FROM A FORMER LAW LECTURER
To Help You Survive Law School
How to Take Notes From Law Textbooks
As all law students, you must be absolutely overwhelmed with the number of pages which you are required to read for each of your modules every week. What’s more, you are probably struggling to condense all those pages into something that can be considered as a “note”. If those words resonate with you, you are in the right place. This article will talk you step-by-step through how exactly you should take notes from law textbooks.
Step 1: Stop copying large pieces of text from your law books
If you are at the very beginning of your law degree, then you probably assume that you have to read everything in the textbook and that everything is equally important. It’s true that skim-reading through the whole chapters of your law book helps your brain to get used to the correct terminology you should be using when talking about a specific area of law. But in terms of exam revisions, there is really no need for you to try to memorise every single thing mentioned in the textbook on each topic.
If you start your note taking with this assumption in mind, then you will likely struggle to select the most relevant parts to include in your notes. Instead, you will try to note down everything. However, copying into your notebook or Word document large pieces of text from your book is simply a waste of time. When doing it you are usually not thinking about the exam that you will later on have to study for from those notes. The bottom line is: in order to be successful in law exams you have to be strategic in your note taking. Otherwise, you will drive yourself crazy from the massive workload which you will impose on yourself.
Step 2: Scan the textbook for definitions, cases and statutes
The focus of your exam revisions (and your law notes) should always be on legal definitions, cases and statute sections, as well as learning how those can be used to answer a specific exam question. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that every single definition, case or statute section mentioned in the chapter is important. You should only include in your legal notes the most relevant of those things. This can be easily figured out from your lecture slides and other study materials provided by the university.
In order to find out what cases, statute sections and definitions will be the most relevant for the purpose of your exam, scan through your lecture slides and note down any cases, statute sections and definitions that your lecturer spent some time discussing during the lecture (as opposed to just briefly mentioning them). Make a list of them on a separate piece of paper, so that you have them handy for when you start reading the textbook.
Note: if you want to learn how to figure out which cases, statute sections and definitions mentioned in your lecture slides are the most important check out the First Class Exam Revision Course.
Step 3: Highlight relevant definitions, cases and statutes
Once you have your list of important definitions, cases and statute sections ready, take three highlighters with different colours and assign a colour to each of those categories. When scanning through the textbook, you will eventually start spotting the cases, definitions and statute sections you noted down. When this happens, highlight the text in your textbook which talks about each of those items on your list. If the text in your law book about them is particularly long, you will have to work on shortening it before you add it to your note.
For example, some textbooks contain entire extracts from judgements of specific cases, which you don’t really need to know about (unless you know that a question focused only on one particular case is likely to show up in the exam). Instead, look for any text written by the author of the book which describes what the case was about and what was its significance (i.e. how it changed the law). This is what you should be highlighting.
Note: for more information on how to take notes from law textbooks check out the 1st Class Exam Revision Course.
Step 4: Note down only the relevant definitions, cases and statutes
that you have scanned through the entire textbook chapter and highlighted the text related to the relevant definitions, cases and statute sections, it’s time to turn it into a note. Whether you will be noting things down on a piece of paper or on your laptop, the process is exactly the same. You should go through every single highlight, read it again and try to understand what it says.
When transferring the information into your note, you should try to explain it in your own words so that it is easier for you to understand it after you start revising from the note later on. The reason for this step is that sentences taken out of the context of a textbook might not make sense to you later on, when you forget what the chapter was all about. But now that you are taking the note, you have the advantage of being able to read a few sentences before and after your highlight, so that you can fully grasp what it means.
Finally, try to organise all the things you have written down into categories. (For that reason, law students often find it easier to take their notes on a laptop rather than a piece of paper.) You can do this by dividing them into definitions, cases and statute sections or by grouping each of those elements under a few headings describing different themes within the chapter.
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