Preparing for Class
Prof. Alan Chen & Prof. Celia Taylor
Most followers of popular culture probably have an image of what goes on in the typical law school class. Perhaps you have an image of what law school classes are like from reading books or watching movies or television shows. The erudite, all-knowing professor stands at the front of the class choosing his or her victim from a seating chart. In a carefully pre-planned game of cat and mouse, the professor proceeds to reduce the lucky student, who before law school considered herself to be an intelligent, thinking member of society, into a mass of jello, trembling and sweating out the time she is on the spot.
Or maybe not. If you are lucky, you may have had an opportunity to sit in on a class or two before arriving at law school. This may give you a more realistic expectation of what typical classes are like. While professors continue to use variations on the Socratic method in eliciting classroom discourse, contemporary instructors tend to use a wider variety of in-class teaching methods. But even so, law school class periods can be distressing for many of us (ask your professors whether they ever had any anxiety about their in-class performance in law school… for that matter, ask your professors whether they ever have anxiety about their teaching performance!)
Much of the anxiety about law school classes can be alleviated by developing good and consistent studying habits. But studying and preparing for class in a useful manner will do more than relieve anxiety. You may also find that good class preparation will make class sessions much more interesting and enriching. You are also likely to learn a lot more in each class period if you are well prepared.
Many students faced with the challenge of preparing for their law school classes assume that they can simply transfer their studying and class preparation styles from their undergraduate experiences. While many of the studying habits you developed in previous settings will be helpful, preparing for law school classes presents a new challenge. You may need to consider adapting your study habits to fit the law school environment in ways that will maximize your learning experiences.
A good first step in this direction is to spend a little time thinking about your objectives in preparing for class, about how best to read and think about the material, and how to anticipate what your professors may wish to emphasize during the class session covering that material.
Goals of Your Preparation
It is useful to think about what your goals are in preparing for class. There are several things you may be trying to accomplish.
1. Legal Doctrine: First, of course, you are trying to learn a particular aspect of the law. It may be useful to think about both the forest and the trees when you are examining a particular assignment. For example, within the field of Torts, you may study several different types of torts over the course of a year (intentional torts, negligence, strict products liability, etc.). Within each of those areas, there may be several different “elements” – the necessary components to establishing a valid claim. On any given day, you may be discussing only one element within a particular type of tort action. But it is useful to consider where that element fits on the larger canvas of materials you are trying to learn. For example, if a particular act is “negligent” in one case, will it necessarily be negligent in all other contexts? The basic requirements established by the cases and statutes you read about are often referred to as “legal doctrine,” the rules or standards governing different species of conduct.
2. Critical Thinking/Legal Analysis: Second, you are trying to learn how to carefully and thoroughly analyze a legal problem. This involves thinking critically about the analyses of courts, policymakers, and commentators. How well you understand a particular reading may depend largely upon how well you are able to not only understand the doctrine created by the assigned cases, but also on how well you can analyze whether the doctrine yields desirable results in most cases. It may also be helpful to think about situations in which the doctrine developed to address one case may not be a desirable rule to address another situation with different facts. But what facts, if changed, would make a difference . . . and which facts, if changed, would not make a difference in the outcome of the case? Play with the facts – know that your professor will often pose hypothetical questions in class (e.g., If we change this fact about the case, should that make a difference in the outcome?). Do a few of your own first.
3. Argumentation Skills: Lawyers often function as advocates, using their analytical skills to distinguish cases that do not support their claims. Good argumentation requires good reasoning to back it up. It is one thing to say “the result in that case just isn’t fair,” and another thing to be able to articulate your reasons for that conclusion. Another important aspect of argumentation is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of arguments that oppose the position you are taking. Being able to anticipate such arguments puts you in the position of being able to think in advance of your responses. When you walk into class you should be ready to argue on both sides of each problem. You never know which your professor might ask for.
4. Policy Ramifications: In addition to considering how the doctrine directs the outcome of a particular case, you may wish to consider the broader policy ramifications of the result in the case. Think about whether you agree or disagree with the policy implications and why.
5. Legal Theory: In some classes, you may be introduced to certain types of legal theory – theories of interpretation, broader theories about the meaning and purpose of Western legal regimes, different perspectives about the law from other disciplines, etc. These theories may be quite complex, but you may develop a greater appreciation for them over time and they may help you to better understand material across the curriculum.
It shouldn’t surprise you that your professor is also trying to accomplish these multiple goals during class, and they may try to convey these ideas to you and set them up in a way that helps you actively think about the problems presented in each area.
Where To Begin
A. Find the Assigned Materials
You should start with the materials assigned by your professor. While this may seem self evident, it is helpful to view the assignment not in isolation, but as part of a unit of the course. Look at the assignment and its place in the course syllabus and think about what the professor is trying to teach in this unit. A good place to start is to examine the table of contents of your casebook and the course syllabus. This will give you a general idea about what the professor hopes to cover during the semester and how the unit you are presently studying fits into that broader subject matter of the course. These may also be good starting points for the creation of your outlines.
It is very important to pay attention to what your professor has assigned for each class period. [Tip: Most professors provide notice of an advance assignment that you are expected to read prior to the first day of class. You may be able to find such assignments posted at the bookstore or around the law school, or on the professor’s web site.] Your professor may provide you with a class syllabus or other material that sets out the general rules for the class and lists the assignments you are expected to read. You may be asked to read a set of pages in your casebook as well as supplemental materials such as actual or model statutes (e.g., the Model Penal Code; the Restatement 2d of Contracts), procedural rules (e.g., the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure), or excerpts from law review articles or popular press articles. Be sure to have all of these materials with you when you study and read them all carefully.
