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Frame of Mind Legal Reasoning The Case Method 4 Create an Outline Pre-Write Your Exam Test Yourself! Sample Answers
Keep Class Time in Perspective

The First Day
Typical Questions Professors Ask
Five Essential Notes to Take in Class

Shorthand for Legal Terms
Recording Lectures
Computers in the Classroom

The First Day

You've read the case. You've written a brief. Now it's time for class.

More than anything else, law school is about precision in language. Anything you say in class can and will be used against you by your fellow students or the professor. However, don't fear the questions. Look forward to your chance in the hot seat. It doesn't matter if you make mistakes in class. In fact, classes are the perfect place to make mistakes. Making a mistake clears up the problem in your own mind and probably that of your fellow students as well.

In the Socratic Dialogue the professor asks a question, and the student responds. With each response the professor asks another question delving deeper into the court's reasoning. Just when you think every possible question has been answered, the professor changes the facts of the case and starts over.

The Socratic Dialogue is meant to stimulate lawerly-like thinking. While effective, the Socratic Dialogue is also the long way around to teaching legal reasoning. It can also be very demoralizing for the student because the professor's role is to trip students so they can see their mistakes. At its worst, the Socratic Dialogue becomes a sadistic interrogation.

One of the common traps in the Socratic Dialogue is to get a student stuck on the logical ground of the slippery slope argument. In the slippery slope, a professor establishes a rule of law then asks the student to a draw a line where the rule should or shouldn't apply. This is a very fact specific question. By changing the facts slightly, the professor tries to illustrate that the policy of the rule may no longer apply though the facts might justify application of the rule.

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Typical Questions Professors Ask

  • Who are the parties?
  • What are the facts of the case?
  • Which court is this?
  • How did this case get to this court?
  • How did the lower court rule?
  • Who is the appellant (or respondent)?
  • What is in dispute?
  • What question does the court have to answer?
  • What is the common law rule?
  • What is the policy behind the rule?
  • Does the court fashion a new rule of law?
  • What is the holding of the case?
  • If the facts were changed so that (professor suggests an additional relevant fact) would the court rule the same?
  • How did the dissent decide this case differently?

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Five Essential Notes to Take in Class

Ninety per cent of what is discussed in class is unnecessary for the exam. Consequently, a good deal of the material is unnecessary for your outline as well. However, there are five essential notes you want to take out of every class. If you isolate each element, you will have the makings of a good outline for the exam.

Out of each class you want to:

  1. Extract the rule of the case.
  2. Explain the policy behind the rule.
  3. Note which facts in the case prove the rule.
  4. Understand the reasoning behind the case.
  5. Note the professor's opinion about the case or rule.

If the professor has spent a lot of time on one element, factor, test or example then make a special note of it. Highlight the element with some sort of special formatting to that the professor considers it important. For instance, you might reserve the format device of underlining for professor inspired elements.

Finally, develop a shorthand that you can use in order to quickly note legal issues and common legal phrases. Comments move quickly in class and you don't want to be left scribbling common terms while important and complex concepts pass you by. Here are a few suggestions for first year classes.

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Shorthand for Legal Terms

Common Law






















Supreme Court


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Recording Lectures

Many first year students record the professor's lectures on tape. This can be a good way to pick things you missed the first time through. One downside, however, is that in the Socratic dialogue, it may be difficult for the tape recorder to pick up both the student's and the professor's voice. You may get only half of the conversation. Furthermore, most students find that they don't have time to listen to the tapes. One alternative is to listen to the tapes while exercising or commuting. It helps reinforce the lecture without taking away from more structured study time.

If the professor starts or ends each class with a summary of what you've studied, then another useful technique is tape just the summary. If you have a dual tape cassette recorder, you can then create a "Best of" tape, which strings all of the summaries together. By the end of the semester, you have, in the professor's own words, a capsule summary of what she thinks is important in the area you're studying. If you hit these high points in the exam, you're sure to do well on the final.

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Computers in the Classroom

More students are beginning to take notes on their laptops. If you type faster than you write, then it may be a good idea to bring your computer with you.

The danger is in relying on those notes to form your outline without going through the notes and rewriting them. Taking notes on a computer does not eliminate the step of re-entering the information when you begin to outline. To see the benefit of outlining, you should really rethink the material. Rewriting the material facilitates rethinking.

Be wary of buying a laptop solely for the purpose of typing in class. You should check on the logistics of the classroom like the height of the desks at your law school and whether there are outlets to save battery power. In some of the older schools, the desks are so high that it makes typing uncomfortable and impractical. Also, many schools are not equipped with outlets, so always be sure you have enough battery power to get through class. Finally, be aware that some of your classmates may find the typing you do in class annoying. Try not to be too heavy handed on the keyboard while in class.

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