A Day in the Life: First Year Law Student (part 2)

Highlighting is a form of art.

You have about an hour before your 9 am Civil Procedure lecture. You plunk down in the library chair, your mind clogged just thinking about the thirty pages of the case book you haven’t read yet. At least you have a hot cup of extra bold coffee in your hands. That first sip is always heavenly – the second and third, pure bliss.

Case book is open, laptop is up and running (only for Facebooking purposes), and you pull out your arsenal of five highlighters and pens. Mindlessly, your eyes dart from one corner of the page to the other, your hand, gripping your favorite green highlighter, pressing down on the page with the weight of the world. That distinct highlighter smell. You figure, hey, the smell actually goes well with coffee.

Twenty minutes before class, and you still have nine eleven pages to go. Now you’re just looking for rules and conclusions. Out comes the pink highlighter, spot a rule there, a conclusion there. You think to yourself, that would probably save my soul if I’m cold-called today, right?

Carefully and skillfully done, highlighting can get you through the most horrifying first year lectures, reminiscent of that scene in The Paper Chase. You know where the issue is, you can spot the rule statement in bright pink, and the key facts are painted in light green as well.

Unfortunately, most of you will highlight 97% of your casebook in five different colors. When Paper Chase time comes – and oh it will come at one point or another, my friends – all you have in front of you are pages and pages in yellow, green, blue, orange, and pink. And frankly, when Professor Paper Chase is breathing down your neck for an answer, you don’t know where to look, you just keep flipping the pages, muttering “umm”, sweating like a pig, your face as red as a pomegranate.

When highlighting, think of yourself as an attorney in front of a judge. The judge is probably not a very happy person, and will probably be pissed at you for no reason. He wants specific answers, not endless jabbering of the facts. So highlight the things a judge would want to hear. Not all facts are created equal. Every case will have key facts that determine the outcome. Highlight those. How your word the issue is important. And of course, you should find the rule statement and highlight that.

What every judge and Paper Chase law professor wants to hear is how the rule applies to the facts in this specific case. This is also true for the bar exam. You think this is common sense, but you’d be surprised how challenging this is to law students and practicing lawyers alike (that’s why I got the crabby 1L grades I got).

This is where you should use the margins of your casebook. Make use of that white space. Practice writing the application of the rule in your own words. The judge who wrote the opinion in your case book probably wrote his application in sixteen-and-a-half pages, in very poor English. Don’t memorize that for future regurgitation. Trash it. Trust your brain and re-write the opinion in your own language, preferably in higher-quality English than the judge.

What you highlight and what you scribble in the margins of the case book will determine the quality of your outlines and your exam answers. The successful first year law students are those that figure out what the professor wants to see in exam answers, and implements that in all aspects of case book reading and exam preparation. Just think, apply the facts. That’s what the professor wants to see, and that’s where all the points are. Keep that in mind when you find yourself endlessly highlighting the hell out of your books.

Five minutes before class starts. The coffee is starting to kick in, you kind of read through most of the material, and you have way too much information in your head to digest.

I guess you’re ready to stumble into class.

To be continued…

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