Taking Notes in Law School (And Everywhere Else)
I’m about to enter my first year of law school, and I’ve been doing a little research on the best way to take notes in class. Of course, no online article is going to fully capture my experience and needs at a different school and at a different time. However, aside from specific techniques to include in your notes, I’ve noticed one main tension in law school note-taking. This is what really divides people.
Before I go any further, I’ll recognize that I have not actually started law school yet. I could be completely wrong in what I’m about to say. But from what I’ve read, this seems to make sense.
A lot of students like to type notes on their laptop. Either in a Microsoft Word document, or in dedicated note-taking software such as Microsoft OneNote/Evernote. Personally, I just couldn’t fathom writing in a word processor such as Google Docs, Word, or Pages. They’re built to create documents, not take notes! It feels wrong to me to make one of these applications do something they’re not designed to do, especially when there are so many apps that are designed to do just that.
Regardless of what app is being used, there’s usually a couple reasons that everyone gives when asked why they prefer typing notes:
- It’s quicker than handwriting, and sometimes it’s hard to keep up.
- It’s neater than my handwriting — if I handwrote my notes, they’d be illegible! Typing is so much neater.
These are both true statements. Almost across the board, if someone has made it to law school, they’ve had enough experience with computers where they’re fast at typing and probably a little out of practice when it comes to handwriting. However, I don’t think either of these reasons really hold up under some examination. That’s where handwriting comes in.
Handwriting Notes, or Not Typing
Typing is quicker than handwriting. But this is actually not in favour of your study, either short or long-term. Studies have shown that handwriting notes significantly improves memory retention over typing. Why is this? It’s due to one of the beautiful paradoxes that plague our existence — it’s one of the things that doesn’t seem to make sense at first, it almost seems backwards, until it’s experienced and ruminated on a little longer — the fact that handwriting it less efficient is a good thing. The fact that you can’t keep up with what you need to capture means that you have to actively pick and choose (“process”) the information and choose what needs to be written down and what doesn’t. You have to be engaged with the content instead of mindlessly copying it down word-for-word into your notes. And this means that your brain is working through this material, and this helps memory retention. When you go to look over your notes, your brain will already have processed the information before!
But handwriting is not without its drawbacks. You can’t easily go back and add more information without making a mess of things. If you take some notes on your reading before class, you can’t integrate your class notes into those. There’s easy way to back it up. You have to bring them with you everywhere, instead of having them synced on all your digital devices.
This is as far as the online articles took me. But this wasn’t very satisfying. I figured there must be a better way, a compromise. And there is. The solution is digital, handwritten notes on a tablet. Now, there are a good choice of tablets, but the one I have and am experienced using is the 12.9" iPad Pro with Apple Pencil. This tablet, coupled with GoodNotes (or other note-taking applications such a Notability, although I personally prefer GoodNotes,) is the perfect solution.
This app is a near pen-on-paper experience, and so it has all the benefits of handwriting mentioned above. However, because things are written digitally, you can move your writing around on the page, copy and paste, duplicate, and perhaps most importantly, backup and sync across devices.
And it has some extra features like the ability to zoom and and take really neat notes:
Or you can just treat it like a legal pad:
And you can open your documents in the app and annotate those too, all within the same app:
All in all, I think the choice is pretty clear for me. I’ll let you know how it all goes once I actually start law school. Like I said at the beginning, this could all fail miserably once I actually start. But for now, this feels like a solid choice.
What do you think?