One problem hampering your reading at first will be the unfamiliarity with legal vocabulary. It takes time to get to know what the legal terms mean. Normal people don’t say, “assumpsit” or “a fortiori” at cocktail parties—at least not if they want to be invited back. Buy a paperback (not hardcover) legal dictionary and keep it with you at all times as you study during the first semester.
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Reading Tips Your understanding of the material you are assigned will be dramatically increased if you read it twice. Yes, this sounds burdensome, but try the experiment yourself: Take an unfamiliar passage and see if two readings don’t dramatically improve your comprehension. While textbooks and law review articles don’t always require such double duty if written in straightforward style, case decisions—the bulk of your class assignments—must be read twice, at least during your first semester.
Marking important text is a personal matter. Unless a passage is so clearly important that it sets off bells and whistles on the first reading, postpone any such marking until your second time through the material. When you’re not familiar with the subject, you tend to mark everything you read, which obviously undermines the whole point of highlighting text.
Casebooks, which you will be required to buy for class, contain edited court decisions, or cases. Reading from these books will comprise the bulk of your assignments. These books will also have, interspersed between the cases, sections called “notes” (or something similar), in which the author gives you additional information about the case itself or the legal topic it deals with.
Law is a dynamic field, and casebooks must be updated to incorporate new decisions. In addition to the hardcover casebook, you will often be required to buy a paperback supplement, which includes recent decisions and legislative changes that have occurred since the hardcover edition of the book came out. Warning: Do not neglect to read the supplements. Since they reflect the up-to-the-minute state of the law, professors often put greater emphasis on the cases in the supplement than they do on older cases.
While you may be tempted to sell your casebook after the course is finished, remember that they remain valuable for years as sources for cases and as bibliographies about the topic of law they cover. Even in practice, although you would rarely cite a casebook in a court brief, you might very likely refer to one of your old casebooks for lists of relevant treatises and articles that you could cite, or to help you begin research into a subject of law you need some refreshing in.
Treatises are lengthy multivolume works that exhaustively discuss in narrative form an area of law. They do not reprint cases, but provide synopses of important ones and include detailed information on the history of the legal subject, what legislative changes have occurred, what the philosophy behind the law is, and so on.
The classic examples are Williston’s and Corbin’s treatises on contracts, both of which you will become familiar with before too long.
You don’t buy treatises for your personal use (not only because of the expense; who wants to lug around a twenty-two- volume set of books?). In fact, treatises often are not helpful for students since they include so much detailed information (they are intended primarily for practicing attorneys and judges). Still, if you’re stumped by a difficult question, you’ll almost certainly find the answer in the treatise dealing with the topic although you may have to do a little digging to find it.
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A hornbook is a mini treatise, also called a textbook, and is intended primarily for students. Like a treatise, it does not contain the text of court decisions but rather presents a straightforward discussion of the law. A hornbook will say, “The rule of law is . . . ,” whereas a casebook will present a sample case that contains a version of that rule. Perhaps the most famous hornbook, and one of the best ever written, is Prosser on Torts. If you’re near a law book store or library, stop in and ask to see a copy to get an idea of what a hornbook is.
Hornbooks are usually hardcovers, but they are affordable. They’re an excellent investment, especially around exam time when the library copies will invariably be checked out. Although they are intended mostly for students, you will use them in your practice. A good resource is the popular line of paperback hornbooks called the Nutshell series, which gives brief overviews of most areas of law.
Legal outlines are commercially sold paperbound booklets designed to summarize an entire law school course, often following the organization and contents of specific casebooks. They supposedly are to be used as an aid to the casebook although many students often use them instead of the casebook (more on this later). Outlines present a synopsis of each case in the casebook and include a discussion of the rule of law the case represents and other information about the subject.
These are, as the name suggests, in outline format, and are similar to the master outline you will write using the LCM system. Some of these outlines are nearly as lengthy as the casebooks they digest. Note that some of them are merely paperbound hornbooks in outline format; they don’t correspond to any particular casebook.
Case briefs are nothing more than ready-briefed cases (also called “canned briefs”). Often they are in a form that allows them to be tom out of the book and inserted into your own notebooks. They, like many of the legal outlines, usually are written to correspond to specific casebooks and often offer a subscription service through which you will be sent briefs of the cases recently added to the latest editions of the casebook or its supplement.
