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1. Case Briefing
A couple of schools of thought for you to consider. Either: (a) Do it the way they tell you because they know best, or (b) Do it the way that works best for you because its quicker. Just as not every trial lawyer will approach the same case the same way, I advocate that you figure out which method works best for you. Time during 1L is at a premium and the recommended briefing method isnt going to be ideal for everyone.
The way youre supposed to brief:
First read the entire case from start to finish once, without making any notes or highlighting. Then re-read the case and then write a brief that incorporates a summary of the holding (i.e. who won), who the plaintiff and defendant are, a summary of the legally relevant facts, how the case came to be before the court (a.k.a. procedural posture, e.g. an appeal from summary judgment), and the rule of law youre supposed to glean from having read the case. I didnt brief this way, but those that did tell me it takes about 25 minutes not including the time taken to read through the case. Most likely each nights reading assignment will include 3-4 cases (per class). The obvious downside of briefing the recommended way is that you read everything twice.
Another (quicker) way to brief:
Book briefing is a lot quicker. Using a pen/pencil make notes in the margin that you can quickly recognize if youre called on in class. The better you get at reading and distilling cases, the more effective your book briefing will be and the quicker you can get through your reading assignments. The downside is that it makes your books harder (if not impossible) to sell back to the bookstore (or the student-run bookswap) when youre done with them. Books are expensive, so if you want to recover your money, dont brief this way. I think the time savings gained from book briefing makes it well worth passing up the meagre amount you'd be able to sell the book for.
Yet another way:
The book Law School Confidential recommends using different colored highlighters to brief, e.g. green for the holding of the case, blue for the most important facts, pink for the courts reasoning, and so on. I briefed this way for most of the first semester, and its quite efficient, but you might find yourself highlighting too much out of fear of missing something. The downside is that if you go wild with the highlighters, you won't be able to sell your books back to the bookstore. Theres also the problem that youre often highlighting terminology or language that is complicated and/or unfamiliar, so if you get called on in class its arguably better to have your own words in front of you.
There are always commercial briefs such as ROMLAW or free online case summaries such as those posted to www.4lawschool.com Treat these with great caution though while youd like to think they give good information, theres no guarantee that theyre right, which could make for embarrassment if youre called on. Obviously if you dont read the full case but only read a pre-prepared brief this is the quickest method of all, but I dont recommend it.
Reading cases and briefing most definitely helps you learn; it sucks that you have to spend hours upon hours reading cases, but hey, welcome to law school.
2. Laptop versus writing your notes
Personally I handwrote my notes during 1L and I think my grades were better for it. Laptop v. Writing pretty much comes down to a speed versus distraction trade-off. Like many nowadays I can type faster than I can write, but typing doesn't allow you to insert arrows, sketches, etc and when you type you tend to be sidetracked by the urge to format things nicely. Some old schoolers like Mixon and Rosenberg won't allow laptops in their classrooms. When 2L and 3L rolls around, the number of people using laptops seemed to increase. It (almost) goes without saying that people who use laptops tend to spend a fair amount of time instant messaging, answering email, etc. If you think you would like to type the bar exam you'll want to have done at least one semester's worth of typed exams...the bar exam is not the place to find out if you're comfortable typing an exam.
Acronyms are an extremely powerful memory device and are particularly useful in law school where so much of what you have to remember is made up of elements. It's now April '06 and I can still remember some material I learned in first semester because of acronyms. Developing acroynms is also a good habit to get into with a view to the bar exam, where you'll be learning and re-learning a lot of new material in the 8 weeks before the exam, so whatever you can do to maximize your head space the better. Typically it seems the stranger the acronym, the more likely it is to stick. As much for my own amusement as for to provide examples, here are some of the acronyms I used in school and for the bar exam (I'm doing all of these from memory):
Crump's criminal law class, 2nd semester of 1L, Bobbit's six
Acronym: "THE DPS"
Elements: Textual, Historical, Ethical, Doctrinal, Prudential, Structural
Duncan's torts class, 1st semester of 1L, all the intentional
torts we learned and tort defenses
Acronyms: "ABC FITT" and "DR. DJC NS" (that last one is DR as in Doctor, DJC as in my initials, and NS, which I remember as NoS for Nitrous Oxide)
Elements: Assault, Battery, Conversion, False Imprisonment, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Trespass to land, Trespass to chattels and Defense of Property, Recovery of Property, Defense of Others, Justification, Consent, Necessity, Self-defense
Commercial paper, the July '05 Texas bar exam (I had not taken
commercial paper before the BarBri prep course, and this very
acronym covered half of an essay question...my study friends and
I hit a home run using this acronym)
Acronym: "IS U F'IN PC?"
