The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.
— Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Preface
Many things can be said about my first year as a Benthamite at UCL Laws, and I think this sums it up pretty well. In that beginning quote, I feel Hegel is arguing that sometimes it is only possible to fully understand a period of time you go through in life, as it comes to an end (with hindsight). It isn’t possible to always fully understand what is going on around you at times and that clarity only comes with time, (that’s what they kept saying about Property Law, except the clarity never came.)……Hello. My name is Lorraine….and I survived the first year of Law school.
Now yes I know this might sound a bit dramatic and you’re thinking, come on it’s only first year how hard could it be…. Pppfft freshers.
But of course, as with everything in life, lessons were learnt the hard way in the last 9 months.
Are there any shortcuts to law?
The answer is no, not really. But there are things you can do to save yourself from unnecessary stress.
Firstly, I wish I knew what I know now, 9 months ago when I arrived fresh faced and full of hope to my first lecture. Despite countless talks and asking around, no one can ever tell you what works for you in terms of learning. I only finally worked out what method worked for me a week before the first exam I had. But, doses of advice always help in giving you a general idea on where to start. So what would I have told fresher Lorraine?
Organisation, organisation, organisation ….did I mention military organisation? It might seem obvious, but being organised is essential to everything and not just studying. A good way to view your degree is to think of it as if it’s a 9 to 5 job. So for each day, learn to be disciplined and follow a schedule, set time to go over what you’ve looked at in lectures and read over things each week at some point. With the other reading and tutorials you have to do, it will seem like a lot, but it will save you a lot of time when it comes to revising before the exam. Besides, getting into good habits early on will help with being efficient with time and again save on the stress at the end of the year
I guess this sort of comes under disciplined organisation, but set some time aside for yourself. For me personally, I found this difficult because I was always pushing myself, but eventually it will leave you even more stressed and burnt out in the end. Especially when it’s not exam season, do try and do something that is entirely unrelated to your degree, it definitely helps.
One thing I managed to do reasonably well. When you first start off on your course you have to find what works for you and there are pros and cons to everything. You can either do it by hand, or like me by typing. I chose not to do it by hand for a few reasons.
Firstly, I can hardly decipher my own handwriting when I’m writing fast. Secondly, law is hardly environmentally friendly to begin with (ask the Mooters). Besides, the idea of lugging about folders of paper and notebooks at Christmas (or any other time really) in addition to the bricks that are law books, did not appeal to me.
Another note on note taking is that you don’t have to write down every single word the lecturer says, save yourself time. What I mean is if it sounds like something you could easily find out in your text-book there’s no point in writing it down. Instead try and listen out for their opinions, or arguments said by other academics , it will give you a good idea of what the contentious issues are and perhaps because you agree or disagree with what’s being said, it will help you to form your own opinion as well.
If the lecturer does case (or article) summaries definitely write those down as they might be easier and quicker to understand than what you find on Westlaw, and also it gives you a good idea of what the important points of the case actually are.
Law isn’t meant to be a dictation course either, I noticed sometimes that the best thing to do is to listen to the whole sentence or point first, and then write it down. Rather than trying to keep up with typing every single word, and not absorbing what’s being said.
Don’t think just because you’ve taken notes you never have to look at them again until revision time. One thing that saved me time at the end of the year was that after most lectures, I had gone over each lecture and edited my notes so they made sense while it was all still relevant to me. And because I was slightly OCD about this, it also involved folders within folders on Google Drive, and colour coding my notes to make them even easier to read, i.e. black text was what was originally in the hand-out, purple text was what I had noted down, and bold blue titles were case names. etc
Don’t trust your computer to not let you down at some point in the year. In terms of storage and keeping my notes thank God for Google Drive. This was useful because it meant as long as I had access to my laptop, tablet or a computer, I didn’t always have to have my laptop to be able to look at notes and get work done. I didn’t have to carry around a USB, or worry about backing up or having to remember to save my work because it was all done automatically.
It also saved me from having to worry about recovering notes if ever my laptop broke down. Another good app/service to have a look at or use is Evernote.
How to read?
Secondly, I learnt how to read… my greatest strength having always been English Literature and general book geekery, I thought I was already an expert. However, there is a big difference between reading something because it’s not boring and you’re naturally interested in it, and reading something because you have to…. And generally reading Law.
Unless, the book or case you’re reading is something like Edwards v Sims (24 SW2d 619 (Kentucky CA 1929), chances are you’ll fall asleep at some point during the reading (or is that just me?).
What I would say is:
- Learn how to skim read and spot what is relevant when reading long cases. Sometimes, when it’s clearly not set out by the case headnote you might want to quickly find the ratio, or the important points of a case on Westlaw. The best thing to do is to look at important cases that applied or distinguished the case you’re looking at. e.g If I’m looking at Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co, on Westlaw I would look at significant cases that cited or distinguished this case. Once I’ve clicked one of these cases, ctrl F becomes my best friend. I would simply search for Carlill, and read the judge’s application of case A (Carlill) in case B. But of course be careful and make sure it’s all relevant to what you’re doing.
- Ctrl F, is generally your best friend
- Sometimes, there’s nothing to sweeten the bitter pill and you just have to force yourself to read.
- I might be in university, but http://www.e-lawresources.co.uk/ is still a life saver…. and Wikipedia too.
Lastly, I learnt how to revise. You would think that after GCSEs, five A Levels and being subjected to an LNAT you’d have a good idea on how to approach this…but no. I had to learn new methods and ways. Great thing I managed to eventually find a method a week before the exams started.
What I learnt about revision:
- The best possible scenario would be that you know all the topics well, and you don’t back yourself into a corner in the exams because you only know a few topics. However…
- You can’t always read everything set out on a reading list, or as the exams draw closer you might not have the time. So how do you decide what not to read or read? A good starting place would be to definitely read things that the lecturers/tutors have highlighted as important. What extra reading you choose to do might depend on what subjects you want to write essays for in the exam.
- Then comes the important skill of topic spotting. For me this involved looking at past exam papers and seeing what came up regularly as essays or problem questions e.g. Property still doesn’t make sense, however that said some topics are a given in each subject. In Public, Parliamentary Sovereignty seemed to be the basis of almost every topic. In Contract there will almost always be a problem question involving contract formation and in Criminal there will likely be a question on Sexual Offences as either an essay or a problem.
- Figuring out how to ‘revise’ law is one of the hardest things ever. One method that worked for me was writing out by hand my lecture notes or bits from the textbook, and then for each topic I would condense it onto a piece of A4 paper and onto one side if possible. This proved effective and provided easier chunks to memorise.
- In terms of which cases to memorise, you can’t always memorise every single case, but again some cases are a given and you have to know them. One method I used was that for every legal principle/ statement I would have at least one case for and against that point
The best advice I can give on doing well at the end is start revising early, as soon as possible.
Take it as it comes and realize that what you’re feeling or going through, most students have experienced at some point, and so you’re not alone. It just takes some time, patience and perseverance. And a Denningesque level of bad-ass confidence at times.
As I wait for my results, I have come to realise that you don’t always have to win every single battle to win the war. First year was a chance for me to make mistakes, go through a trial and error process, and learn a lot of lessons that I am glad I had the chance to experience now, rather than in second or third year when everything counts and matters.