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School of Law

How to Study Law – The Basics
by Martha M. Peters – August 2003

© Martha M. Peters, Ph.D. 2003.

Stay open and curious.
In approaching law study, be like a sponge. Let information soak in, especially unexpected questions, interpretations, and analytical processes that are new, different, or confusing. Resist the tendency to get locked into your own interpretation of cases so that you miss the professor's lesson. Also try to avoid pushing away or ignoring confusing content. Instead, try to be curious. Write down your questions. You may want to keep some post-it notes handy to make notations of questions to ask of yourself or others after class though you may find that they will be addressed by the end of the class period. Identifying questions is as important as finding answers with this material.

Learn from your professors.
Many students make the mistake of spending all of their time preparing for the next class. These students often feel that there is no time to review their class notes. When students do this, they may be trusting their own interpretation of new material over what their professors are teaching.

Taking notes is critical to being able to learn what professors teach. It is not enough to follow class discussions, because you need to apply what you are learning to new or remembered fact patterns. To do this well, you must review and learn information according to the analytical process your professors use. Learning terms, meanings, and concepts is generally a familiar learning task for students. Use the methods that have worked for you in the past.

For most students the analytic process is new. The term ‘thinking like a lawyer' refers to applying critical analysis to what you read and hear. Learning to approach materials analytically involves learning and practice. Take notes on questions asked, especially the professor's questions, summaries of answers, and professors' hypotheticals. Since you are learning to reason, making notes on other students' answers and professors' responses expands your understanding. There are times you will learn more from being able to track the reasoning for wrong answers than from focusing just on right answers. Noting other students' responses also helps make sense of the next question the professor asks. Attending to the types of questions your professors ask helps you develop an effective approach to legal problems. Take the questions used in class and ask them to yourself while reading for the next class to see if they help you better explore your assignments. Not all questions will be useful, but by applying questions to your reading you may find you are more focused and you will become more alert to the questions professors use repeatedly or in a particular analytic sequence. Remember that you are trying to learn a thinking process, not just a vocabulary and a body of information, but an approach to legal problem solving. What happens in classes supplies the most important learning material of each day and is definitely worth noting and reviewing.

The best way to learn from your professor is to review what happens in each class. Reviewing helps students see the patterns across classes and to see the relationships among cases. Reviewing gives class discussion more depth as students learn from each last class in preparation for the next class. Reviewing class notes after each class session and before each next class is critical to good preparation.

There are many "right ways" to learn law. Build on your own learning strategies, but modify as needed to meet the tasks required.
Some students prefer to start their studying by reading cases and then pulling the concepts together after class or at the end of the week. Other students need an overview of concepts to provide a context for reading cases and then need to pull from cases to provide specific examples for their overall understanding and future analysis. In either case, the table of contents of textbooks provides a wonderful overview. Use it either before you read assignments or afterward to understand assignments better.

Another difference among law students is the ways they organize their materials and notes. Don't let the word outline throw you. Some people use a traditional outline, but others find that flowcharts, mapping, or IRAC work just as well or better. It isn't which method you use to organize that is important, but that you organize is important for your learning. The exercise of organizing your materials helps you understand the material in greater depth as the relationships within the subject matter are made explicit. Organizing increases your memory of legal principles by building pathways for recalling the material and by providing a context for identifying the legal issues that require these principles and this analysis. Remember that whichever method you use to organize must reflect the way you want to remember and apply this information. Therefore, we suggest that your organizing be analytical in structure. Think in terms of organizing your notes from classes and from your reading with the purpose of helping you analyze a new factual situation. Do this for each legal issue you study. Here are some questions to ask yourself and to include in your organizing:

• Note how you will recognize each particular legal issue that is presented in a factual hypothetical. What unique sorts of facts might provide cues?

• If there are factual cues that may point to more than one legal principle, identify and distinguish the critical elements for use of each principle.

• What are the questions you would ask or steps you would take in analyzing the legal principles relevant to each issue? Be explicit about your steps of analysis as you put this information into a study tool. Even those who use a traditional outline may find it helpful to insert a decision tree into this part of their study tool so they can clearly identify the sequence of steps they need to apply. Note any special standards, vocabulary, or case names that provide a short cut, a mental connection, to useful examples.

• As you organize, note policy issues, if any, that were discussed in class or in reading assignments related to each topic area.

Apply, apply, apply!
At the end of each week, or at the end of each chapter, apply what you have learned to new fact situations by doing the following tasks:

• Do homework problems and write out answers to sample questions.

• Create practice questions reflecting what you have studied. If you can create factual situations related to legal principles you are studying, you will be more likely to recognize these issues on exams. You will also test your understanding of the legal principles.

• Talk through problems with classmates. Ask "what if.." questions to your study group. Most students need to review and study on their own first, and then use a study group to clarify and apply material.

• Look for applications of what you are studying in news stories. Practice thinking through these legal problems by applying what you are learning.

• Summarize what you are studying and give examples to interested family and friends.

Exams in law school are different from undergraduate exams.
Don't make assumptions about exams or in exams. Law exams require skills that can be learned, and few students pick these skills up without extra effort. The essay exams in law study are usually different from undergraduate or graduate essay exams in several ways. First, they are usually problem solving exercises requiring application and analysis of legal principles to new and, frequently, ambiguous fact situations. They seldom require an explanation of the history or range of the legal principles. Instead, they direct you to apply your knowledge to analyzing factual stories or situations called hypotheticals. In general, focus on the facts provided not going beyond the relevant scope of the fact pattern. Following directions is part of the exam. So approach the instructions literally. Resist the temptation to tell the professor all you know. Use the terminology that your professor uses because precision in language is important and more useful than showing you can paraphrase. Take the time to look at as many examples of written essay exams as you can to become familiar with this type of testing exercise.

Multiple choice tests usually require analysis of factual situations or contexts. Try to determine the legal principle most relevant to the question being asked. Correct answers usually require applying specific legal tests. Resist being distracted by the answer you think is most fair or that you prefer. Often there may be two answers that could be right and your job is to find the best answer, so do not rush through picking the first answer that seems to fit. Compare the best answers for how well they answer the question asked. Beware of choosing an option you recognize from a case or your notes without making sure it applies to the current question. Learn to distinguish between and among legal principles that relate to similar factual situations. Most importantly, get into the habit of reading all options and identifying exactly what the question is asking.

Seek balance.
Don't lose yourself or your reason for coming to law school. Take time for yourself. Study smart by planning your time:

• Pay attention to your alertness level. Do your most passive work – reading – at your most alert times.

• Take periodic study breaks. Particularly when you read something over more than three times, stop. Get a drink of water or stretch. Most students find that after a break the material will be clearer.

• Know that your most important time is class time. Be alert in class. That means get enough sleep. Students who are sleep deprived retain less.

• Exercise regularly. This increases your energy levels and your ability to concentrate.

• Eat healthy foods. Snacking for meals does not feed your brain well.

• Designate some times for fun. Use them as rewards, if this helps motivate you. Your family and friends are important to your balance.

• Write a letter to yourself describing the reasons you came to law school, and if you feel discouraged, take it out to remind yourself of your goals.

• Use available resources. Professors have an open door policy and often respond to questions after class and on e-mail. The Academic Achievement Program and the Writing Center provide direct support to all students. Talk with classmates as they are a wonderful resource. Upperclass students can be very helpful, particularly the FYI students. Don't forget the library has many valuable resources including past exams from some professors.

• Remember that learning law is developing your professional expertise. This is much more important than a grade. Studying law is about learning skills that you will use daily throughout your life. Take the time to learn them well and, if it takes awhile, that is what it takes to be an expert – a master.