Learning law? You've come to the right place. Below you will find various resources to enhance your learning law experience.
- Law note taking - improve your note taking for success
- Listening - how to listen out for and pay attention to detail
- Legal cases - what are they?
- Legal referencing - learn how to reference properly
- Legal reasoning - learn to critically reason and think
- Legal writing - how to write correctly for success
- Statutory interpretation - skills on how to interpret the law
- Law exams - succeed in your law exams
Law note taking
Whether you take notes in a campus class, or by listening to an audio-streamed class online is a skill. Taking notes helps you learn the principles of law; it is your interpretation of what a lecturer has said. Well-prepared law notes are the key to successful law exams.
A useful way to write notes is to take a step back to look at the 'big picture'. To do this, ask yourself: What is this subject about? What will I learn from studying it? What are the objectives of my studies in this law subject?
A good place to start for note-taking is to take a step back and look at the 'big picture'.
You can get the 'big picture' of a law subject by looking in a few different places:
- Have a look at a legal dictionary – they have great definitions for each subject and can shed some light on the sorts of terms you'll be studying this Trimester
- Read the undergraduate handbook - an example is Deakin's Undergraduate Handbook. A University handbook it contains a brief description of each subject within the law degree. How is your particular subject described? What does it say you will learn in this subject? What is the assessment in your subjects?
- Read any materials sent to you as part of the course – study outlines, study guides, introductory notes from your lecturer
- Navigate around online sites, look at the various sections, any materials posted in the Unit, familiarise yourself
- The table of contents in your textbook and/or casebook will give you an idea of the topics within a subject – usually there will be a major heading, followed by several sub-headings. Sometimes a book will be divided into parts, with Chapters within each Part. Even if you do not really understand what the headings refer to, read through them, taking note of how the course is structured, and the sorts of things you will learn.
Learn to summarise and write effective study notes by having a look through the following links.
Resources on Effective Note-Taking
Listening is hard work!
A listener is easily distracted because our minds operate at a faster pace than a speaker words. Yet listening is a skill. You can improve on how you listen. For example, remember to tune-in, pay attention and look at the speaker's face. Respond by rephrasing the main points in your head, or asking questions (if and when appropriate). Project ahead as to what you think the speaker will say next.
For some hints, tips and ideas on the skills for effective listening, as well as taking part in discussions, have a look at the following links.
Resources on Skills in Listening
- Info please Listening skills - listening as an active process with three basic steps (hearing/ understanding / judging); tips for being a good listener
- Strategies to improve Listening - from the University of Minnesota Student Handbook
- The difference between 'good' and 'bad' listening
- MindTools Active Listening - tips as to enhancing communication skills by active listening
A legal case is a primary source of law. Legal cases are examples, discussions and ultimately, an expression of legal reasoning. For this reason, an important skill for law students is reading, understanding and summarising legal cases.
Some cases are several pages, even several hundred pages ... and some judgments are pretty complicated. So have a look through our hints, tips and ideas on reading, understanding and summarising legal cases.
To read a legal case:
- First conduct a preliminary assessment
- Flick through the case and see how long the case is:
- Work out the Court – single judge, an appeal court?
- Where in the hierarchy? Australian?
- Look at the year of the judgment
- How many judges?
- Do you recognise the names?
- Are they joint judgments or individual judgments?
- Who is first?
- Who is longest?
- Which judge in dissent?
In a case name:
- The name of the case is italicised
- The year of decision follows the case name- in either round brackets or square brackets
- If the year is not an essential part of the citation for the relevant law report, the year is put in round brackets.
- If the volumes of the law report are organised by year, (and are required to locate the case), the year should be in square brackets.
- Following the year of the judgment is the volume number of the law report Then is the Law Report Abbreviation
- Following the abbreviation is the page number the case begins on
- For example: O'Toole v Charles David Pty Ltd (1991) 171 CLR 232
Howarth v Adey  1 VR 535
There are 'authorised' and 'unauthorised' reports of legal cases. Eg. The authorised reports of the High Court are called the "Commonwealth Law Reports" (CLR); Unauthorised reports are called the Australian Law Reports – ALR. Use authorised reports for your assignments.
