How to take good notes!

super-g“Law school is no joke.” That’s what a friend of mine said when we last talked about my study program. He wasn’t lying. He’s a professional athlete, a downhill skier. He inspired me to think of note-taking like one of his epic runs to the finish line on a Super-G (super giant slalom) course – a combination of precision, technical expertise, and speed.

Plan a Course

For me, the first step to revising is to state what I want to accomplish, set a schedule, and begin reviewing my notes. If I’m lucky, I’ve taken good notes throughout the year. Whether I have or have not done a great job, revision time requires a good think about my note-taking strategy. Are my notes effective or do I need to change my approach, maybe fill in some holes, especially if a subject is challenging? Remember, I’m on a Super-G course, not skiing the bumps. I’m looking for a smooth run.

For me, it comes down to this: lawyers use words. I will be processing a mountain of them for each course. How will all of the content I’m reading be distilled into the product required in exams? I need to outline, summarize, and incorporate vocabulary and legal reasoning in my notes.  They are like pole placements while I’m careening down that mountain toward my exam center.

Taking Notes

s9cc2skysjm-green-chameleonFor me, note-taking is related to reading strategies. How do you read? Have you thought about that? Boy howdy, I have.  Different sources require different reading strategies. Each approach might involve a different note-taking technique.  That’s okay, as long as I pay attention to how I organize my notes as I go.

I like a good outline. When I’m using note-taking to answer a question, I rework it as a thesis statement then write an essay plan and an outline.  After my initial research is complete, I summarize in my own words with a paragraph or two for each part of the question.

When taking notes, I try to keep the IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis/Application, Conclusion) approach in mind. Other ways to look at legal problems are CRAC (Conclusion, Rule, Analysis/Application, Conclusion), and CRAP (Conclusion, Rule, Analysis/Application, Policy).  Right now I am revising Western European Legal History. It doesn’t involve case studies, but the primary texts refer to situations that underline the history of law and jurisprudence. Keeping various methods of legal reasoning in mind helps me develop more in-depth notes, even if I am not briefing cases. You can find information about the IRAC and CRAP methods on pages 114-115 of the LLM ‘Skills Guide.’ If you are interested in CRAC or just another point of view, try searching for the Berkeley IRAC Handout online. You can also go to Law Nerds for resources.

Organizing My Notes

My notes are organized by study guide chapter. In addition to my reading notes, they include detailed outlines in response to learning outcomes and sample exam questions. Over the next few weeks, I will compare each chapter of my study guide against my notes then fill in weak areas.

I’m an outline maniac – can’t repeat that enough. I have a master binder and study outline for my four modules. Then there’s a binder for each course I am reading with an overall outline of my study plan for that module. Each chapter has an outline of my study plan for that content, then my notes. A good friend of mine used this strategy to complete her MD/JD degree. It’s absolutely brilliant note-taking tip. It keeps me on track and I can find everything quickly.

Writing from My Notes

It helps to use only my notes to write an untimed practice essay or two when I start revising. If I sit down now and try to write a practice essay using them to review I will immediately know if my note-taking strategy is effective or not.

Screen capture of Srivener law notesI like to work on paper, but I also use a program called Scrivener for longer research pieces. Scrivener allows me to create a template for my outlines and stores everything in wonderfully organized digital binders that all back up to Drop Box. When revising, in many cases, I am writing a practice exam essay. The software allows me to organize each paper in a very detailed outline. It also stores articles, citations, and any other material I need to reference.

Final Tips

So, we swooshed through most of the gates skiing down that mountain. Here are a few points to carry me to the finish line:

  1. Include detailed and careful referencing in my notes. The LLM ‘Skills Guide’ has an entire chapter dedicated to plagiarism. It feels like a very good idea to get it right from the start.
  2. Using legal vocabulary in my notes helps me internalize terms and concepts.
  3. Think about what needs to be accomplished while taking notes.
  4. The ‘Skills Guide’ is my best friend. It is a wonderful resource with a very helpful section on note-taking.
  5. I carry the Dragon Naturally Speaking VR and a notebook to mark down questions and thoughts as they come to me outside of study time.
  6. Read journals like the ‘Harvard Law Review’ and ‘Yale Journal.’ Since I am new to legal writing and reasoning, outlining articles related to my course work helps me develop an understanding about how to think, sound, write, and take notes like a lawyer.
  7. Download a copy of the Harvard Style Guide. I use this one.

Give me a shout if you would like to share resources. My email address is

Caowrites is enrolled in the Postgraduate Laws Programme. She previously earned a BA English degree and blogged regularly about her experience. She studies by distance learning in the United States

2 thoughts on “How to take good notes!

  1. Great article – thanks a lot! By the way, would you say for taking notes from books when creating your own notes – handwriting them or typing them up would be better? Whilst handwriting allows for deeper retention and forces you to summarise the materials – typing being a faster skill would allow you to go through books faster – what would you say?


  2. Hi – thanks for your comment. I’ve given up handwriting in favor of my software for the law program. Sometimes I write long hand, but mostly it’s the computer. Summarizing is still a requirement, but for me the value is the organization in the software that hand writing notes does not allow.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s