Elements (of negotiability for an instrument): In writing, Signed by the maker, Unconditional promise to pay, Fixed amount, In money, No other obligation or undertaking, Payable on demand or at a definite time, Contains language of negotiability.
Anyway, you get the picture. Develop acronyms to help you remember elements or lists and practice them. If the material comes up on an exam you will spit the information out on auto pilot.
4. Don't discuss grades
I won't labor this point because you either buy it or you don't: I suggest you not discuss your grades with other students while you're in law school, but at least while you're in 1L. If you got an A in civil procedure in 1L, a 4 credit class, and you mention that in conversation to someone who got a C+, they walk away feeling worse off, because in law school everyone is smart and thinks they should do well but the curve prevents that. So why not keep quiet about it rather than knocking that person's confidence? My policy the whole way through law school was never to discuss grades. If you really need kudos, you will get enough from your spouse, family or non law school friends. If it's imperative to you that people know how well you've done, when law review assignments are awarded it becomes pretty apparent who finished 1L in the top 10%.
5. Study groups
I found being in a study group to be extremely helpful. I joined one toward the end of first semester of 1L and continued to participate all the way through the bar exam. Obvious stuff really, but make sure you're compatible, everyone's goals are about the same and that there's a level on agreement on admitting new people. Share anything useful you find with your group and make appointments to discuss old exams with professors as a group. There is a high probability that your 1L study group will be your closest friends through law school; my section certainly seemed to follow that pattern.
6. Do old exams
"You take the professor, not the exam" is an old addage that I found to be 100% correct at UHLC. Every professor emphasizes different material and cases, has a preferred method of analysis and has their own expectations, which they will share with you if you ask. Getting old exams off the UHLC web site and either writing out an answer (time consuming and annoying, but it pays off big time) or discussing the question in your study group will greatly improve your grades. I found all professors happy to review and discuss model answers with my study group. Quite a few of my 1L professors did mid-semester practice exams; you're crazy to pass up a chance like this to sit a risk-free proxy of the real thing and get feedback.
7. Forget the commercial outlines
Commercial outlines and flashcards aren't going to help you much because, as noted above, you take the professor not the exam. What some guy who works for Gilbert's thinks about Civil Procedure is all well and good, but what Ragazzo or Crump thinks is a whole lot more pertinent to your world. Given that they're not necessarily relevant and cost >$30 a pop, it's my opinion that commercial outlines aren't worth it.
8. $200 seminars on how to succeed at law school
Save your money. I don't know anyone who went to one of these and said it was very valuable. During 1L we got some flyer dropped off in our carrells encouraging us to attend some downtown weekend lecture that was the "key to success in 1L" for $200. Whatever.
Arguably this is the most important section of this page. First, what is an outline? Maybe this is common knowledge, but I wasn't familiar with the the term until I came to law school (I'm from the UK, I think it might be an American thing). An outline is a study aid that combines your class notes, information from the case book and maybe material from another outline. For a 3 credit class, mine typically ran to about 30 pages of typewritten 12 point font.
Outlines are your #1 study guide when exam time rolls around, thus the better your outline, the better your exam performance. Ideally you make your outline as you progress through the semester rather than trying to generate one from scratch closer to the exams. I made a point to sit down each Sunday and update my outline using the past week's class notes.
Outlines tend to be handed down from one class to the next. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, it can save significant amounts of time, and if you're able to come by a good outline for a class, definitely read it over and see if you want to "adopt" it. I used a fantastic outline written by a guy named Michael Gallagher for Crump's 1L civil procedure class and it saved me a great deal of time and wasted effort. Be warned though: don't assume an inherited outline is up-to-date. Laws change, so you'll want to compare the inherited outline to your class notes and update as needed (this is particularly true in an area like constitutional law).
One of my study group actually didn't outline at all, which apparently worked well for him (he is now an associate at Baker Botts). He would hand write all of his class notes, then just study off those when exam time rolled around. Saves time working up an outline if that study method works for you, but I needed an outline.
Some of the outlines on this web site are mine and others are submitted by public spirited UHLC students. I can't personally check them all, so expect some typos and such.