Caveats: Warnings to Observe when Using Study Aids in Law Schools

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Although the proper use of study aids can greatly enhance a student's performance, the improper use (or abuse) of study aids can have deleterious results. Therefore it is important to keep certain rules in mind when using study aids, and to observe the following caveats.

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Do Not Go Overboard

Unfortunately, some law students suffer from the harmful delusion that if one commercial outline is helpful for a course, two such outlines must be twice as helpful, and even more so when used in conjunction with canned briefs, hornbooks, nutshells, bar outlines, and so on. Such academic overkill, however, is wasteful, time-consuming, expensive, and often confusing, such that any synergistic effect will most assuredly be negative. You honestly do not have to read every study aid ever produced on a subject to do well in your legal studies.

Generally, all worthwhile study aids on a given subject contain the same core information in varying amounts of detail (although inaccuracies, errors, and conflicts will inevitably be discovered). You are, for the sake of simplicity and a coherent approach to a subject, usually better off picking at most one commercial outline per course. A good commercial outline, if available, is generally the only written study aid (with the exception of Black's Law Dictionary) you will need to buy for a class. (As noted previously, bar outlines are unnecessary and probably undesirable; canned briefs should be avoided; hornbooks can be borrowed; law professors, exam files, and study groups are free; and fellow student outlines are not usually obtained by purchase.)

You may find it helpful to purchase an additional study aid, such as a nutshell, if you are having an especially difficult time understanding a particular area or concept of the law. Only in this limited situation, though, should you depart from the general rule of limiting yourself to one commercial study aid per course.

Study Only Relevant Sections

Law professors are continually amazed at the significant number of students each year who write on their final exams about topics that were never covered in class. This irrelevant discourse, no matter how internally consistent, does not impress law professors; rather, it annoys them and takes up valuable time that could have been used spotting and analyzing the real issues. Hence, it usually leads to disastrous exam grades. Therefore, unless your professor tells you otherwise, skip those parts of your study aids that cover topics not mentioned or discussed in class or addressed by one of your reading assignments. For example, if your criminal law professor has not covered the crimes of robbery and kidnapping in reading assignments or during her lectures, do not review those crimes independently hoping to show off your extracurricular knowledge on the final.

Most fair professors will cover final exam topics in both lectures and reading assignments, but do not be misled: any topic covered in either the assigned reading or the lectures is fair game for the final exam.

Because it is virtually guaranteed that topics boycotted by your professors will not appear on exams, if you miss a class, copy another student's notes or ask your professor what he or she talked about during the missed lecture. This will help ensure that you will not waste time reviewing irrelevant sections of study aids on the mistaken assumption that those topics were covered during class.

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When Study Aids Will Not Work

Occasionally, you will find yourself in a class taught by an avant-garde professor who spends more time criticizing the law (or expounding as to what it should be) than teaching what it is. This professor usually adheres to an extremist view or approach that currently falls outside the mainstream of legal thought. Commercial study aids are not helpful for such classes since they reflect only accepted and mainstream legal thought.

You can usually identify avant-garde professors by their statements criticizing every U.S. Supreme Court opinion ever written on the topic they teach, or by their insistence that some arcane opinion written by a judge of a federal district court in Arizona constitutes the only correct statement of the law. In an amusing law school story related to the authors by a colleague, one of these professors had for days relentlessly criticized a line of Supreme Court cases, much to the irritation of the storyteller. After introducing a new case, the professor addressed this student with the question, "Mr. X, can you tell me what is wrong with the holding of this opinion?" Mr. X carefully replied, "I'm only a second-year law student. I wouldn't presume to tell five members of the United States Supreme Court that they have made a mistake." A deathly silence enveloped the classroom for a few moments, until the professor moved on to question another student; Mr. X was never called on again.

Discussing your professors with law students who have previously taken courses taught by them can also help you identify avant-garde types. When you determine that your professor is of an avant-garde mindset, avoid using commercial study aids unless you plan to drop the class for a more traditional one (not a bad idea in some cases). Instead, study solely from your class notes and any other material written, prepared, or assigned by your professor.

Think Independently

To be a good lawyer or law student you must not only understand what the law is on a given subject, but why it is. You need to understand the reasoning behind the law so that when a factual situation arises for the first time, you can venture an educated guess as to whether certain legal rules should or would apply.

Although study aids state what the law is, most study aids (hornbooks excepted) do not adequately explain the reasoning underlying the law. Consequently, even if you are intelligently using study aids to learn and organize the black letter law needed to pass your classes, you should still spend time reflecting on the reasoning underlying the law you are studying and whether (in your opinion) it makes any sense. Carefully read the cases for the rationales and policies underlying their holdings, and think independently about any common threads running throughout similarly decided cases. You need to do this so that you can reason by analogy on your exams, which will often require you to address issues that are not identical to any material previously studied. Many casebooks contain "Notes and Questions" sections following the edited opinions. Reading and struggling with these can promote independent thinking and provide new insights into the course material.

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