Case briefs have some marginal value in presenting a summary of a case, but they are no substitute for reading the assigned cases and as such we would put them low on your list of potential study aids.
Law Review Articles and Periodicals
The law review is a scholarly journal published periodically, usually quarterly. Every law school has its own, and some schools have several, each dealing with a specialty such as environmental, communications, or antitrust law.
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The articles in these journals are written by professors, practicing lawyers, and judges, although a portion of the space is reserved for students who contribute smaller articles. The topics of the articles are generally very esoteric and deal with the finer points of law. Often they will express authors’ opinions about areas of law that they feel need to be changed.
Because they are written by experts for experts, most law review articles will not be helpful to students in their first year. Occasionally, however, a law review will present an excellent overview of an area of law and will do so with particular clarity and perception. Your professor may recommend such articles and you should read them.
You will also find dozens of legal magazines, ranging from the well-known ABA Journal down to limited circulation, specialized magazines. Although very little in any of these magazines will help you directly in your studies, we recommend picking up one or two that interest you and reading them at your leisure. These will give you an idea of what practical issues attorneys are currently confronting and of how attorneys manage the business aspects of their practice (hiring staff, renting space, using computers, and so on).
Video and Audio Tapes
It is now possible to find many of the study aids, giving you the benefit of seeing on screen or hearing lectures by well-known legal educators. Video tapes are particularly helpful in upper-class courses such as trial advocacy, where you will learn such things as gestures, courtroom speaking techniques, and handling witnesses. To be able to see experts orchestrate a trial on tape is a major benefit to future litigators.
Camcorders and other personal video tape machines can help you prepare for your moot court argument in your first- year legal research class. Try taping yourself and studying both your argument and your body language, voice level, and so on. Practicing in front of this all-seeing eye will also prepare you psychologically for your appearance before the “judges.”
If you intend to audio tape a professor’s lecture, be sure to ask permission first. We would not recommend this as a regular practice, however, because taking notes in class eliminates a lot of the “noise” and superfluous material that accompanies lectures. But if you anticipate that a lecture will deal with a particularly difficult topic, and you wish to listen to it again, a tape of the session might be helpful.
Computers have, of course, now become standard equipment in legal study and practice. Lexis, Westlaw and Veralex are the major systems used for computerized legal research. Most trial lawyers in the country do at least part of their research with one of these systems. You will learn about these in your research and writing course.
In addition, most legal libraries have systems that streamline “cite-checking” (verifying the accuracy of references to court cases and other legal authorities)—a notoriously tedious, but vital, task for students and young attorneys. You also can take advantage of CD-ROM machines (Compact Disk—Read Only Memory), computer storage systems that contain huge amounts of legal materials on a tiny disk (identical to music CDs). The CD-ROM systems allow you to search through treatises, indexes, and other legal materials at literally the speed of light.
There is another interesting type of software on the market now—interactive programs. These allow the user with a standard personal computer to create legal documents in response to questions the computer itself asks. These interactive programs (meaning that the user and the computer can respond to each other) are not artificial intelligence systems and cannot replace an attorney’s experience and judgment. But when it comes to creating customized legal documents for litigation or business transactions, many of the mechanical and repetitive aspects of assembling those materials can be left to the machine.
As a student, you will probably not have much need or opportunity to use such a system, but if you get access to one—if your library has a PC, for instance, or if you’re clerking in a law firm—you should try it out. It will greatly supplement your legal education, both in the discovery of what computers can do for you and how legal documents are assembled.
Using Study Aids
Treatises, hornbooks, legal outlines, and case briefs are the major study aids available to you. How do they fit into the LCM system?
Students often buy case briefs, or canned briefs, and use them frequently. But if you use them instead of briefing the cases yourself, you’ll be doing yourself a major disservice. For one thing, commercial briefs can miss issues. Also, they tend to be very short and may deal with complex legal issues in a superficial way.
More important, though, briefing cases is a skill that you must learn. There’ll come a day when a partner sticks her head in your office and says, “Jones, I just heard about this new case, Hansel v. Gretel. Get a brief to me in a half-hour.” There won’t be any commercial briefs you can turn to (and even if there were, it would be malpractice to rely on it instead of the actual text of the case).
