Things I wish I had known about studying law at university
Law school is a Socratic journey of self-learning and discovery. Having now graduated from law school, I reflect on my experience and, hopefully, the readers of this post can glean some useful advice.
1. My journey
Year One of law school was about learning how to learn. To learn the substantive law assumes that you know how to read the law. Given the vast amount of resources — the primary legal materials, textbooks, commentaries, notes, and slides — I sought to identify a systematic way to write my notes so that I can cover ALL grounds.
For a while, I resisted reading case law. Instead, I read textbooks, seniors’ notes, and firm commentaries. I was afraid that the case law would be too convoluted and took the supposedly easier route… I then compiled a highly systematic, aesthetic, and organized notes that number into the hundreds. However, when pressed for a simple answer to a legal principle, I was stuck. Quoting judges was one thing, but understanding the law was another.
Year Two of law school was still about learning how to learn but there is a change. I started reading the primary legal materials! I also started doubting my seniors’ notes (notwithstanding that they were far superior students than I was), corroborating their assertions with case law and legislation. As my doubts grew, I started to prepare my own notes.
Notetaking is an art of selecting relevant and interesting points. What is interesting and relevant differs from person to person. Even the most comprehensive notes may miss things that the author finds irrelevant (but are in fact highly relevant) or things that are so fundamental to the author that they are needless to note. Only the author knows why the author include (or choose not to include) certain points in the manner the author did.
Year Three of law school was, finally, about learning the law. Having now identified my own system of learning, I was ready to fully engage with the policy and jurisprudential debates in law. My system was to:
(a) identify the most important case law starting from the most recent and authoritative judgment;
(b) read the judgment very carefully (as they usually summarise the law) and note references to relevant case law;
(c) do a quick Google search for the main gist of relevant case law, and, if said case law is heavily relied upon in instructive case, read that case in detail as well;
(d) repeat steps (a) – (c);
(e) read journal articles for commentaries and evaluating key debates;
(f) summarise the relevant portions of case law and journal articles;
(g) when the exam is around the corner, prepare an “exam note” by considering the materials provided by the tutor as a useful summary, my summaries of case law and journal articles, and, importantly, formulate opinions to the central debates in the subject.
As I delved deeper into the primary materials, my confidence grew. I was now able to give an opinion and, if my tutor disagreed, to defend my argument with reference to specific portions of a judgment. The ability to give a well-substantiated and distinct opinion is the hallmark of a first-class grade. Naturally, I fared better in my third year.
Year Four was about learning the law efficiently (to do with speed) and effectively (to do with quality). With a renewed confidence in my ability to read law and a priority to job hunt and travel, I needed to study fast but not compromise on my learning. During the semester, I developed a comprehensive background understanding of the topic by listening carefully and engaging deeply on the most important cases. I relied on notes from top students for the basic legal propositions and for how it usefully sets out the structure of the topic. I write notes only for the most contentious matters. When the exam arrived, I expanded my scope of knowledge and further zoom on the contentious areas of the topic.
Having recounted my experience learning the law, these are what I wish I had known when I started law school:
1. Read the primary legal materials: case law and statute.
2. Write your own notes.
3. Less is more. Learn to decipher the essence of a complex judgment.
4. Formulate your own opinion, backed up by close reference to the law.
5. Ask for notes from top students for reference.
6. Print important judgments and legislation for ease of reference and annotation.
7. Ask your professors for their opinion on the law rather than, simply, what the law is.
The process of learning the law is necessarily tough. But confront it bravely and develop your own style of learning. Grades will naturally follow when your confidence in your mastery of the law increases.
The writer, Leon, is a First Class LLM graduate from King's College London and a future trainee solicitor at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher UK LLP.