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Learning After the Legal Class

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Despite the importance of attending classes, most of your learning will occur outside the classroom. An important way to learn is by spending time talking with your colleagues and professors. Rather than disciplining yourself to spend all your time studying alone in the library, take time to talk about the law in the halls or over a cup of coffee. By talking with people in a less structured setting than the classroom, you will get a variety of new perspectives on issues. Inevitably, you will kick around hypothetical that will exercise your analytic skills and will reveal gaps in your knowledge. You also will improve your speaking skills and your abilities to formulate and to defend positions on issues.

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Of course, you also will spend a great deal of time alone, reading your casebook and study aids and preparing case briefs and course outlines. Research on law students has shown that no method of studying is inherently superior to the others in terms of exam performance. However, research also has indicated that two types of activities can enhance performance: (1) regular review of course materials and (2) studying in an organized manner.

This article will explain how to do both, including how to prepare a course outline.

A. DAILY REVIEW

After each class, take a few minutes to review your notes and case briefs. Make sure that they are accurate and complete. Finish incomplete sentences, correct misstatements, and clarify ambiguous statements. Think about the class discussion and add your new insights. By routinely reviewing your class notes and case briefs, you will remember more of each class and will be better prepared to understand the next day's reading assignment and class discussion.

If you are still uncertain about a subject that was covered in class, take time to clarify it now. Clarifying a subject is easier and faster when it is fresh in your mind, and you will save time at the end of the semester, when time becomes extremely precious. If you have questions, you can talk with your professor immediately after class. You normally should not ask your professor to help fill in the gaps in your notes; instead, ask a classmate. You may want to stay after class even if you do not have questions. Other students' questions may present a problem that you had not recognized or may provoke an interesting discussion.

If you cannot stay after class, you can go to your professor's office. Check whether your professor has specific office hours or is willing to respond to questions by telephone or electronic mail. Before going to your professor's office to discuss a subject, familiarize yourself with the material in the casebook concerning it. You do not want to ask questions that are answered in the assigned readings, and you will learn more if you can discuss the subject knowledgeably.

Do not be put off if your professor cannot see you immediately. In addition to teaching, professors have a variety of responsibilities, including research, writing, and administrative duties for the law school and for other professional organizations. Professors also must travel to testify before legislative bodies, to present papers at conferences, and for a variety of other purposes. However, effectively educating students is a top priority for your professors. So take advantage of their expertise about the law, course selections, legal practice, and maintaining a balanced life while in school.

B. OUTLINING

Your daily review, like your case briefs and class discussions, generally will focus on the law in bite-sized pieces. Therefore, the next step in learning is putting the pieces together. The best way is to prepare a written outline of the materials you have studied. This outline is not just a list of topics you have studied or a collection of your case briefs. Instead, it is your synthesis of the course materials.

The analytic process that is required to prepare an outline is at least as valuable as the completed product. Organizing the .materials requires you to determine the exact contours and focus of each doctrine. By working with the concepts, rather than just reading them, you will have better comprehension and recall and will hone your analytic skills. Comprehensively stating the law that you have studied also will reveal weaknesses and gaps in your knowledge.

Although you may be tempted to rely on a commercial outline, do not succumb. It will not provide the benefits that come from preparing your own. Moreover, a commercial outline will not be tailored to your course. Even if it includes the cases in your casebook, it will have a different focus and approach than your professor's. If you try to avoid that problem by using an outline prepared by someone in your class or who has taken it previously, you cannot be certain that the outline is accurate and complete. Therefore, set aside time to prepare an outline for each course. The time and effort you invest will be rewarded.

Begin an outline as soon as you have finished a chapter of the casebook, and supplement the outline as you finish each additional chapter. A chapter ending is a good time to outline because the materials in a chapter normally all relate to the same subject and provide a natural organizational unit. By outlining at the end of each chapter, you also will stagger the task of outlining among your courses; normally, you will finish chapters on different days in different courses. You also will spread the work of outlining over the entire term, rather than trying to prepare complete outlines for each course in the days immediately before finals.

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To begin outlining, review your notes and case briefs for the chapter to identify its main topics. The casebook's table of contents can help you in this process. For each topic, gather the following information:
  1. Definitions of any terms of art;
     
  2. Relevant rules of law, including a description of each element that must be satisfied for the rule to apply and any differences among the jurisdictions;
     
  3. Exceptions to each rule;
     
  4. Available remedies;
     
  5. Underlying policy considerations;
     
  6. Any important historical background; and
     
  7. Any important reform proposals.
Because the number of class sessions for each course is limited, you may have studied only parts of each topic. For example, you may not have studied all the exceptions to a rule. You are responsible only for the information in the assigned readings and in the class sessions. You are not required to research and to outline additional materials.

Case names and fact patterns from cases usually need not be included in the outline. You should include a case name, however, if it is closely related with a legal doctrine. For example, you will learn in your civil procedure course that the Erie doctrine is named for Erie v. Tompkins, the case in which the United States Supreme Court first stated the doctrine. Similarly, you should include a fact pattern in your outline only if necessary to describe or to illustrate a rule.

After culling the necessary information from your notes and case briefs, you must synthesize and organize them. You must determine how the topics included in the article relate to each other and to the topics you previously have outlined. For example, if the chapter dealt with an intentional tort and you previously outlined another intentional tort, group them together in the outline and note their similarities and differences. If a problem on your torts exam involves intentional wrongdoing, the possible torts will be grouped together in your outline and their unique features will have been identified.

A hornbook can be particularly helpful in organizing and synthesizing the course materials. It can help you put the pieces of the course together, fill in gaps, and clarify ambiguities. Other types of study aids can be useful, although they are not as thorough and are more prone to error. Ask your professor to recommend an outside source.

There is not one proper outline format. The best format depends on the course materials and on the organization that is most helpful to you. To keep the outline to a usable length, avoid including tangential materials no matter how interesting they are. Despite the need for conciseness, however, you should include an example of how a rule applies if the rule is particularly complex or abstract. An example can make the rule more understandable and memorable.

Outlining will be slow going at first. Just as with case briefing, however, you will become more proficient. As your outlining skills improve and as you cover more material in each course, review the earlier portions of the outline to correct and to supplement them. If you have access to a computer, it can be quite helpful as you edit and reorganize your outline.

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