Key to Law School Exam Success – Organization

February 19, 2012 at 9:44 pm (Exam Prep, Success in Law School)

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:

  1. A 1 inch binder.
  2. Note Tabs (those versatile tabs that you can write on to label things but go on paper to serve as dividers).
  3. 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).
  4. 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 are a few YouTube videos on creating a Table of Contents in both Word for Mac and Word for PC.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. Once you have identified a short, concise, rule from the course summary copy only the rule and paste it into the attack outline.
  5. 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.

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Efficient v. Thorough Notes – Whether to Take Pre-Class/Reading Notes

February 19, 2012 at 8:17 pm (Success in Law School)

In this post, I discuss my method of “pre-class” notetaking, as well as the pros and cons and whether this is something that might be helpful for you.

Most of what you learn in law school is first encountered while reading and studying the material assigned before class. Law school is sort of a guided, but self-directed study. In a lot of ways, the law student is independently responsible for learning the law. You are expected to come to class with already having been introduced to the topic and have a fairly good understanding of it. The role of the lecture is then, to supplement your understanding, expand upon it, and either confirm your understanding or expose your misunderstanding.

Given the emphasis on pre-class preparations, it always made sense to me to devout a lot of time to my pre-class preparation: reading and note-taking. Though not an exhaustive list, I believe there are four ways in which a law student can spend their pre-class time working through the material:

  1. Read the material and take pre-class notes based on the assigned reading. Flag anything in the pre-class notes that is not understood. Then supplement the pre-class notes with in-class notes. If what was not understood before is still sketchy or my questions were not answered in-class, then consult a supplement (hornbook or commercial outline) and/or see the professor. (This is what I do, and though it is the most thorough option, it is time consuming and may not be the most efficient). 
  2. Read, but don’t take pre-class notes. At the least, mark-up the book (i.e., “book brief” and write notes in the margin). Take notes while in-class. Then, either go with the mindset that if the professor didnt mention it, then it wasn’t important, or (probably the more sound decision) go back through the reading material and supplement the class notes.(This is probably a decent balance between efficient and thorough note taking). 
  3. Read, but only take class notes, never again looking at the book. (Not ideal).
  4. Don’t read before class, take what you think are really good in-class notes, then, and only then, would you go back to the book and try to make sense of something that you didn’t understand. (This is a bad idea).

I will openly admit, I am not the best “processor” when it comes to extremely dense, difficult, and boring reading material. I have to try to stay engaged, make sense of difficult material, and understand the structure of what is being said in the material (ex. in a torts case, involving breach, duty, causation, and harm, maybe breach and duty are satisfied, causation “might” be satisfied, and harm is definitely satisfied, what is the implication for this party/client/case? What would help me determine whether causation is satisfied or not? and so on).

One thing that has helped me through some of these difficult problems and has improved my reading comprehension is to take “reading notes” a/k/a “pre-class” notes from the reading material (as I described in Option 1, above). This is SO time consuming. BUT not only does it help me understand the material, it also dramatically decreases the amount of notetaking I have to take during class (thereby allowing me to sit back and “process” some more by just taking it all in), it also helps me easily and quickly review prior to class, and it makes end-of-semester outlining a breeze (because rather than inserting the information into my outline, I’m condensing what I already have which is so much faster than hunting down info, typing it, etc.)

Having to first read the material, highlight or use different colors of pen (see blog post on technicolor reading soon), then type the important stuff into my word document keeps me engaged in the reading material and also strengthens reading comprehension (especially the typing part – because I have to really look at each word and then type it – rather than just skim and inadvertently walk away from the reading with only a “gist” of what it said).

Law school reading is like having a ton of information thrown at you without a lot of context for how to sort the information and how the information relates to this specific reading material or other material previously read. Since it naturally comes from a book, there’s little structure to it – and I find this problematic. For me to process it, I basically extract the important points from the reading, insert it into my own word processing document (last semester I used Circus Ponies, this semester I’m just using Microsoft Word), and convert it into a format that makes more sense. Most commonly, that “format” is an outline. Don’t confuse this for the “outline” that is used for exam prep and exam taking. Rather, this version (which I tend to call a “course summary”) is much more lengthy. It contains all of my briefs for every case that I read and includes any notes from sections of the casebook that are explanatory in nature (usually appearing before or after the cases).

