How to Study Law


There are 2 phases of legal education:

1. foundation - learning the basic rules and laws.
2. Continuing Legal Education (aka CLE) - no matter what level of legal education, novice, intermediate, or expert, you need to continue your legal education through seminars, books, courses, the internet, etc. For example obtaining National Paralegal Certificate status (click here)

There are 2 dimensions of legal education:
1. Learn the content or RULES of the law. This is called the "Substantive Law" since it deals with the substance of the law.
2. Learn legal skills, eg. interviewing clients, legal research, surfing the "net" for the law, MSWord, legal pleading, and documents, etc.

Rules to follow in learning the law"

First read this on "Study Skills" - developed by Vivian Sinou - Dean, Distance & Mediated Learning - Foothill College - Los Altos Hills, CA

Second, Read -"Reading like a Lawyer" - by Prof. Ruth McKinney - Clinical Professor of Law and director of the Writing and Learning Resources Center at the University of North Carolina Law School.

1. Suspend what you know about the law
a. this allows you to absorb what is "new" to you about the law
b. also, you will then be able to learn that which conflicts with your prior knowledge & experience about the law.

2. Know the goals & context of every assignment
a. how does the assignment fit into what I have learned?
b. carefully listen and take notes
c. ask about the professor's expectations on each assignment
d. ask classmates about their understanding of the purpose and context of the assignment.

3. Design a study plan
a. make a list of everything you need to do
b. add 50% to the time you initially think you need to study a subject, class, couse
c. create your own study area free from distractions.
d. do a self assessment of your study habits and establish a program to correct any weaknesses:

Here is a lits of some study weaknesses:
1. minimal study efforts
2. you learn best by listening, but not by studying the subject
3. do not like to study
4. cannot concentrate
5. study with TV or radio on
6. get bored and cannot keep motivated
7. don't seem to understand the subject material
8. cannot read or skim read or cannot understand what you read.
9. dont look up words you do not understand
10. cram for exams or projects/procrastinate
11. dont study consistently
12. can't memorize or forget things you study
13. can't take good notes

4. Improve your grammar/spelling/composition/writing skills (click here for excellent grammar and writing skills program on the internet)
a. take personal responsability
b. read more, and be more aware
c. use the grammar program on the internet (see above)
d. improve your spelling - look up words in a dictionary (click here for a good internet dictionary) if you don't know the exact spelling, then click on the circle which says "approximate" and then type in your best guess of the spelling for the word. also check out law words with a law dictionary.
e. take english classes, English 21/28, and English 101.
f. practice writing
g. engage in study groups with your fellow/sister students. * note: I have found that students who pair up do very well in their studies, since they have a study partner to colloborate with, and who helps with understanding, motivation, and all the other essentials necessary to learn the complex subject matter of the law.

5.Organize your learning
a. set up 3 ring binders for each subject, and put your materials, and work product (assignments, legal pleadings, and legal work) in order, and divide your binders with divider pages, each labeled appropriately.
b. on your computer (if you have one), organize you law subjects, and files so that you can find your work. you can also do this with your computer disks. (for instance have a subdirectory, under your c:/ root directory, call it law or school, then under that have subdirectories for each class like, law 10, law 11, etc. and under each subject you can then have subdirectories for assignments, tests, subject matter, etc. this will help to organize each class, and each subject area you study.

6. Learn to live with the "amiguity" of the law
a. law is sometimes very fixed and definite, and other times not at all.
b. law sometimes can "punish" and be very punitive, and other times it can be very "fair" and "equitable". try to learn which subjects, and legal fields are more "punitive", and which ones are more "fair and equitable".
c. for every general rule, there is an exception. learn the general rules, learn the exceptions, and try to understand the legal rationale or theory behind each rule, and exception. try to understand the overall general public polcy, or "political" or "philosophical" rationale used by the courts or the legislature in making legal rules and deciding legal cases.
d. be "realistic" about the law and how it is applied.
e. know the equation:
    if "X" is present, then conclusion is "A", but if "Y", then conclusion is "B", but if "Z" then...."
f. learn the commonalties of law, the patterns, and the "legal thinking" process used by courts and the legislature in making and deciding law cases. This you learn by just studying a lot of cases and code sections, and by becoming a "legal student" or "student of the law".
g. develop checklists of the law and subject matters of the law. like what are the elements of a "tort" or a "contract", etc.

7. Develop Note taking skills
a. some weaknesses to overcome are:

1. slow writers
2. dont like taking notes
3. dont know what is important, take down "too many" or "too few" notes
4. dont think that note taking is necessary or important
5. cant seem to organize your notes very well.

8. Studying Rules
a. read your materials carefully
b. if you cannot understand the facts of a case, try diagramming who the parties are, and what they are doing in the case.
c. write questions for yourself in the margins of your notes or books, and try answering your own questions.
d. ask other students, or the teacher questions you have about your materials.
e. practice your legal arguments you have learned, practice on others making your legal arguments, and legal arguments you have learned in cases, or discuss legal cases which you do not understand, or which do not make much legal sense to you with others, your family members, and friends, and see what their opinions are of the cases and legal rules.
f. make summaries of the legal rules your learn.

9. Feeback
a. evaluate your exam results, discuss with other students or your professor.
b. learn from your mistakes made on exams or on assignments
c. compare your work with the "model answers" given, or with other student's work.
d. ask other students to review your work product
e. develop a "thicker skin" to criticism of your work, but demand "objective" criticism, and not just petty criticism of "minor or small details".
f. be accountable for your mistakes, and demand "accountability" along with "fair and equitable, and even-handed" grading or feedback of your work.
g. look for feeback from teachers and fellow/sister students of your legal work product.

10 Don't pretend you know when you don't"
a. be honest, know when you do not really understand, and be willing to ask, or to correct your work to improve or make it better.

11. Don't say you don't understand something, when you really do"
a. try to be self-supporting, and realize you know a lot more than you might give yourself credit for. Many times students are the "harshest critics" of their own work, or knowledge. Test out your knowledge with others, with the class, or in class, and with your friends, and family members. Be proud of your profession, of your status as a "law or paralegal student" and practice your skills until they become "excellent". Do not expect "perfection" , but do strive to become "better" each go around.

12. Don't be proud, Write down instructions"
a. learn to write down how to do something, like the internet, or word processing. Do not be afraid to say "There is something I do not understand about this or that". be willing to learn, also be willing to teach other students things that you have learned in exchange for being taught by other students. The best way to learn sometimes is to teach it to some one else.

13. Set your priorities
a. be willing to say no to others, your friends and family members. Studying law is very complex, difficult, frustrating, and time consuming. The same goes for learning to use the computer, word processing, the internet, email, sending attachments, and on and on. You must take the time and dedicate yourself to learning. remember it takes time.

14. Be patient with yourself, with your instructors, with you fellow/sister students, and with the computer.
a. Rome was not built in a day. Your basic skills and knowledge grows with each step you take. You must learn to be more patient with yourself, your fellow/sister students, with your instructors, and with the computer. * a special note on computers. remember many times is it the operator, and not the machine which is making the mistake. computer, by an large, work most of the times, try a few times, if the computer does not work, change to another computer, but do not wait for ever, the computers many times do not work correctly either, and you must know when it is you who is making the mistake, or it is the computer. don't be too patient, but also be patient enough. there is a wisdom knowing when you must be more patient, and when you should be impatient.

Good luck, and any problems contact Prof. Jordan, call him on his cell phone at 818/415-2015 or email him at

** above materials excerpted from West Business Law, 6th Edition.

updated: 1-29-06
Prof. J