Law School Success Tips, Part 3 of 10: Study The Law Directly

This is Part 3 of 10.  These are links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Last time we talked about avoiding case-related busy work.

The tip I offer below will help you immediately reduce your study time, while retaining just as much important information.

Watch the video and then read the rest of my explanation below.

You now know that the case method is a long, indirect path to learning the black letter law you need to do well on issue-spotting exams.

So judo-flip that shit.

Study the law directly: memorize the black letter law.  

By which I mean:  you can generally boil down a 2-3 page case on murder to a legal definition of murder (“the black letter law”).  Here is an example:

Intent-to-kill murder:  the (1) unlawful (i.e., without a legal excuse) (2) killing (3) of a human being; (4) committed with malice aforethought, which includes (a) intent to kill (b) intent to inflict severe injury or (c) reckless indifference to an unjustifiably high risk to human life.

Other cases you read do not set out a legal definition but rather apply a general principle to a specific case.  You can boil down such a case like so in an outline (I don’t go over every element here):

Intent to Kill Murder [definition]

. . . Malice aforethought . . . (a) intent to kill

Yes, guilty:  sudden impulse to kill, w/ no pre-planning, is enough intent for intent to kill (Commonwealth v. Carrol)

Now, this is a single sentence summary of Commonwealth v. Carrol, a case about a guy who saw his wife beat their children argued with her later and, consumed with anger later, shot her; he made no plans, before grabbing his gun, to kill her.  There is a lot said in the case.  

But for your purposes on an issue-spotting exam, the quick one-sentence summary of Carrol (“sudden impulse to kill = intent”) is all you need – it will help you make arguments on behalf of one party, and resolve claims.

There are other cases that create more specific principles that apply the general legal definition.  You just need a quick line that sets out those facts.

*  *  *

Now, you won’t find these legal definitions, or short case blurbs (that are specific applications of legal definitions), in your case book.  F’ing Chris Langdell made sure of that.

They are set out in commercial outlines (like Emanuel’s or Gilbert’s), the modern day treatise for students.  Outlines will save your life.

You can buy them new or used for $40 each.  Or you buy used.  Or buy a BarBRI Conviser Mini Review (available on Amazon or eBay), which is what people use on the bar exam and contain all 1L subjects.

Or you can print out free outlines you find on the web.

It doesn’t matter that much.

You can even buy old outlines (they are cheaper).  Don’t spend a fortune on them.  Borrow them from a friend.  

Read these outlines.  Memorize the “legal definitions” (the elements or factors of each claim, like murder, or defenses, like self-defense.).  Memorize the case blurbs that apply the definitions.

You can do this before law school starts.  You can do this during law school, studying the black letter law before reading cases.  Emanuel and Gilbert outlines are keyed to the most common casebooks you read.

Other tips:

  • You don’t have to master the law completely.  Read to understand so that (1) you can start atking practice exams (see Shortcut 3 below) and (2) so the key legal concepts are familiar when your professor discusses them or you come across them in your case book reading.
  • Don’t over do it.  I said not to re-read casebooks.  Similarly, you don’t need to buy Emanuels AND Gilberts.  Do not buy or read more than one outline per law school subject.  This will become   will either be repetitious or just make you confused.
  • Read short outlines.  I prefer Gilbert’s or Emanuel’s because they are brief.  I urge you to just study the summary outline in the front of the book, that usually runs 50-70 pages.  If you opt to study from a free outline, only do so if the outline is short, less than 50 pages.  You may be tempted to buy a big hornbook or treatise.  But these are very comprehensive and might give you so much to do, you are confused.  (Such books are really meant to help practicing lawyers research.)

As the semester progresses, your professor’s views will trump the outlines.  

Just use outlines to prepare for class and to learn enough law to take practice exams.  

But if your professor says something different about a law or a case than your outline, the prof’s words win.  

Your job in law school is to understand your professor’s view of the law and apply that to an exam if you want a good grade.

That’s it.

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