In this post I will share some of my tips for organizing the ridiculous amount of information you are learning as a law student so that it may be easily reviewed throughout the semester, for exam prep, and quickly accessed under pressure during an exam.
I feel that I can say, with confidence, that I was THE most organized law student at my school last semester. Some of my classmates poked fun, but on exam day, when I knew exactly how and where to find the information I needed, I was the object of envy.
Prior to law school, I hadn’t thought much about my organization skills and how they would help me achieve success as a law student. I had the benefit of developing these skills as a professional (paralegal to three very unorganized lawyers) and though organization impacts many aspects of our lives, I certainly didn’t expect it would give me much of an advantage in law school. Wrong! It made a huge difference come exam time.
I previously wrote about my “course summary” that I prepare as a handbook throughout the semester. It’s essentially my pre-class/reading notes combined with my in-class notes, with a light sprinkling of any supplement/hornbook/commercial outline tips. For criminal law, I spent a lot of time creating comparison charts between the common law and the MPC and that sort of thing was also included in my course summary. Any other helpful graphs or “mind maps” that helped me process the information was also included in my course summary – it was my how-to manual. As I said before, it becomes quite lengthy but contains every bit of information that one would need to Ace their exams. How devastating it would be, however, if that information is somewhere in your hands, but not at your fingertips? That information is not helpful at all unless you know how to find it and can quickly access it . . . under the stress of exam pressure.
What you need:
- A 1 inch binder.
- Note Tabs (those versatile tabs that you can write on to label things but go on paper to serve as dividers).
- Knowledge of creating a Table of Contents and/or an Index and a Table of Authorities in whatever word processing program you use (I use Word for Mac).
- Ability to print out your course summary in duplex (using both sides of the sheet of paper) and in color (I found it was cheaper to do it at home, but sometimes Staples or Office Max will run deals where it costs $0.25 per page).
Preparation Time: a few extra minutes while taking pre-class reading notes and 1-2 hours at the end of the semester.
Step 1 – Preparing the Table of Contents
During the semester, I combined my pre-class/reading notes with my class notes. Once I did this all semester long, the finished product was my “course summary.” In other words, rather than having three documents to work with all semester (the reading notes, class notes, and then course summary) I used my reading notes as the base of the course summary and supplemented/added in my class notes. It’s easier to do it this way instead of creating a new document because a lot of the required formatting can be done as you go along. The formatting I’m talking about is the use of “headings” to create a Table of Contents. For every topic, subtopic, case, list of elements to a particular area of law (ex. for torts it’s duty, breach, causation, harm), for every rule (like in Civ Pro, a Rule 59), I would format the case name, rule name, topic, subtopic, whatever as a “heading” in Word. You can essentially create your own by formatting the text the way you like it, and then under styles, click “new style.” Then, when you create a Table of Contents (Insert > Table of Contents) you can select the hierarchy each heading that you have used will appear in the Table of Contents.
The Table of Contents is clickable, which is extremely convenient for reviewing a course summary electronically. However, most schools utilize a special exam taking software that locks the hard drive on your computer, thereby preventing you from accessing anything other than the exam software – so the course summary has to be printed and taken in paper-form. Although some of the convenience in the Table of Contents is lost, you still have the page numbers to use, plus the benefit of tabbing each topic and subtopic.
Here is a copy of what my Table of Contents looked like for Contracts:
Your notes should be organized around topics (or rules) – not around case names. In fact, the name of a case is rarely relevant. Most of my professors said it didn’t matter at all if we knew the names of cases and we certainly did not have to cite them on the exam. It’s important to keep in perspective the role of the case in learning the law. Accordingly, your course summary and all other notes will be organized and structured in a way that sort of hides the cases (because it’s the rules that really matter). However, in the unlikely event that you would need to refer to a specific case by name (rather than by topic), it’s helpful to have the case listed in a Table of Authorities, which would list the cases alphabetically and like the Table of Contents, provide a page number for where that case can be found. This is a little more tricky than creating a Table of Contents, but it is still very worthwhile to know – not only for notes organization, but also for the “1L brief” that most law students have to submit for their legal writing classes. There are tutorials available on YouTube that can be helpful if you need guidance in doing this.
Step 2 – Color Coding
So, all semester long, you’ve been combining your in-class notes with your reading notes – a comprehensive “course summary” of all that you have learned throughout the semester and everything that you may need to know for the exam. While creating this throughout the semester, you have worked on entries that will go into the Table of Contents and Table of Authorities. Another key organizational tool is to color-code some of the important parts of the course summary. For example, the names of cases are in purple and I include the page number from the casebook in the unlikely event I have to crack my book open during an exam. For each case, I have the rules in red. My one or two sentence of facts are in green. If there are elements that must be satisfied for this particular rule to apply, I put those in blue. If the court’s opinion nicely runs through the step by step analysis, I also have that in blue. If the court talks about public policy, that goes in pink.