Then, put the case in context
Reading a case will be much more enjoyable and a lot less tedious if you put it in context before starting to read. This means: Reading with purpose! So! Before you go anywhere near a case:
- have an idea of what topic the case falls within the law subject and think why you have been asked to read this particular case – what issue/s will it address
- From your textbook or lecturer's explanation of the case, does it appear this is a major case within the law subject, the principle case that will be cited in an exam?
- Or is this just a minor case providing an example of a legal proposition?
- think of a specific question the case will answer for you – for longer cases, it may be a good idea to read a summary of the case before you read the case itself
- Overall : what do you want to get out of this case? What answer do you need from it?
- Read the facts
Work out the facts
Once you have
some context to the case, start a detailed reading of the facts. Who is suing
who? Why did they sue? What is their complaint? What remedy are they looking
For more complicated facts, work them out by use of a diagram, lists or pictures. What has happened? If you have trouble understanding the facts from the case, look at a case summary or nutshell book to see how another person has explained the facts of the case.
Work out the issue/s of the case
From your reading
of the facts, you should be able to work out the issue in dispute before the
Ask: Why were the parties before the Court? What legal issues are in dispute?
Read the judgment
sometimes repeat, go off on tangents, give lengthy examples, quote from other
judgments. Sometimes judgments address other issues not relevant to the legal
question you are considering. Judgments may diverge into other areas of law
altogether. In reading a judgment you should have a specific issue in mind, a
question to which you are looking for the answer.
When reading, work through the judgment in chunks – manageable sections of text, paragraphs or sections, and skim through, reading quickly looking for the answer you need.
Try to find the most important parts of the judgment relevant to your legal question. When you reach that area of the judgment, slow down your reading and switch to active reading. Think! Does this answer my question? What is this judgment saying? How has the judge explained this legal principle? How does it relate to the facts of the case? At this point write a concise summary of the case.
Write a Case Summary
After reading a legal case, write a summary of the case. To write a summary, apply the fundamental rule of legal reasoning I-R-A-C (Issue-Rule-Application-Conclusion):
In your case summary:
Identify the legal issues raised by the facts
Discover and concisely state the principles of law from the judgment. Identify the ratio decidendi and obiter dicta.
Apply the law to the facts - identify how the Court applied the law to the facts of the case before it.
Determine the conclusion reached by the Court - what was the outcome? What did the Court decide? Who was the successful litigant?
Other links for writing case summaries
Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co (1892) 2 QB 484 (PDF, 121.6 KB) - an example case summary
A guide to writing case notes in law from the University of Sydney - using contract law as an example
Case Summaries - by the University of Montana Law School
In your first week at law school, one of your first classes will, no doubt, be on the subject of 'plagiarism'. It is always phrased in frightening terms and, at university-level, plagiarising work is a very serious offence and you can get into a lot of trouble. Penalties for plagiarism range from reduced marks or failing assignments to receiving a fine or even being suspended from the university.
The reason plagiarism is so offensive as an academic offence is that a university education is based on you submitting your own work. If you take another person's work and say it is your work, it is very similar to stealing. If you intentionally steal another person's work, it is simply cheating.
So what is plagiarism and collusion?
'Plagiarism' is where another person's work (either their ideas or the words they have used) is used or copied without acknowledgment of the author (by citation or direct reference).
Another type of plagiarism is collaboration and collusion. This is where you collaborate with another person/s in a work that is meant to be your own, and you do not disclose the involvement of the other person. For example, handing in the same assignment as your friend when it is not a group assignment would be a clear case of collusion.
Can I unintentionally plagiarise?
Yes. Some students intentionally cheat and steal in the academic sense of plagiarism or collusion. Typically, they are driven by the desperation of a looming submission date, lack of inspiration in writing or a feeling that their work is not good enough.
In most cases, however, students unintentionally plagiarise because of a lack of understanding as to correct referencing, or poor research and recording skills. As a law student, you must take plagiarism seriously. By implementing a few steps during the research stage of any legal assignment you undertake, plagiarism will usually not be a problem.
