Notetaking for law students

I'm starting law school next month and was wondering if there are any lawyers and/or law students in the DIYPlanner community who have used Circa for notetaking. I've been using Circa for work and personal stuff for several years and plan to continue using it while I'm in law school. Would love to learn how folks have organized their notes, outlines, etc.

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There are Cornell Notes templates

Including the Dynamic Template DIY Notes
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Law School Note-taking

I found the perfect system for my needs:

I use a leather Circa, letter-sized fold-over notebook with medium rings, a circa tab for each class, and one tab for general law school reference. Each class tab has the course syllabus, reading assignments, any handouts, the cumulative outline, and reading notes for the week.

I use the Circa Cornell style paper for note-taking. I take notes from the casebook onto the main body of the Circa paper. Class notes go into the left section of the paper, right next to the relevant information from the reading in the body. Remember that ideally you do not want to be taking notes in class, but there are key things (e.g., the exact way the Law Prof words a rule) that you will need to get down. I also found that it helps to take reading notes and class notes in two different colors of ink (black for reading, blue for class).

Once a week for each class, I synthesize the reading/class notes into Omnioutliner, my primary outlining tool. I then print the cumulative outline for the semester, punch, and store in the Circa for reference until next week.

The advantage to this system is: I don't have to pull my laptop out in class or every time I read; I won't get distracted by the Internet/email/IM; every class's information is together, in one place; writing the rules from cases by hand makes you slow down and think about every word you are writing (in the law, every word and punctuation mark matter).

Another Tip

The medium-size Levenger, Cornell-style paper is great for briefing cases. The ideal is to brief a case on one 4x6 index card (both sides). The medium-size Levenger paper simulates this pretty well and is easily integrated with the entire Circa system.

I'm a law school student

I'm a law school student (3L), and I've used a circa notebook for a year now. I take my notes in a circa, but when I outline notes at the end of the semester, I type those on a computer. I use Cornell type paper, which is really good for reviewing notes. I don't know that I do anything else particularly special with the circa system. I circa punch handouts, etc. I think handwritten notes have a more memorable/phonetic quality about them.

I have various bits of more detail about how I work at:

Let me know if you have any specific questions.

I used One Note

I know this is a pen and paper site, but I used Microsoft One Note in law school both for notetaking and for outlining and it is a fantastic program. The flexibility it allows is really unparalleled for outlining and I really appreciated having my notes in One Note when it came time for the bar and I needed to look stuff up. One of the other really nice things about One Note is the way things are organized within the program. I created a Project or whatever it's called for each semester. Then I had a tab for each class. It's not like Word where you have to open separate documents. I can't recommend it highly enough.

That said - there were a few classes where I handwrote - things like Bankruptcy or Trusts and Estates where there were a lot of diagrams or formulas. I'm not sure I would see the benefit of Circa there. A simple bound or spiral notebook would do. Unless you didn't want to carry notebooks, then of course you could just smurf your sheets and put them into the right notebook - but then you have no advantage over a three ring binder.

I'm actually glad I didn't discover Circa until after lawschool. It suits me well for my agenda and some of the projects I'm working on but I would have spent a ton of money on it for school and I'm not sure it would have been worth it.

My 2 cents.

How I did it (most of the time).

I used one color paper for casebriefs and reading notes and another color for class notes, both dated to the day of the relevant class. I took sheets of each color paper with a clipboard to classes and kept the resulting notes in a 3-ring binder. I compiled my outlines from these, and sometimes wrote "questions" for myself to answer by asking the professor or doing independent reading. If Circa would be fun and affordable, then by all means use it, but it's not necessary or more helpful. I agree with the other posters that using an outlining program or word-processor is the best way to compile outlines, which can be pretty complicated documents that may require revision through further study or inquiry. I did two outlines -- a large detailed one and then a smaller 5-10 page one.

Remember that, if you are going to a decent law school, you will not be tested on your ability to remember and repeat information. You will be tested on your ability to display a critical faculty which uses the classroom information as a set of axioms and principles to "solve" a factual problem. Consequently, it's possible for an excellent grade to come in a class where you took the fewest notes, depending on how well your mind "clicks" with the relevant axioms and theoretical criteria. In that regard, good college professors will guide you through the subject with helpful lectures, demonstrations, and study aids. Your law-school professors are more likely to guide you by turning the lights off, activating strobes and smoke canisters, and whapping you in the head with a lead pipe at random intervals.

Think about what a lawyer does. He talks with people who tell him their version of events. If he gets into the matter, he talks with other people who tell him variations or contradictions of what he has already been told. He will encounter odd tidbits of "objective" truth in the form of photographs, documents, records, and so on, which may or may not corroborate any version of events. After doing that, the lawyer must figure out which laws apply, how they apply, who they favor, and decide what he should do next. Law school is (theoretically, at least) geared to get you ready to do that. However, it should be noted that some law school professors are hacks and/or intellectual bullies who are just trying to salve some inner childhood wound. So take everything with a grain of salt and make up your own mind.

Forming or joining a study group and talking your way through the cases is invaluable. In that, you want a mix of 20% fun and 80% work during your meetings. If your study group spends half their time talking about bars and who's sleeping with whom, politely stop going and either study alone or find another group.

When you begin to cooperate with studies, pay close attention to how much effort the other person(s) put into their share of the work. There are spongers who will join three or four study groups and get coached that way, putting no effort back into the process. Even if they are not intentionally-unethical people, you shouldn't waste your time helping them unless you know you're not getting useful study time out of the situation and want to do it anyway. I would recommend, however, avoiding such situations during your first year.

FWIW, learn the West keynote numbering system and use it to study by reviewing the headnotes appended to the cases. These are collected online or in bound volumes called "decennials" because new sets are published every ten years. There are thousands of keynote numbers, but you can spend most of your time on the ones that say "in general" etc. I found Gilberts or the West Nutshell series helpful, so long as you get through the entire book during the first 2-3 weeks of class. They're good to orient yourself for what you will be studying, but not necessarily good as a cramming aid. Canned outlines can be useful if you are out of time, or if you really don't "get" outlining cases and want to see how experts do it.

Lastly, if you are religious, deepen the practice of your religion. The law derives from culture but is no substitute for it, and lawyers who make the law into the whole business of living lose their humanity. If you are not religious, you should get in contact with a higher power pretty quickly.


I would argue with you about the religious part. Atheists are quite capable of maintaining their humanity, despite what popular religious culture might think.

I don't intend to start a religious debate. I'm just saying that you shouldn't stereotype us atheists and nonreligious types. We care about our fellow humans a lot more than you might expect.

West KeyNote system

Sorry - I'm going to really have to disagree with learning the West Key Note system. I think that would be overwhelming and intimidating to a first year who has enough to deal with learning an entirely new way of thinking.

I made my own outlines, however, some really good advice I got was to get a set of bar outlines early on in lawschool from a 3L or graduate. Those outlines help keep things in perspective with regard to the end goal - passing the bar.

Some of the folks who did best in our class did not take notes at all - they got outlines from people in the top of the class ahead of us and read the outlines before class each day and followed along - taking notes only if there was something they didn't understand or if the law had changed, etc. Find a 2L or 3L you trust who has done well and get hooked up with some good ones.


Thanks, everyone, for your wonderful suggestions!