with sharing notes, or attending law student society-run tutorials, for example: What they had a problem with was if it was obvious that you were simply regurgitating other's work. So while you could use these notes or resources as supplementary to your own notes, it shouldn't be the basis for any of your exam materials or all that you write on an exam.

Now, I found some of these resources helpful, but I made sure that when it came to actually studying for exams, I used these resources to understand an overview of the materials, and I wrote them in my own words.

Otherwise, it's effectively plagiarism, let's be honest.

So have a peak, but make sure you actually understand what you're reading and can reiterate it in your own words.

My point is, without frightening you, I've heard horror stories about someone basically doing the note version of plagiarism on an exam and getting zero on a large section, and subsequently failing the course.

Don't be that person.

You won't learn the material properly enough to execute it in practice, and you might have to hack up another ridiculous amount of money for a law school course you've already taken.

You can thank me later.

8. Also make sure to know your schools policy on recording

Obviously in 2020 with COVID-19, this is probably a different story, but when I was going to law school, we weren't allowed to record unless you were given express permission, or you had a medical exception to allow you to be excused during that time and couldn't attend class.

I was lucky enough that I had an exception, but recordings also can not be available for all classes (usually electives), so use this privilege wisely. A lot of times it depends on the professor and how comfortable they are being recorded or not. As mentioned, in 2020, this may be a different story, with law professors effectively being kicked into the twenty-first century, but it's still a grey area, depending on your law school.

9. Don't Keep Your Master Set of Notes Too Long

Another policy I had throughout law school directly from experience was not to keep your notes too long. If they cause you panic doing mock exams in the comfort of your bedroom, they're going to cause you panic on the day when you're flipping through and can't find what you're looking for because your notes are 500 pages long.

Think about the main takeaway and cases within each unit and subject: what are the tests from case law most likely to be employed? How realistic is it to be considering the arguments of a small Appeal case which eventually became a Supreme Court case? You are most likely going to focus on the final judgment at the Supreme Court, unless somehow the professor highlighted an aspect of how that appeal differed from both the initial case and the Supreme Court judgment.

The point is: It probably doesn't need to be in your 'cheat sheet notes' to garner the widest birth of points on your exam.

10. Remember: The widest birth is the most important

What I mean by this is directly from the mouth of many of my professors at law school. It's basically what I alluded to before: Some law students get so bogged down in the minute details of a case or argument, that they forget that an exam is looking for your most overall knowledge of a subject for a basic (or probably a low B-level pass).

It's a question of simple math, really.

For example, say a hypothetical question is worth fifty marks, and is essentially three case law tests wrapped into one question (Let's say, Section A, Section B, and Section C). You know from your experience, that probably means applying one large test (Section A) from case law worth around thirty marks, and two smaller analytical tests worth ten each (Section B/C).

If you apply the thirty-mark test in a rudimentary fashion; say, the base level of analysis to get points for applying the test, you get twenty out of those thirty points. Same with the smaller tests; let's say for those, six out of ten if you apply the test roughly to the set of facts. The remaining ten points on the larger test and the four points on the two of the smaller tests would add up to eighteen points left over.

By making sure you apply the bare minimum test, you already have thirty-two points on that fifty mark question, without doing very much besides applying what you learned in class.

Now, you can focus on the remaining smaller points when sketching out your answer on an exam (I.E: The more nitty gritty, eighteen points left over, that might be more of those smaller detail points, since you got the heavy lifting of applying the tests out of the way). Make sure your notes speak to this and are clear.

11. Don't use a gigantic hard-cover binder for your exam master notes (Use that hard-cover binder for your rough, more detailed notes, and bring that along to your exam, too)

A way I found to avoid being surprised if you leave that minute detail out of your master set of notes is to bring along your more details, rougher notes, in a gigantic binder, just in case they take you by surprise and DO ask the details of that appeal case.

For your master set of notes, you want a floppy, report-style binder that's small, thin, and easily legible/not knocking into your writing space on your desk.

Depending on where you're writing your exams, you have no guarantee of a nice, large desk where you can spread out. I wrote law exams on crappy, outdated little student desks from the seventies before, that are barely wide enough for an open binder to fit on. Trust me: Fighting a large, hardcover binder to fit on a desk no bigger than a closed pizza box isn't fun.

Do away with that trouble by keeping your extra materials by your feet or under your seat, depending on what the invigilator will allow, and your main notes on your desk. That way, you know you're not completely up the creek without a paddle if you did happen to leave something out of your master notes.

Place some of these tips into YOUR system, and I guarantee, it'll help you in the future!

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