Note: This article was originally published on November 23, 2018 and is being re-published with minimal edits. While I have since graduated from law school, taken and passed the bar exam, and received my license to practice law in Maryland, I think these methods still hold true.

During undergrad and my first year of law school, I always wondered how I could get more reading done in less time.  I was a firm believer in reading all of the assigned cases, and remember spending about an hour per ten pages reading and taking notes out of my casebooks during my first semester of law school, on a good day. 

I was always wondering if there was a faster way to go about preparing for class.

Today, I spend far less time reading the same number of pages and continue to manage reading each assigned case.  I also make a lot of time for leisure reading and writing.  While I could chalk this up to the fact that I have gotten used to more reading throughout law school and in life (and this is certainly true), there are some things I wish I knew that could have helped when I first started in law school.  Here are my best tips:

Put the assigned reading in context and do not brief cases.  Look at your syllabus and keep in mind the previous reading assignments before you start reading.  Make sure to look at the future reading assignments on the syllabus or chapters to get an idea of overall course coverage.  Practicing speed-reading methods and avoiding internal vocalization is also useful.  Go back and book brief what you have read at the end of the case. And finally, go on Westlaw or Lexis to look at the headnotes for additional understanding.

The idea is that you should do enough at home to understand the cases and relevant law so when you go to class what you have learned is reinforced.  In class, take all of the detailed notes you need about the case in your notebook or word processor. I personally tend to take a lot of handwritten notes in class.

1. Look at the syllabus to put things in context

Look at the syllabus and see what the theme is.  Are you reading about contributory negligence in torts?  Focus on that as you read any cases.  It is not likely your professor will be testing duty or breach if you’re on the damages part of the torts syllabus, so spend less time thinking about that as you read the case.  Each case is usually taught to explain a particular point of the law.

2. Read like a lawyer

What I heard a long time ago that has worked for me is that layers should read the facts at a slower pace than the rest of the case, read the background at a normal speed, and resume reading the court’s holding and analysis at a slower pace.  Having a solid grasp of the facts is important for legal analysis and understanding cases.  If you read the facts more slowly, to begin with, you will spend more time reading the facts but will spend less time flipping back to remember what happened in the case after you have read the holding and reasoning.

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3. Practice speed-reading methods and avoid internal vocalization

Try the Z reading method or read one line at a time method to keep yourself focused and moving at a pace for text that you read more quickly.  Also, avoid vocalizing words in your head as you read as this slows you down.

4. Review Lexis/Westlaw Headnotes and/or Hornbooks

After you’ve read the case, go to Westlaw or Lexis and read the headnotes and/or syllabus.  This will not only give you the case in a synthesized fashion, but the publishers often apply the law to the facts in a way that pings important factual details to the law.  You shouldn’t rely on the headnotes because they aren’t the law, but they can be useful.

5. Avoid fully briefing cases

Fully briefing cases is a large waste of time in my opinion if you’re past your first semester of law school (and probably if you’re more than a month or so into your first semester).  Instead, highlight the most important parts of the cases, and take notes in the margins.  At the beginning of each case, I try to write in one sentence something that will ping me as to the facts and law of the case.

You can use the time you would have spent briefing cases better by spending more time doing practice problems, outlining, or reading for other classes.  You will not need to know the specific facts of any case on (99.9% of) law school exams, so don’t waste your pen ink writing all of this stuff out.  If you need any more reasons why you should avoid briefing cases, please check out this literature from Law School Hacker (now known as Larry Law Law):
https://www.law-school-hacker.com/law-school-case-briefs.html

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If you must write something in a notebook or laptop (but I would suggest a notebook), I would suggest try to “brief” the case taking up no more than half a page in your notebook or word processor capturing the most important facts of the case, the holding, the reasoning, and any important concurring or dissenting opinions (and one or two lines about their gist). The reason I suggest a notebook is that research shows writing over typing helps with recall and functional understanding of concepts.

6. Incentivize Yourself and Take Breaks

Try and make reading fun, or have things to look forward to.  I heard of a guy on Reddit who put a gummy bear on each next page, and as he would reach the next page he could eat the gummy bear–this might be good if you need extra motivation to read more quickly.  Personally, I like to put on music, a podcast, or a light television program in the background while I prepare for class.  The background noise makes me feel like I’m not alone in a room wasting away reading cases and developing a laptop tan, although that is what is happening in actuality.  Another method is to try using a Pomodoro timer and taking a break every 45 minutes to an hour.

Questions?  Anything I missed?  What do you do to prepare for classes?

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Author: Ryan Ullman

Ryan Ullman is an attorney at the boutique law firm Spence | Brierley in Baltimore, Maryland. He is particularly interested in technology, productivity, peak flow states, music, and the outdoors.

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