How to Improve Your Law School Reading Skills

I feel like it is no secret that law school requires a ton of reading. It is a huge part of being a lawyer so naturally, it should be a big part of the process of becoming a lawyer. I have always been an avid reader. I was not uncommon for my middle school self to check 20-30 books at a time out from our local library because I would buzz through them so fast. My parents had to take the nightstand light out of my room because I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning reading. When people warned me that law school was largely about reading and lots of it, I thought, "bring it on".

Even though I knew I would be doing a lot of reading going into law school, the sheer amount was still a surprise and took some serious getting used to. 30 pages per class per night doesn't seem that bad at face value... but it is so much more than just 30 pages. Not only is the reading super long, it is super dense, it is often full of words you need to look up, footnotes that need to be referenced and sometimes cases that should be skimmed because they are mentioned within the reading. You also need to take notes as you go and sometimes read a section more than once to grasp the full meaning. Reading for law school is a skill that improves over time with practice. In my time in law school, I am certain that my reading skills have improved substantially. Below I have outlined a few of the tips and tricks that have helped me to improve my reading for law school to make it go faster with better retention of the material.



1. Practice Active Reading 
This is my number 1 tip: practice active reading when in law school. I cannot stress this enough. Staying engaged in reading is very easy when it is Harry Potter or your favorite trashy romance novel. Staying engaged in reading when it is a case about hunting foxes from the 1700's is a different story. I had a teacher in middle school preach about how important learning the skill of active reading was... I was already a nerd and a straight A student so I largely tuned her out because as a typical 13-year-old, I thought I knew everything. When I started law school and came to a very sudden realization that my reading skills may not be up to snuff, something in my brain reminded me of that 8th-grade teacher and active reading. I did a little research and my life has never been the same. Active reading simply means reading something with the determination to understand and evaluate it for its relevance to your specific needs. Passively reading and re-reading the material isn't an effective way to understand and learn anything (especially in law school). Actively and critically engaging with the content the first time you read it can save you so much time in the long run. When my middle school teacher taught us active reading, she said the best thing to do was to push your self to read it as fast as you possibly can while still reading and comprehending each word. Making yourself speed up and focus on the material keeps your mind from wandering. My teacher always said that if you finished a paragraph and had made a grocery list in your mind, you were not practicing active reading. Some of the best strategies for actively reading are:


  • Ask yourself pre-reading questions. For example: What is the topic, and what do you already know about it? Why has the instructor assigned this reading at this point in the semester?
  • Identify and define any unfamiliar terms in your notes
  • Bracket the main idea or thesis of the reading, and put an asterisk next to it. Pay particular attention to the introduction or opening paragraphs to locate this information.
  • Put down your highlighter. Make marginal notes or comments instead. Every time you feel the urge to highlight something, write instead. You can summarize the text, ask questions, give assent, protest vehemently. You can also write down keywords to help you recall where important points are discussed. Above all, strive to enter into a dialogue with the material instead of just passively highlighting.
  • Write questions in the margins, and then answer the questions in your notes. Try changing all the titles, subtitles, sections and paragraph headings into questions. For example, the section heading “The Law of Gifting Personal Property” might become “What are the laws for gifting personal property?”
  • Make outlines, flowcharts, or diagrams that help you to map and to understand ideas visually within your reading notes.
  • Read each case carefully and then determine “what it says” and “what it does.” Answer “what it says” in only one sentence; this is basically your rule statement from an IRAC style case brief. Represent the main idea of the case in your own words. To answer “what it does,” describe the cases purpose within the section- why is this case important? Why is it in this part of the book?
  • Write a summary of a section or chapter in your own words. Do this in less than a page. Capture the essential ideas and perhaps one or two key cases that are used. This approach offers a great way to be sure that you know what the reading really says or is about and can offer a quick and dirty summary of the reading.
  • Write your own exam question based on the reading.
  • Teach what you have learned to someone else! Research clearly shows that teaching is one of the most effective ways to learn. If you try to explain aloud what you have been studying, (1) you’ll transfer the information from short-term to long-term memory, and (2) you’ll quickly discover what you understand — and what you don’t. Meet up with your friends before class and teach them what the case was about or what alegal term from the reading means. 
Loosely adapted for law school from https://mcgraw.princeton.edu/active-reading-strategies


2. Take Notes 
As I mentioned several times in the first part, I take notes while I read. It helps to keep me fully engaged in the material as I practice active reading. It also provides a crutch to use when answering a cold call in class. My reading notes are generally pretty messy because I know I will be making adjustments during class. I make sure to include in my reading notes the main points of the section, any law mentioned, majority/minority rules, rationales of public policy, definitions for any words or phrases I do not know and of course case breifs for every case. I generally write my reading notes in black on about half of the page and only on the front side. Then my class notes are added in a contrasting color and I have plenty of space thanks to the back side of each note page and the space on the front- this helps me when I go back to outline and review because I know what information was from the book and what was from the professor in class due to the colors. Sometimes I will type up my reading notes and leave space for class notes in a contrasting color... it just depends on what I am feeling like doing when I am reading. Taking notes while I read is more beneficial for me than highlighting because I actually have to pause, think about how I want to write that in my notes and then proceed to write it down- it is a much more active process and helps me to synthesize and understand the reading better than if I was just highlighting passively as I went through and never really pausing to consider the material.
Reading notes

Reading notes + class notes in a different color

More examples of my reading notes with class notes added in a different color: both typed and handwritten 

3. Have a Plan
I always like to plan out my reading into chunks. I pick out a number of pages or a "chunk" I want to get read before taking a break. I write this down on a sticky note and cross off each chunk completepelte it. This way I have a set break time and it helps me to focus and power through the dedicated chunk of reading because I know there is a short break on the other end. If I do not do this, I end up pulling my phone out after every few paragraphs and my reading will take three times as long because I am so distracted.

I also strategically plan out when I will do my reading during the week. Sunday afternoons I read for my Monday and Tuesday Classes. Monday morning I read for my Wednesday and Thursday classes. This way, I do not stress about when I am going to fit my reading in because I already have time allocated for it in my weekly schedule.

4. Atmosphere is Key
Understanding what time during the day you are at your best will help you read better. If you know you are most awake and focused in the morning, plan your reading for the morning. If you are a night owl and don't come alive until 10pm, read from 10pm-1am. If you have neighbors who always blare music in the afternoons, make sure that your reading is not allocated for afternoons because it will likely be very hard to focus.

As for location, you know best what locations makes you the most productive. Some people study best at home; some have to be at school. Some people prefer a quiet coffee shop and others like to be outside. Whatever works best for you to be focused- do your reading there. If you like pure silence while reading, invest in earplugs or noise canceling headphones. If you need some background noise while reading, I highly suggest websites that play white noise like waves/falling rain or instrumental music without lyrics such as Hans Zimmer movie scores Pandora station (my personal favorite) or any classical music. Make yourself as comfortable as possible: have a comfy spot with good light, not too warm or too cold, ample water and snacks, make sure it is clean and tidy, have all your materials within arms reach and get to work.

5. Refresh Before Class 
Whatever reading you do, give yourself at least five minutes to refresh it before class. This way, you know where everything is in your notes, you are comfortable with the material and you will be ready for any cold calls. Flip through the reading in the books, read through your notes and have your materials ready to go when class starts.

Best of luck with your massive amounts of law school reading. I hope this is helpful!

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