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Frame of Mind Legal Reasoning 3 Class Time Create an Outline Pre-Write Your Exam Test Yourself! Sample Answers
Get Smart About the Case Method


Speed Reading a Case
Speed v. Comprehension
Pre-reading Strategy
Taking Notes While Reading
Cases and Casebooks - a Brief History
The Structure of a Casebook
Why Brief a Case?


How to Brief a Case
Sample Case and Brief
Beyond the Casebook: Study Tools
Legal Dictionary
Commercial Outlines
Hornbooks
Study Groups
2Ls and 3Ls
Practice Exams and Model Answers


Beyond the Casebook: Study Tools

The first time you enter a law school bookstore, you'll be bombarded with the opportunity to spend your student loan on all sorts of legal self-help books. There are commercial outlines, flash cards, flow charts, audio tapes, computer programs and self-help books. Some will be useful, but none of them actually replace doing the hard work of reading and briefing cases, outlining the material and taking practice exams.

That said, commercial study aids can go a long way in helping you get through the material more quickly and efficiently. Note that before you buy the materials, you might want to check to see if the law school library keeps it on reserve.

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Legal Dictionary

A good legal dictionary should be standard for every first year law student. Legal dictionaries are helpful to understand what the lawyers call "terms of art." These are often ordinary words or phrases that carry special connotations in the legal context. For instance, the word "consideration1" in Contract law carries far different meaning legally than in normal speech.

There are several good legal dictionaries to choose from, but one of the best is Black's Law Dictionary. The abridged version with pronunciations should be detailed enough to carry you through three years of law school. Unless you plan to open a legal library, you probably don't need the unabridged version. You also generally will not need a pocket dictionary and a home dictionary.

Keep the dictionary close to where you actually read your assignments. Any time you don't understand a term or think the term might carry additional meaning, look it up. In creating briefs, you should also look up the terms describing legal rules. You will find that a good dictionary helps you state the elements of a rule.

1 Although consideration means careful thought in everyday language, in Contract law consideration refers to an action or promise that each party to a contract gives the other in order to make the contract legally binding.

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Commercial Outlines

Commercial outlines are extremely useful tools, but are also often relied on too much by first year students. A commercial outline won't substitute for reading the cases or outlining the course. Professors often test specifically on issues that aren't covered in depth in the commercial outlines in order to see who actually did the reading. Furthermore, some commercial outlines don't get the legal rules down correctly or in as much detail as you need on the exam. If you want to make the grade, you can't rely solely on a commercial outline.

That said, commercial outlines come in two general flavors:

  1. Overview Outlines
  2. Case-Brief Outlines

Overview Outlines - The overview outline gives a summary of the rules for a body of law followed by examples. This is the classic format of legal outlines. Overview outlines don't usually carry summaries of the cases unless the case is of primary importance to that area of law. Even so, it won't give as detailed of a description of the case as you will need to stand up under the Socratic method in class.

One of the best series of overview outlines is Gilberts. This series usually contains both a condensed version of the outline and an expanded version. Furthermore, there are often analytical outlines for answering exam questions as well as practice exams with model answers.

Case-Brief Outlines - The case-brief outline is typically keyed to your casebook and offer summaries or briefs of the cases in your book. This can be extremely useful in getting an overview of what a case is all about before reading it. You will instill better analytic skills if you try to read the case on your own first then use the case brief to see if you understood it correctly. You can also benefit from the case-brief outline when you haven't read the case and need to prepare for class at the last minute. However, the downside to a case-brief outline is that it doesn't give all of the details you may need for class.

Also, the case briefs don't compile the rules together in one easy-to-scan format like overview outlines. Rather, you have to piece together the rules from the cases as you do when reading a casebook. Casenote Legal Briefs is an example of a series that is keyed to popular casebooks.

Which to use? The overview outline is more useful in preparing for the exam than it is for preparing for class because the rules are all contained in one easy-to-read format. The case-brief outline is better for preparing for class because that's where you are likely to be asked probing questions around the facts of a case.

A hybrid also exists between the two types of outlines which tries to strike a balance between case briefs and summary outlines. Legalines is a good example. Usually, these books are also keyed to specific casebooks in order to match cases up to legal principles.

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Hornbooks

The hornbook is a primer on a particular body of law written by a scholar in the field. If we didn't have the casebook method, your text would probably be a hornbook. Instead of reprinting cases, the hornbook lays out the law in a particular area then refers to how cases helped shape the law. The upside to hornbooks is that you get a clear statement of the law by an established authority.

Hornbooks are generally considered a lot more reliable than outlines; however, hornbooks are also very dense. Hornbooks typically don't have the maneuverability of an outline. If you have time, it's useful to refer to the hornbook while you're reading the cases. Generally, hornbooks are quite expensive, but your library should have them on reserve.

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Study Groups

You'll also want to make use of one of the more traditional tools of law school - the study group. The study group should be chosen not on the basis of who you think is the smartest, but whom you like as a person. The strength of the study group will ultimately be the relationships you develop with these people. In twenty years, the relationships you develop among study group members will matter far more than the material that you studied together.

Four to six people is a good size for a study group. Any more and you run the risk of getting diverted by too many questions. Any less and you won't have the diversity of experience and opinion that lends to a good synthesis of the material.

The goal of your study group should be to create an outline together. Often the best time to meet is when you have finished one section of the course. (See Chapter __ for suggestions on when to outline.) If every study group member has a laptop computer, you can each create an outline as you move through the material.

One strategy you want to avoid is the one used in the movie, The Paper Chase where each study group member outlined a different course, then traded outlines. In the movie, it was a disaster. In real life, it's extremely risky to rely on someone else. Although that person might get it right for his point-of-view, it may not be presented in a way that is intuitive for you. If you take the approach of just helping each other with each course, you'll move through the material more quickly and be more likely to catch each other's errors.

Study groups can also be disasters when there is competition among the study group members. You have to remember that you are there to help one another. Even the brightest person will get some things incorrect that the others will pick up on.

Another danger in study groups is to get unfocused and start gossiping about fellow students, professors, politics, etc. This can turn into a great time-waster. When your purpose is to study, keep the peripheral stuff out of your session. If you find your study group is good as a psychological support system, then schedule additional fun things to do with your group.

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2Ls and 3Ls

Make friends with some 2Ls and 3Ls by joining one of the journals or student organizations. Network with them to find out who took the professors you are currently taking. Ask them questions on how they dealt with the professor's exams and what tips they might have to share.

Don't be intimidated about asking these people questions. After all, they are only a year away from where you currently are. Furthermore, they probably want to help. People usually become lawyers partly because they want to counsel people. Your questions feed that need.

Most law schools also run an academic support program where 2Ls and 3Ls tutor first year students in studying skills. Although the course is only as good as the instructor, I urge you to attend these sessions to pick up on skills in exam writing. Course like these are often very good to get at the idiosyncrasies of a particular professor.

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Practice Exams and Model Answers

Don't wait until the end of the semester to look at practice exams. Start at the beginning to see what sort of exams your professor has given in the past.

Some students prefer not to look at the practice exams until they are actually ready to take the practice exam under timed conditions. This choice is a matter of psychology. If you want to preserve the exam for that sort of rigorous conditioning, then I suggest going to other sources, such as commercial outlines, early in the semester to see what exam questions are like.

The library should have old exams on files. If you're lucky, there will also be model answers.

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