To avoid unintentional plagiarism, correctly reference during the research stage to avoid unintentional plagiarism while writing your assignment. This means: you must know while actually writing an assignment where an idea, statement, legal principle, explanation or legal commentary has come from; that is, the actual page or paragraph number of each source, textbook, case.
How do I correctly reference in law?
Correct referencing is the only way to avoid plagiarism. Here's some ideas for law students:
- Every time you find a useful resource in a hard-copy textbook, photocopy the front cover, inside cover giving bibliographical details, and the few pages that are relevant to your topic. Working off photocopies gives you the luxury of scribbling over them, highlighting and having a small pile of pages rather than entire books. Of course, it can get expensive the more you research.
- If you find a useful idea, quote, statement, explanation, commentary or opinion, you may type or transcribe it into your essay notes. But if you do, you MUST make a complete note of the bibliographical details in your notes; right to the page number of the statement.
- Consider installing an electronic bibliographic database on your computer. These databases allow you to enter fields, such as the author, title, publisher, year of publication, edition, as well as keywords for sorting and your own notes on the legal resource: for example, EndNote or RefWorks.
- If you work off the computer screen for downloaded journal articles, cases or legislation, create a separate folder in your computer files for each legal essay and store all resources in the one place, with clear and appropriate labels for easy referencing when needed. When using internet articles, make a note of the date you accessed the site as you will need it for referencing.
- If you work off hard-copy textbooks or other borrowed materials from the library, mark each page you rely on in your legal research essay with a bookmark, yellow sticky note or scrap of paper so you can easily reference the page.
To avoid unintentional plagiarism, correctly reference during the research stage whilst writing your assignment. Just write and insert footnotes as you go - find the shortcut function on your word processor for footnotes.
Other links for Legal Referencing Skills
Australian Guide to Legal Citation - a principal guide to legal referencing, used by Deakin Law School.
One of the primary skills of a law student is the skill of critical thinking. This skill is required to help you solve legal problems.
'If it does not fit you must acquit" – was the defence in the trial of OJ Simpson
In deciding a case, the Judge will apply 'deductive' and 'inductive' reasoning, as well as 'reasoning by analogy'. Different types of legal reasoning are applied so that a Court can discover or create a legal rule to apply to the facts before the Court.
Applying these types of reasoning to legal judgments means you will look behind the actual words used in a judgment to discover what the law is.
The rules of reasoning are rules of logic but not of pure logic in the strict scientific sense.
In law, there is no pure formal logic, as in maths or empirical scientific reasoning, where there is one right answer. In law the rules of logic are applied to try to reach the correct answer.
In law, reasoning by analogy means using similar like circumstance to assist in the resolution of the issue at hand.
For example, if I ask 8 students if they are enjoying reading this website and they all say they are, they think its interesting and relevant, then I may reason by analogy to assume that others are enjoying it to.
Of course, this observation may not be valid. It is possible that the people I talked to were the exception.
So I may make further investigations to determine the relative strength and weaknesses in my inference, such as:
- Number of people I talk to, the more people I talk to, the more likely it is that I will have correct reasoning
- Instance variety, if I talk to people from different jurisdictions, the more instances of liking the subject I obtain will make for a better analogical argument
Inductive reasoning is reasoning from the particular to the general. This means arriving at a general rule from observing a specific example or a number of particular instances ie. a form of logic
Eg. This lecture theatre has tiered seating (the 'specific example') so all lecture theatres have tiered seating (the 'general rule')
While inductive reasoning argues from the particular to the general deductive, reasoning is reasoning from the general to the particular.
In law, deductive reasoning means reasoning based on a general rule of law to determine the appropriate outcome in a specific case:
- Judges use deductive reasoning to come to a legal conclusion based on a general rule from a previous case
- The law's reliance on the doctrine of precedent is an example itself of deductive reasoning.
- Deductive reasoning says that if something is true of a class of things in general, this truth will apply to all members of that class.
Example: The law says you can be married at the age of 18. Jane is married, so she must be over the age of 18.
