The Best Way to Take Notes in Law School

by Mr. X on July 17, 2008

Yeah, I know it’s a bold statement, but I swear by this program.  Microsoft OneNote allows students to organize multiple notebooks, sections, and subsections in one application, with instant, database-style save capability so you’ll never lose your notes.  You can create tables and charts, take notes in easily formatted bullet or numbered outlines, drag and drop pdfs and then take notes over them, highlight on-screen over pdf text, or take class notes in color.  You can export OneNote files into PDF or Word formats, or hit Cntl+E and OneNote will automatically add that section to your email client as an attachment.

I’ve thrown together some screenshots below, click on the image to expand.  Microsoft offers a 60 day free trial here or PSU students can spend $80 and get the full 2007 Microsoft Enterprise Package which features a poorly redesigned version of Microsoft Word (that other kids will be using).  The computer store will probably have a student software discount at your school.

I make the “Get As in Law School” boast because OneNote organizes your notes, saves time, and allows for easy file transfers.  You’ll be thanking the search function when your prof asks you what case that you’ve studied this year is analogous to this one.  The screenshots below include examples of cut-and-pasting the text of the FRCPs into OneNote (using Cornell’s great LII website), adding live links to the UCC provisions, and creating case history charts using the easy format options.

So go download yourself a competitive advantage.


Interesting Criminal Procedure Article by Professor Kit Kinports available on the Social Science Research Network.

{ 18 comments }

Joshua Auriemma July 17, 2008 at 10:46 pm

Sorry, I write my notes in wiki code, thus requiring absolutely no mouse clicking at all, and I still have my table of contents auto-generated.

Essentially, what this means is that, even if I didn’t already type 50 wpm faster than you, I’d still be able to transcribe with more alacrity!

Oooh, I kid! To each his own; n’est pas?

Here’s your official welcome to Legal Geekery.

Cheers!

PG July 18, 2008 at 9:26 am

The only smart thing I did with regard to note-taking was, when I had to get a new laptop my last semester, keeping it disconnecting from the school’s wireless and never getting any game programs (not even Solitaire) on the computer. I took a lot more notes when there was absolutely nothing else to do.

I think OneNote is a good way to ensure that you are ready with the right answer for a professor’s question, but I actually found it helpful for studying for exams to have to go through my notes and sort them into what was important, instead of having them already in the perfect nuggets of information. That said, the organization certainly is VERY important, especially for open-note exams where you might be completely blanking on something, but if you can locate it quickly in your notes, you’ll still get the answer.

Joshua Auriemma July 18, 2008 at 1:33 pm

Agreed PG, and we’re sort of forced to do that even for “open book” exams because our law school doesn’t allow open access to the computer when we’re in the exam. We can have printed supplementary material, but we’re still forced to re-organize in order to have any chance of finding anything.

As to the wireless, I’m glad it worked for you, but I think an internet connection is a huge advantage. I’m constantly pulling up cases, laws, or random statistics that professors mention. Besides, when someone gets caught not reading, I need something to do.

andyfromcornell July 18, 2008 at 5:55 pm

Yeah I agree with not playing games in class, $32k in tuition means that I’ll try pretty hard to pay attention–unless there’s a game that will allow OneNote to fight the Auriemma-wiki. In that case, your wiki’s only chance is if it has an anti-trust regulation weapon.

Robert Stander August 3, 2008 at 11:11 pm

Ok, You guys are light years ahead of me, but I have just a couple questions about how you use OneNote. For 1L, when you were briefing endless cases, how did you organize your notes? I’m trying to decide if I should have briefs on the same page as class notes for each day, or keep everything separate, or what. I don’t want to end up disorganized at test time. In short, what was your method?

FYI: I start school at BYU (Utah) in a couple weeks. I was a neuroscience major, but my work experience is in dental sales. I’m thinking patent law is what I want to pursue.

andyfromcornell August 3, 2008 at 11:42 pm

Hey Rob,

The short answer is that everyone has their own method of class prep, and figuring out how you learn is part of the law school experience. That said, I think that I can provide some ground rules that will help.

While it depended on the class, I only typed skeleton notes before class with case name + cite, parties names, sentence or two about the facts, and the holding. This was mainly to keep my class notes organized. I used the law school confidential highlighting, or “book-briefing,” strategy [pros: less time typing out case facts that don't matter at all on the test (except for analogizing factual situations, but that's easy) cons: wasting time making the book look pretty, buying highlighters].

I think this is the best system for people with decent recall who read carefully. Taking solid notes before class is a good idea, especially if you get nervous when called on, or want to be very prepared.

My advice for extensive class prep is to focus on the “black letter law.” Some research on the term might help, but it’s basically the rule that a case stands for. While it’s really hard to get past the factual situations that cases limit their holdings to, if you always think about the rules then you can understand how the law intersects with different facts (like in hypotheticals, or on exams). Remember though that you’re being taught an way of thinking–with emphasis on thinking analytically–not just memorizing rules.

My girlfriend adds that she liked her system of taking class notes in black, and prep notes in blue. Use OneNote bullets/numbering, color and highlighting, and label your tabs by topic, not by date. Search the internet for class outlines using the same book and edition as yours (google “nyu sba outline”) and make friends with upperclassman. Read law school confidential, and “the elements of style” by strunk & white.

Goodluck with school. Feel free to post more questions as you think of them. We’re planning a 0L-1L wisdom post sometime in the future.

-Andrew

Joshua Auriemma August 4, 2008 at 8:11 am

Haha @ Andy’s short answer.

I’m in agreement with Andy here. We sat next to each other in a bunch of classes and amusingly our books would match pretty closely. We’d have the same things highlighted in the same colors, and have notes in the margins (circles with arrows pointing to a big, ‘TEST!!!’)

I recommend never taking case notes separately from lecture notes. I did that first semester, and it added an extra layer of confusion when I had to assemble an outline.

Good luck!

Jessica April 19, 2009 at 9:30 pm

Do they have this program for Mac computers?

:)

Joshua Auriemma April 20, 2009 at 10:18 am

Unfortunately, no. I interviewed with the team at Microsoft who develops it recently and I think they mentioned that it’s in the works.

Len Benade May 23, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Andrew – enjoyed your article. I’d like to know more about your OneNote notebooks, sections, etc. I’ll be iL in August.

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Art Geigel January 8, 2011 at 11:55 pm

You should also check out http://www.groundbooth.com for law school online note taking software.

Cristina August 30, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Growly notes for Mac seems to be the best alternative as of now. Has all of the same important features. And it’s free.

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