Essentially, the same rule applies with the other types of study aids: They should supplement, not replace, your briefing of cases and reading of assigned materials. There is nothing wrong with such aids but, as the underlying philosophy of the LCM system maintains, you get out of school what you put into it. If you wrestle through a case and brief it, you’ll truly understand it. You’ll see the facts. You’ll have the decision with you for years. If you rely on a pre-digested brief or an abstract rule of law from a hornbook, you’ll forget it within a week.
It is often helpful, before reading assigned cases, to read the section in a hornbook or other study aid dealing with the topic of law your class is currently covering. You will not only get a good background for the subject, but you may find that the assigned cases have themselves been discussed by the hornbook author. (A good tip: Look up assigned cases in the hornbook’s “Table of Cases”; you will find that many of the cases have been included in the book.)
The Big Three Sources
The essence of your work in law school is to gather information from three sources:
- You will brief assigned cases.
- You will take notes in class.
- You will take notes from outside reading.
Try to do the assigned reading and briefing as close in time as possible to the class for which it’s to be covered. For instance, if in your Wednesday contracts class, you are given an assignment that’s due next Wednesday, don’t do the briefing until Monday or Tuesday. For the simple reason that the material should be fresh in your mind when discussed. Brief it too far ahead of class, and you won’t be able to follow the discussion as clearly as if you’d done it the day before. And if called upon, your recitation, not to mention your composure, may suffer.
Reading assignments will be long, but it’s vital that you not fall behind. If you’re a week behind the professor’s lectures, both what you’re presently reading (last week’s assignments) and what he’s currently teaching (this week’s assignments) will be lost on you.
Don’t cut classes. All contract law is not alike. All tort law is not alike. When you take a law school course, you’re not learning the absolute law, but the law according to your professor, who will emphasize some topics to the exclusion of others—perhaps taking an approach quite different from that taken by the legal outline you bought.
Similarly, all students are not alike. If you rely on other students’ notes for classes you missed, you’re gambling that they are as interested as you are in learning the material. That might not be the case.
Some students use unique techniques for taking notes and briefing cases—color-coded pens, for instance. As long as you don’t neglect substance for technique, there’s nothing wrong with doing this. If writing your torts notes in fuchsia ink helps you stay organized and remember the material, by all means, go right ahead. Just be sure to buy a semester’s worth of fuchsia pens so you don’t run out of ink just before the exam and have to drop out of the class.
If you have a personal computer, use it. The ability to cut and paste, to merge files, to check spelling and use other word processing features will drastically cut down on the time and effort required when you create your master outline. You can create “macros”— replicating dozens of commands or words by pressing a single key—that will reproduce standardized information in your briefs.
Of particular help in the LCM system is the automatic outlining capabilities built into most word-processing systems. This feature will save hours and greatly speed the writing of your own master outlines. All you need to do is hit the return key and then tab in the desired number of spaces for your subcategories. The computer automatically prints out the proper number or letter level for the subcategories.
The Study Group
Law is not practiced in isolation. There is not one attorney, judge, or legal philosopher whose final product cannot be improved by comments and criticisms from others. One of your most humbling experiences as a student or new attorney will be to explain a very complicated legal rule to a layperson, only to have that listener ask a very uncomplicated, illegal question that points out the fallacy of your reasoning. A variety of perspectives on a legal issue are immensely helpful in solving legal problems.
In law firms, attorneys always meet in conferences and engage in less formal discussions when they are attempting to adopt a litigation strategy or plan a business deal. The corresponding phenomenon in law school is the study group.
Are such groups important?
Not necessarily. Consider, for instance, what would happen if a group of attorneys sat down at a conference table to discuss an issue yet had no idea of the rules of law involved. The meeting would be a waste of time; the attorneys should get themselves into the library and do some preliminary research first.
It’s the same with study groups. If you don’t come to them with sufficient knowledge, they’re a waste of time. By all means, talk with other students; there’s no better way to find out what you don’t know (which is much more important, of course, than finding out what you do know). But it’s probably smart to keep these get-togethers informal and short.
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