The OJ Simpson Defence
The OJ Simpson defence is an example of deductive reasoning: "If it does not fit you must acquit", that is:
- The killer wore these leather gloves
- These gloves do not fit OJ
- Therefore, OJ is not guilty
This argument conveniently distracts from other possibilities, such as OJ wore the gloves even though they were too tight, the gloves got wet and shrunk, OJ was only trying to make them appear not to fit.
For example, when a dispute comes before the Court, the Court's purpose is:
- to establish what has happened,
- settle upon the applicable law, and
- apply the law to the facts to see which party should succeed. Guide to legal reasoning
After assessing all your legal resources (for some ideas see the Deakin School of Law legal research site), you may be confused, or wondering where to go next. Are the sources contradictory? Ambiguous? Some not making any sense? A big mess you are unable to amass?
Now is the time to take a moment to briefly consider the purpose of your legal writing. Legal writing should never be about simply regurgitating the law. Your examiner knows the law! Neither is legal writing about abstract statements or your own opinion, blithely stated with confidence on 'what you think'.
Legal writing is a matter of presenting a reasoned and logical argument supported by appropriate authority.
The exact legal writing you must employ for each assignment will differ. Have a look again at the chart above for the purpose of your particular research assignment.
Your first task in planning is to brainstorm. Sit back and think! Draw diagrams, notes, and charts to work out your arguments.
What is your initial reaction to the assignment question? Do you strongly agree with it or are you against it? Or are you sitting on the fence? Why? Are there any authors in the secondary materials whose opinions and ideas appeal to you? Why?
What are the major arguments or sides to the debate? Are there subheadings that fit within these main areas? How can the assignment question be divided up?
Try to categorise the research material you have - do authors align together? Where can you use particular documents in your arguments?
Write a plan
After thinking of some ideas for your work, write a plan.
Sort out and prioritise in order the main topic, key ideas, issue or argument from your brainstorming session from the most important to the least important. Write a plan by dividing your assignment into the key areas, using appropriate headings and subheadings.
Under each key area, write a few notes of what you will argue and the legal principles you will use to support these arguments.
Assess weak arguments - should they be included?
Assess weaknesses in research - should they be remedied?
Finally, arrange your key points in logical order - try mixing stronger arguments with weaker arguments rather than having your essay slowly become weaker and weaker
Writer's block? Waiting for inspiration? No time to write the essay in one sitting? Don't worry!
- It's more likely than not that inspiration will never strike, particularly with an assignment deadline looming. So just start! Right now!
- It's unlikely you are going to write an entire legal assignment in one sitting. Your best work will be the result of plugging away, adding bits and pieces over a few days, or a week or two.
- Your first draft will never be a masterpiece. Writing is a process that requires assessment, rearrangement and proofreading.
- You might as well start on the first draft sooner rather than later.
- To start, just pick the most manageable heading from your plan, and start to write. Then start on the next heading, it will all come together in the end!
- Structure your essay
- Remember that an essay has a beginning, a middle and an end
There is no single right way to start an essay. You should, though, set the scene:
- use a quote
- make an observation
- state a proposition you will prove
- cite a statistic or fact or
- outline the arguments you will make in the essay.
Sometimes by leaving the introduction until last you can more effectively set the scene for the essay you have already completed!
Within your essay, you must divide your key ideas, themes and topics into paragraphs.
Paragraphs can be of differing length and should flow in a logical sequence from one to the next with a sense of continuance and continuity throughout your essay.
Several paragraphs can be linked together with a major heading or a subheading. Obviously, each argument within your essay will be divided into paragraphs to explain the concepts. When writing, think of writing a key sentence for each paragraph of your essay. This is the one sentence that sums up the argument. It usually appears as the first line of the paragraph, but not necessarily so.
Remember that a legal essay usually requires an argument, backed up by evidence, obtained from legal research. Don't just write out facts or information! Argue!
A conclusion can either be several paragraphs, or perhaps just one. However many paragraphs there are in your conclusion, always be sure to end on a strong point! Consider also linking everything from each of the paragraphs in the conclusion to reiterate your main proposition.
As with the introduction, there is no single way to end an assignment.