Here are a few examples:
Step 3 – Print
Once you have the Table of Contents and Table of Authorities completed and everything is color-coded to highlight the most important items, then it is time to color print the course summary (and I prefer duplex printing).
Step 4 – Three-Hole Punch and Place in Binder
A 1″ binder should be sufficient. Also, I placed my page numbers on the “outside” corners of the pages because I thought it would be a little more convenient when flipping through.
Step 5 – Tabs
Either use the traditional divider-style tabs or use the “Note Tabs” that are essentially sticky-flags but more durable. You want to flag/divide each main topic (ex. negligence) and then each subtopic (ex. duty, breach, causation, harm). I like to use larger tabs for the main topics and then smaller tabs for the subtopics. If there were a few items that the professor seemed to refer to a lot during the semester (ex. Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad) then I would put a small flag on that case. You have to find the right balance between flagging what is important and cluttering up the document with too many flags.
And Voila! You’ve organized everything you’ve learned into one handy manual. An added bonus: bring this to exam day and your classmates will freak! (Just kidding, sort of).
- BUT – in terms of exam preparation you are not done! The course summary is everything you learned. Half of which you won’t even use on the exam. You can’t flip through all of it, no matter how organized it is, when you are issue spotting – there is a more efficient way! (Two, actually!). In addition to the course summary, you need to create 1: an Attack Outline; and 2) an Issue Spotter Checklist.
The Attack Outline
It sounds aggressive, right? Well, it will help you “attack” the exam in a way more efficient than your lengthy course summary. Basically, the attack outline is a skeletal, bare-bones outline (yes! This is the “real” outline you’ve heard so much about) that contains only the topic, subtopic, and rule. Rarely would you include a case (unless the professor always brought up a particular case when referring to a specific subtopic or rule). While your course summary would be 200-250 pages, this quick and dirty lifeline is less than 20. It’s extremely useful for reviewing in the days up to the exam and provides a little more information than just the one page issue spotter/checklist while still being a quick/usable document.
To make the attack outline:
- Begin the attack outline using an outline form (either bullet points or number/letters) and note only the topics and subtopics you learned this semester. Ideally, the professor’s syllabus will list the topics and subtopics covered – use the same ones, in the same order, to create a “shell” for the attack outline.
- Next, turn to your course summary and usually, just by looking at the Table of Contents, you can get the page numbers for each topic and subtopic that you have included as the shell of your attack outline. So basically, you are cross referencing to your long course summary (see example from mine, below).
- Read through the lengthy course summary and extract only the rules. The idea is to have enough information to alert you to a particular possible issue on the exam, but not so much that you are slowed down by too much information.
- Once you have identified a short, concise, rule from the course summary copy only the rule and paste it into the attack outline.
- If there are elements that must be satisfied, or other tests that serve as a guide, those should be included as well. I made elements and tests blue. However, I didn’t put the rules in red for the attack outline like I did the course summary because the attack outline is essentially all rules.
Here is my example:
The Issue Spotter/Checklist
Lastly, you need a one-page issue spotter. All on this one page, you will list every theory of recovery/tort/crime/etc. you learned this semester and list the page number for which it appears in your course summary. While taking your final exam, you will place a check mark by every issue you have found. Once you have actually written about that issue on your exam, then cross out the entire issue that you checked. While reviewing your exam at the end, go over the checklist one last time – what’s left? Should any of that have been mentioned? Even if not all the elements would be satisfied, are enough elements satisfied that you should at least address it on the exam? For example, if duty, breach, and harm are satisfied, but causation isn’t – you better still spot the “negligence” issue on the exam. If you’re just one issue short, that’s close enough to merit your attention. Furthermore, you can rack up points by arguing why an element is or isn’t satisfied. If you disregard it altogether then you’ve lost a lot of points. (As a side note, if you are taking a torts exam and haven’t mentioned negligence, then something is wrong – negligence is always an issue on a torts exam).
Here’s my example:
In sum, I know this seems like a lot of work. Perhaps work that would be better spent simply reviewing your notes – but while doing this, you are reviewing your notes. And I have found that it didn’t matter how much time I spent committing this stuff to memory, the stress of taking a law school exam completely wiped my memory. Having the ability to quickly run through the available issues and find any additional information was calming and helped build my confidence.
Last Step – Practice Using Your Material
It isn’t enough to now have this material – now you have to practice using it. Do this by taking practice exams. Most law schools have old practice exams available online or in paper form at the library. Practice exams are important, perhaps even more important than organizing all of this material. All semester long you have been inputing this information – now you have to take what you know and apply it. Don’t take a law school exam without first practicing the skill of taking a law school exam. It’s unlike any other exam, I assure you. Taking the practice exam with your newly organized material will also help acquaint you with where to find what you want.