"Three hundred pages a day is a serious understatement. At my end of the spectrum, I have to read thousands of pages. Law requires discipline and focus. Fortunately I was born with good concentration."
- Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby
It’s Week 1. What you thought would be an ease-in introduction to studying law has turned into a whirlwind of lectures, imminent deadlines, and frenzied textbook-buying, culminating in an impossibly high pile of readings, all due yesterday.
So, what are your options? Everyone in your class claims to have a brain bulging with IQ points. An ATAR of 98 or higher is base entry, economy class learning for most of your peers. They’re big fish rearing for their chance to rush into the deep blue ocean and overachieve on a yet grander scale…and yes, they’ve already done the readings.
You could crawl into a dark hole, do every “recommended reading” from top to bottom and emerge albino white fourteen weeks later. Some students actually do this. Even more believe this is what they ought to be doing, the only Holy Grail unattainable path to stellar academic performance, the coveted corporate clerkship, postings to Tokyo, Dubai, London or New York, a subsequent stint as a barrister, managing partner, politician or CEO, all leading in due course to world domination.
Rest easy. Like so many law school urban myths, no student does all the set readings (except the albino guy who only turns up to exams).
Tip 1: Get organised
“Be organised. Make lists. It feels pretty damn good ticking things off the list,” says Kounny Rattley, a litigation lawyer for nationwide law firm, Clayton Utz, and UTS Arts/Law (Hons.) graduate. “In the first or second week of semester, I would set out when assignments were due and make a rough timetable for the next few months. Try to keep up with the work as you go along – it will save you from last minute all-nighters.”
So if you don’t have a diary, get one. Use your university diary. It has key semester dates, planners, and space for you to map out your weekly reading routine, as well as days allocated to completing assignments. Write reminders one to two weeks before any major assignment or exam is due, so you have plenty of ‘buffer time’ to catch up on an assessment you may have overlooked.
Tip 2: Scan first & unlearn what you’ve learned
“Scan through the reading material before you start reading, so as to highlight the more important parts,” criminal law barrister Rick Mitry, advises. “Some texts give good summaries of lengthy reading materials.”
Wherever you can, apply the alpha/omega approach: read the introduction and the conclusion to get an overview of the reading. Use the headings of the text where possible – it’s a scanning trick which allows you to discern what is relevant and hone in on useful information.
Above all, don’t read law like a novel – you will never get through the sheer volume of readings, and there is no thrilling twist to reward your efforts. Like that wise green height-challenged philosopher Yoda noted, you must unlearn what you have learned – unlearn your regular way of reading for pleasure and learn to scan-read for information.
Tip 3: Use lecture notes, past student notes, or published subject summaries
Human minds are attracted to meaning and structure. As educator and theorist David Ausubel observed, “An uncanny amount of what people process and encode into their long-term memories is hierarchically organised.” Structuring your learning and readings will help you keep the big picture in mind while you’re wading waist-deep through an eighty-page judgment, journal article or textbook analysis, and deftly lift only the meaningful information from the swamp of legalese.
Start with your lecture notes. If the lecturer provides slides, use these. From here, you will get a better idea of what the lecturer wants you to focus on. Fill in your notes with brief statements of principle followed by case summaries.
Notes by past students can also be helpful, as much of the tedious legwork of structure and reading will already be done. A few words of caution: the law is a movable feast, constantly changing and updated, so be sure to only rely on notes that are recent, and add to them with your own research.
Don’t substitute other students’ notes for your own learning. At the risk of sounding pedantic, there is no substitute for your own nose-to-the-grindstone hard work. Law exams and assignments assess you on your ability to understand complex and overlapping rules and law, argue the law to the advantage of your client, and apply your knowledge in practical scenarios involving clients with a plethora of legal problems. Regurgitation scores zero.
Law study guides are a great way to get a quick aerial view of a subject, especially if you’re facing eleventh hour pre-exam preparations with little prior reading. Like lecture notes, they provide a guide to the central cases, law and issues in the subject, which you can tab for selective reading in your main textbook.
Tip 4: Adapt your reading style to the type of information you are dealing with
For textbooks, remember: read selectively. You can distinguish what is essential knowledge by using your lecture notes and subject outline as a guide to the topic’s key issues. Hone in on textbook case summaries, particularly the first descriptive paragraph before an excerpt from the case. For long readings, try the scanning approach – read the introduction and conclusion first, use headings, or read the first line of every paragraph to get an overall sense of the text.
Don’t attempt to read a textbook from cover-to-cover; they were written as reference materials so the best approach is to scan and make what notes you need of key cases and law, perhaps tabbing chapters or notable cases as you go.
For cases, Senior Lecturer Samantha Hardy suggests heading to case summaries and extracts first. “It can be easier to understand the complexity of a long case if you’ve got a general idea of what it’s about to start with,” said the University of Queensland academic.
Case summaries and extracts are located in textbooks. Nowadays, law firms often publish summaries of key cases relevant to their areas of practice on their website, which is particularly helpful for very recent cases not yet covered in textbooks. These summaries are succinct, clear and usually set out the central issues and authority of the case. A quick Google search of the case name and year should reveal any law firm summaries available.
Don’t forget the classic source: case citators like Casebase (accessible via LexisNexis Australia) or Firstpoint (via Lawbook Online.) Law journals may also be a good option for featured case notes of definitive cases relevant to specific topics and can be easily accessed via any legal database subscription, usually available through your university.
For legislation, refer to your lecture notes to find out which sections of an Act or Regulations you need. In Australia, AustLII offers a free online resource of law and judicial/administrative decisions, which is priceless in the cash-strapped world of law school.
At first, the wording of legislation can seem stale, mechanical, foreign and circular. Partly, this is due to the fact that in law, many phrases and terms have specific legal meanings, discrete from their use in ordinary parlance. Sometimes, it’s just bewildering. If you’re lost as to the meaning of section or phrase, check out the internal definitions located at the beginning of the Act. If you’re still confused, try an annotated guide to the legislation – often new Acts will have this, such as the Civil Liability Act, to explain the effect of new provisions. Law reform reports, second-reading speeches for parliamentary bills, law firm reviews and academic commentary in the form of journal articles also provide insight into the meaning of legislation. Most of these are available free online via your university library website.
Tip 5: Find your ‘magic hours’
“Everyone has them,” said UWS law academic Michelle Sanson. “It might be midnight til 2am, it might be 5am til 7am, but it is the time of day when you get more work done, with more focus, than any other time. Once you know it, factor it into your study schedule and you will find that you are much more productive.”
Tip 6: Proof your work
At the tail-end of all your reading and research, you will have penned a brilliant essay, case note or solved legal problem that might just make Hemingway proud. Well, you will have penned…something…and something is definitely better than nothing. Especially if you only have five minutes left before submission; and with your luck, there’s a line at the printer and you’re starting to hallucinate wandering giraffes due to too much coffee and too little sleep.
Other than the usual lecture on time management, giving yourself even a few days – if not a few weeks – to review your assignment after its first draft incarnation will boost its quality, and yes, very likely, also your grades. Sometimes writing is like painting a pointillist artwork; you need to take a step back to see the full view, or you might end up feeling a bit dotty yourself.
“Spelling and grammar and footnotes count – so leave enough time to pick these up before submission,” advises UTS:Law academic, Jason Harris. “Perhaps leave time to ask someone to proof read for you.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES: This article was first published on Survive Law on 2 March 2010.
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