Reference while you write. As you write, you must insert footnotes throughout your essay referencing any direct quote, paraphrase, summary or idea from any other author, including judges and statutes! Most importantly:
- if, at any point you are writing out word-for-word the words of another person, you must put these in quotation marks and then give a citation or source in a footnote;
- if, at any point you summarise or paraphrase another person's ideas in your own words, you do not need quotation marks, but you do need to give a citation in a footnote - See the Law Essentials Guide to Legal Referencing
Don't forget! Fix your spelling, grammar and presentation.
Read your essay! Then re-read your essay. Out loud!
Resources for Legal Writing
Academic Skills - Resources - Writing - Study Support
Legal Writing in Plain English - Bryan A Garner, University of Chicago Press - 20 useful principles to implement
Legal Writing guides - Deakin Library
Along with cases,
statutes ('legislation' or simply 'Acts') is the law. It is law made by
Parliament and there are specific rules that govern its interpretation. In
fact, many of these rules are found in, yes, statute! The Acts Interpretation
Act 1901 (Cth) is a good starting place for Commonwealth
Learning how to work out the words in a Statute is important for everyone learning law, so have a look through the following links for hints, tips and ideas for statutory interpretation.
Resources for Statutory Interpretation
- Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth) (for Commonwealth legislation)
- State Interpretation Legislation:
- NSW Govt Parliamentary Counsel's Office - Statutory Interpretation for Drafters
Deakin Law School
Guide to Statutory Interpretation (PDF, 190.8KB)
In this document you will find a guide to understanding and interpreting statutes.
Often, your success in a particular law unit will depend on your performance in an end-of-Trimester exam. Start preparing for law exams as early as possible. Here's some ideas to get you started.
To start exam preparation
Write a schedule from right now until exams. Start with scheduling all the things you have to do even during the time leading up to exams (review classes, work commitments etc) After that, you should slot in several study sessions a week.
To determine study times, consider: What is the best time to study? When do I achieve the most from studying? Do I work best at night, or in the morning? When scheduling your study times, allocate appropriate study sessions. As a guide, a 50/10-minute schedule works well for most people – a 50 minute study session followed by a 10 minute break. Use your study sessions wisely. 3 sessions of 50 minutes is not long!
Don't feel overwhelmed! If you have a lot to do, write your tasks down on a 'to do' list. Break up large tasks into smaller ones, and work steadily, crossing them off your list as you go. Do one job at a time.
The key to successful law study is comprehensive and organised law exam notes. See the Law Essentials Guide to Effective Note Taking.
Prioritise. Isolate and identify the most important task.
Schedule realistic times to complete tasks. Don't overschedule.
Give 100% of your attention to the task at hand. Don't get sidetracked by email or internet, the phone & other distractions
Don't! Overdo it. Learning how to stop is also very important!
No time on your schedule to study? So re-assess where you allocate your time. Some ideas :
- Can you get up earlier or go to bed later?
- Can you remove some commitments that take up your time?
- Can you use travel time, particularly on public transport, to read texts, sort through folders, go over review notes?
- Throughout the trimester but particularly in the last weeks leading to the exam, do as many past exams, review and practice questions you can get your hands on
- Practising on past exams is crucial to test your understanding of the subject
- There is no need to write entire answers out-in-full (although this is also an excellent exercise to prepare you for the exam). A detailed dot-point answer of what you would write in the exam is also very useful.
The day before the exam
- Get everything ready – pens in clear plastic bags, pens of different colours for headings and sub-headings, a highlighter to mark the question- If you have an open-book exam, clearly mark your exam notes and/or textbook for easy exam reference.
- Have a good night's rest
for law exams
Deakin - General Exam Information
Maria Andritsos, Useful guide to Open and Closed Book exams
LawSkool - previews of law exam answers
Claire Macken, The Law Student's Survival Guide: 9 Steps to Law Study Success, Thomson Reuters, 2009.
Rick Krever, Mastering Law Studies & Law Exam Techniques
There are various forms that assessment will take during your law studies.
Assessment can include the
Legal research essay
Short answer questions
Problem based questions
Open book exam
Closed book exam
Letter of Advice
Memorandum of Advice