B. Read and re-read the Assigned Materials
Most casebooks include different types of materials. The books are often broken up into chapters or units that track the professor’s organizational structure for the course. In each chapter or unit, there will often be some narrative materials setting forth the background for the discussion of the cases. Then there will be (heavily) edited versions of real published cases from various courts. Sometimes there will be one main case and some shorter cases that illustrate variations on the main case. Other times there will be two major cases, sometimes presenting different views on the same subject. Finally, there are often “notes” or note materials following the edited cases. These materials usually provide supplemental information about the case or subsequent cases and about the issue under discussion. They also often contain questions written by the casebook authors. These are not rhetorical questions. At the same time, note questions do not necessarily have right or wrong answers. They are usually designed to provoke thought as you study the materials. Remember, studying and preparing for class should be an active endeavor, not a passive one. Think about these questions. Discuss them with your classmates.
C. Take Notes and Prepare Case Briefs
A good way to ensure that you are actively engaged in the reading is to take notes while you are reading the assigned materials. Different students benefit from different styles of note-taking. Some prefer to jot down notes in the margins; others prefer to take a separate page of notes and keep them in a binder, ready for access during class.
One particularly formal way of note-taking is known as case briefing. There are volumes of materials about case briefing available in books and on-line. [See, e.g., Casenotes Legal Briefs—How to Brief a Case; Professor Paul Bateman’s Instructions for Briefing Cases] A case brief is essentially a short set of notes, usually broken down into formal categories or headings, that include the most important aspects of a court’s decision in an abbreviated form. They can be good reference tools during (or just before) class or for reviewing material after class or during final exam time. Below, we have included several examples of different case briefs for the same case. There is no single “correct” way to brief a case. Rather, there are important things that you can draw from reading cases that should be included in any brief, and the briefs should provide you with an easily accessible shorthand way of reminding yourself about the relevant aspects of a case so that you can discuss (and think about) it in class in an intelligent fashion. Briefs can also be very useful when you begin to compile an outline for the course. Briefs may also help you practice distinguishing relevant from irrelevant facts and identifying which parts of a decision constitute its holding and which are “dicta.”
Remember, class preparation and reading for law school should be an active, not passive, endeavor. The more you engage the material rather than simply absorbing it, the better and deeper will be your understanding. Use the opportunity of studying to ask your own questions, which may be variations on the facts of the cases in your casebook.
A. Be Meticulous
Much of the study of law is about the close examination of language and meaning. The meaning of a statute or case can turn on something as seemingly trivial as the placement of a comma, or the use of and instead of or (or vice-versa). A recent on-line search of cases that dealt with the and/or issue revealed that at least 226 courts have had to grapple with this question in the past five years. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to get by in law school simply by skimming assignments or reading them casually or quickly. It is equally impossible to successfully practice law in this manner. Meticulousness and attention to detail are critical habits to develop, and you should start now.
B. Keep Up
In general, law school reading assignments tend to be more dense and complex than reading assignments in most undergraduate disciplines. Carrying that load in several different classes can be a significant burden. It is wise never to fall very far behind the instructor’s pace in the course. If you fall too far behind, you will find it very difficult to catch up later. Also, some instructors assign heavier reading loads as the semester progresses (students are not the only ones with time management problems!), so if you fall behind early, you will have to do not only your current reading, but catch up on the assignments you didn’t prepare earlier.
C. Manage Your Time Wisely
Adequate preparation for law school classes (as well as for the practice of law) is extremely time consuming. It will be useful for you to learn good time management skills so that you can use that time efficiently. At times, you will no doubt feel that there are simply not enough hours in the day to get everything done. There are many ways to engage in effective time management, and you should choose one that works best for you. Some common suggestions, but ones that won’t work for everyone, are: preparing a regular study schedule for the day, week, month, and/or semester; prioritizing study times for when you are most alert (are you a morning person? an evening person?); using technology to help manage your life (e.g., palm pilots, computer calendars with pop-up reminders, etc.); recording or “billing” your hours to track how much time you have actually spent on different subjects throughout the week.
An important, but sometimes overlooked, aspect of time management is making time to take care of yourself. You are a law student, not an automaton. We all have needs and interests that make us interesting persons and it is critical to try to maintain a balanced and healthy life while you are in law school. Take time to exercise, read non-law materials, go to the movies, pursue hobbies, do charity work, spend time with your spouse or partner, your family and friends. Do something other than talk about the law! Paying attention to these things will most likely make you a healthier, happier person. They also will make you a more effective and efficient student.
D. Work with Others?
As with preparing case briefs, deciding how you best study is something that is likely to be very personal and subjective. Many law professors strongly encourage group work because they believe that collaborative learning efforts not only produce benefits in the learning process, but also prepare students to work on team projects when they are practicing law. Many students benefit from studying in groups, whether they be formal “study groups” or simply a few friends sitting around discussing the assignments. One advantage to group study is that it may give you practice in articulating your thoughts about the assigned readings. This may help you develop more confidence when you are in class. Group study can also occur at many different points in the semester. Some students like to study in groups during the semester while others prefer to study in groups only while preparing for exams.
Another way to build your confidence and enhance your understanding of the materials is to participate in on-line discussion boards if your professor makes them available. Sometimes it is easier to sit down and think through a question (or response to another’s question) without the pressures associated with in-class participation. Fruitful on-line discussions can be as beneficial as professor-directed in-class discussions and can be a wonderful opportunity for you to practice your analytical and argumentation skills. They also can be an opportunity to get to know your classmates a little better and to realize that the study of law is challenging for everyone and that many of the questions and doubts you have are shared by other students.
Click here for a list of frequently asked questions [FAQs] relating to studying and class preparation