This is all organized in either bullet-point or numbered and lettered format (thus forming an “outline” style of organization). I prefer bullet-points because the numbers and letters tend to get distracting, especially if you are also referring to a statute that has numbers (common in civil procedure). For example, I would hate to have a numbered/lettered bullet point “b.” describing Rule 60(a). But I’m a little OCD, so do whatever you like and what fits you best.

Here is an example to more thoroughly illustrate what I’m talking about, and again, remember this is all just for my pre-class/reading notes:

  • Topic (usually the chapter title from the book or the topic provided by the professor in the syllabus).
    • Subtopic (usually the section of the chapter or a subtopic provided by the professor in the syllabus).
      • Introductory notes for this particular topic which the casebook editor provided prior to a case or at the beginning of the chapter.
      • John Smith v. Doe Smith (2000) – p. 232 (notice that I’ve listed the case name, the year the case was decided, and the page number for which it appears in the book).
        • Facts:
        • Issue:
        • Holding/Disposition: (very short statement of what this means for the parties in this case – I don’t spend a lot of time on this because it is not very meaningful in terms of knowledge of this particular rule).
        • Rationale: (this is the important one – you have to know why the court chose this particular result – why the rule applied in this particular situation given the facts of this case – this is vital to understanding the rule and to applying it in the future).
        • Dissent/Concurrence: (if applicable)
        • Rule: (a short, few sentence summary of the rule).
        • Analysis: – this won’t work for every case, but when the opinion clearly lays out a step by step process for analyzing this particular issue, I always include it – it can work as a boilerplate to sort through a similar issue in the future on an exam!
      • Susie Q v. John Q (2005) – p. 349
      • Any notes which follow the case (casebook editors will often follow an opinion/case with “Notes and Questions” which provide the majority/minor rule or even better, summarize the rule in a neat one or two sentence format that is super convenient and can be placed into the brief, above under the “rule” bullet point).

In doing this, I have provided a structure for which to analyze the material. For example, two cases might illustrate two different outcomes of the same rule. In the casebook, the two cases might be 20 pages a part, but in my notes, I have them together (often on the same page).

Again, this can be extremely time consuming, but I am convinced this is the best method for me. It’s heavily “front-loaded” but when it comes time to outline at the end of the semester, most of the heavy lifting is already done. Plus, as you go along, you get much more skilled at the process and it becomes faster and like second nature.

5-10 minutes prior to class, rather than skimming through the book for the important points of the reading (which could mean flipping through 30+ pages) I can just read through my condensed notes in a few minutes.

During class, I have one side of my screen taken up with my pre-class/reading notes and the other side with my document for class notes. Most professors tend to follow the flow of book/assigned reading without jumping around too much. Since I re-read through my condensed reading notes, everything is fresh in mind; so while the professor is lecturing, I can listen intently without scurrying to write every word. Most of what he is telling me is already in my notes. Usually, the only time that I type anything at all is when we are going through an assigned case. Though I already have the “basics” (facts, issue, holding, rule, rationale, analysis, etc.) the professor almost always expands on the case by posing several “hypotheticals” that stretch the rule – it defines the rule – whether it encompasses this new set of facts set forth in the hypo, or whether the rule falls just shy of applying to this new set of facts. This is so important because it allows me to see the rule “in action,” being applied to new facts – it increases my understanding of the rule, it’s purpose, and why/why not it works in other situations. This is just like what I have to do on the exam!

Ideally, while in-class, I am able to easily annotate my reading notes with the professor’s lecture. However, if the professor has gone off on a tangent (which is valuable material, of course) or if he has skipped around and I am not able to quickly find where to insert this new in-class information into my reading notes, then I refer to the other document I have on my screen that is dedicated entirely to in-class notes.

Ideally, at the end of every class, I would spend a few minutes incorporating whatever is in my class notes, into my reading notes. But for me, this has been rarely possible because I have classes back-to-back. So, I reserve Friday afternoons specifically for reviewing and reconciling my in-class notes with my reading notes. In doing this, I am seeing the material again (good for memory) and getting feedback (yes, my pre-class understanding was correct per the lecture – or – crap, I’m confused, get help).

Once I have integrated/reconciled my class-notes into my pre-class/reading notes, I have what I call a “course summary.” This is essentially all of the information that I found important in the course – it’s way too long for use on an exam (though I have it with me just in case). Last semester, these “course summaries” were 200-250 pages for each subject. It’s important to organize it in such a way that it can serve as a useful “how-to manual” for the exam. I share share my tips on organizing the course summary, creating an “attack outline,” and a one-page issuer spotter for the exam in this post. 

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