When studying any subject, it’s inevitable that you’ll have to spend a lot of your time taking notes. Law students in particular spend a massive amount of time taking notes, because there’s so much to learn and there are so many different sources to learn it from.
But the problem with having to take so many notes is that it can easily take up a lot of time. There’s no use in having brilliant notes if you don’t have the time to read or learn from them.
To try and tackle this problem, here are some tips to help you make the best notes you can, as efficiently as possible. I’ll start with some specific points that depend on the kind of notes you’re taking, and then add some general tips that are useful in any situation.
Questions to ask yourself before you start:
The first step to taking notes quickly and efficiently is to ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I taking notes for?
- What am I taking notes on?
- How do I learn?
I will explain each of these questions one by one, to show you how they can help you focus your notes, and therefore make them more concise and efficient.
What are you taking notes for?
The first thing to consider is what you are taking notes for. Have you been asked to write an essay on a particular subject, to answer a problem question, or are the notes just for your own revision? When you know what you’re taking the notes for, you can make sure you only write about the things that matter.
If you have been asked to write an essay on a topic, for instance, but you know it won’t come up in the exam, don’t waste your time writing extensive notes.
You’ll never need them again, so just focus on reading the material and then collecting enough of it that you can write a good essay. You might feel more diligent for making all of your notes long and detailed on every topic, but this is simply time you could be spending on useful work. So that’s the first step: work out what you need the notes for, and tailor (or shorten) them accordingly.
What are you taking notes on?
DO NOT take written notes on textbooks! If you want to take notes faster, you’ll be pleased to hear that you should not take your own notes from a textbook. Avoiding this saves a whole lot of wasted time. Why? Because the whole point in a textbook is to summarise all the relevant material as concisely as possible. Taking notes from this will just replicate the text that is already in the book. Instead, go through the passages you’ve been asked to read with a pencil, and just underline the bits you think are relevant or interesting, or make notes in the margin.
This should take about an hour maximum. You’ll then have an understanding of the general layout of the topic, without any wasted time.
As with textbooks, don’t take written notes on legislation. It is deliberately written to be clear, so your time is better spent just reading and re-reading it to make sure you understand how it works.
Once you’ve been through the textbook and legislation, move on to case law. For this, you need a different approach. You definitely should take your own notes here. Start with the facts. What happened? Facts aren’t always important, but they help keep the law interesting and ensure you can relate it to real-life situations. Once you’ve established the facts, use the headnote to make note of the decision. Which party won, and on what arguments? It should take about five minutes to give a brief summary of the facts and the court’s decision. Then comes the important part. What was the court’s reasoning? You’ll have to read the entire judgment for this.
What you want to focus on are the bits where the judges explain how they came to their decision; these will often make up about 5% of the whole text. The trick is to skim-read each judge’s speech until you get to something you recognise as reasoning, and then read this (usually only about a paragraph) in detail. Some case reports even include helpful references to important paragraphs in the head-note, in which case you can just skip the rest.
Often, you might find that influential academics and lawyers (or the judges themselves) have written articles and case comments on the topics you are studying, so it’s helpful to be able to take notes on these too. Start by reading the introduction; what is the author going to say? What is their point? Then read the conclusion- this will summarise what the article has said. You don’t need to take notes on either of these yet; but knowing what the author is trying to say before you read it will speed up the process.
Once you’ve read the introduction and conclusion, skim through the rest of the article. Read the whole thing, but skip any irrelevant bits. Then, just write down the most important things that the article tells you. Most articles only have about six interesting things to say, so keep it brief.
How do you learn?
Thirdly, you need to think about the way you personally find it most helpful to learn. To be able to take notes quickly and well, you need to know what is most useful to you. If you cannot learn effectively from a block of text, writing notes like this will be a waste of time.
Finding out the best way for you to learn will involve some experimentation.
Some people can learn a lot from just writing things out. Others might prefer to say them out loud. Personally, I use a combination of diagrams (especially for cases with lots of parties) and text, but with a lot of highlighting and different colours. I find this helps draw my attention to the important parts. But there are plenty of different ways of doing things- try them out and see what suits you!
Having set out these three questions to ask in order to take notes faster, I’ll end with a few general tips:
1. Don’t always use a computer. Computers really speed things up when you need to take detailed notes. But don’t use a computer in lectures or classes. Most people can type so fast that they never think about what they’re typing; this is very inefficient since you’ll have to read through it all later. Handwriting forces you to think about what you’re hearing, and only take note of the important parts.
2. When reading material that you want to take notes on, begin with less detail and read the more detailed sources later. This means reading the textbook first, as I’ve suggested above.
This way you’ll have a basic understanding of the whole topic by the time you come to write your notes, so you don’t waste time learning it all backwards.
3. Write in simple language. These notes are for you, so you don’t need to impress anyone with them. Make them as clear as possible so you won’t mind reading over them again later.
So these are my tips for writing notes as fast as possible:
- First, ask yourself what you’re writing notes for
- Consider what you’re taking notes on
- What’s the best way for you to learn?
- Use a computer, but don’t over-use it
- Work from more general to more specific material
- Write simply and clearly
This should all help you to write the best notes you can, in as little time as possible. But the main thing is to work out how you learn and to take notes in your own style. This way you’ll not only be more efficient, but your notes will be much more useful when you need them.
Alex is an undergraduate Law student at Somerville College, Oxford. He is particularly interested in taxation law and aspires to practise at the Revenue Bar. In his spare time he likes to keep fit and enjoys going to the gym.