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How to work smart, not hard

How to work smart, not hard

Christianah B

09/01/2020

Every year the law brings new cases and statutes that add to its detail and complexity. For example, students studying land law nowadays are expected to learn twice as much as I did, but in the same amount of time I had. The expanding state of the law has created an urgent need for students to learn how to work smart, not harder, to keep on top of their rising reading list.

Essential reading

In university, you’ll be given an 'essential' and 'recommended' reading list for each subject, which typically includes some chapters from a textbook to read, case law and journal articles. However, before you start going through the list, look up the past exam papers on the subject you’re studying to give you an idea of what sort of questions may come up on that topic and what you need to focus on when reading your journal article. Use the exam questions to guide you on areas to focus on and you can choose to widen your reading by looking at issues and laws that tend to not be the subject of questions in exams. This way you can demonstrate to the examiner that you have specific knowledge (which will help you tackle the question) as well as wider knowledge of the topic (which will make your answer stand out and showcase how broad your knowledge and understanding are).

How to note-take

When studying a content-heavy degree like law, you’ll inevitably spend a lot of your time taking notes. Because there’s so much to learn and you don’t want to miss anything, you end up copying out or highlighting virtually every line of the textbook. We all did this as a law student, but to work smart, you have to teach yourself how to note-take. During lectures, it’s important to take note of important concepts, rule of law and reasoning of judgments but most importantly, take notes of recurring themes in your lecturer’s lectures. When working through a textbook chapter, don’t get distracted by wanting to make notes. First read over the chapter without highlighting or making notes, then ask yourself the following questions; what are the big issues the textbook is highlighting? What are the key cases and reasoning behind the judgments?

Lastly, who are the leading academics in this area and what do they think? (For critical analysis, you can find weaknesses in their opinions/arguments or even other academics who counteract their views.) After going through your essential reading list, you need to prioritise the case law. It’s always advised to prioritise the most recent cases because firstly, they’re the ones most likely to be relevant in the exam, and secondly, they’ll sum up the effect of the previous cases, thus saving you the trouble of reading them.

Structure

The facts of the case should be summarised as succinctly as possible, avoid legal jargon and try to get the facts down to the essentials. 
Your notes on case law should be structured as follows

Name of the case - citation - court
Facts
Outcome
Reasoning 
Relevant commentary 

When making notes from journal articles, it’s important not to copy and paste, as your brain is likely to switch off. Try to first understand what the author is saying, then put their opinion into your own words. Learn to be creative to make your work appealing to the eye, for example, I use Apple emojis or diagrams to add some colour and illustration to my notes.
Your notes on journal articles should be structured as follows: 

  • Author - the title of article - journal citation
  • What is the article about? (What are the author's theories?)
  • Identify the approach the authors take (can you identify any strengths or weaknesses in their approach?)
  • According to the authors, what needs to be done?
  • Do you agree with the authors?
  • What school of thought do the authors belong to? 
  • What do other academics say about the subject matter (develop critical study)

And finally,

If you follow all the above advice, you will slowly start to accumulate a brilliant set of notes! However, beware the false security of having lots of notes - many students mistake having a big file of notes to knowing the subject inside out, having to notes is just one part of it, you’ll be required to have some perspective and understand the subject as a whole (knowing the wider theory of how each puzzle fit together and intertwine) rather than as individual topics.