Five legal notetaking tips that will actually make your life better
Discover the top notetaking apps for lawyers, as well as five tips to improve your legal notetaking.
Notetaking, productivity, technology
3 min read
We legal folks take notes. A lot of notes. And yes, sometimes a legal pad and a pen work just fine. But using technology to take notes comes with big advantages.
For one, digital notes are easier to store and access later. You can add tags to them. You can search for them. And you can turn them into emails (or other work product) with less hassle.
The other good news is that you can even handwrite digital notes these days. And that matters. There's solid research showing that handwriting notes is more effective than typing them. Hand-writers typically focus on what matters, making their notes much easier to use.
These days, digital notepads are cheap and effective. And even free character recognition tools (like Google's) can transform your handwriting into useable text in a snap.
One of our favorites is Wacom's Bamboo Smartpad. It has great pen pickup and sensitivity, while not overly so. Remarkable also gets great reviews. In truth, there are so many good options these days, and even an iPad can work well.
Ok, great, you know how you'll take notes. But how are you going to store and organize them? You have several great options.
Top 3 notetaking apps
When it comes to creating, storing, and organizing your notes, you have even more options. For now, we'll just focus on our three favorites.
Evernote has long been an industry leader in the digital notetaking space. It's easy to integrate across your devices. It can hold all the classic file formats like PDF, PPT, and so on. It even has a nice integration with Google Docs.
The scanner app works great, too. The main downside is that organization is lacking in Evernote compared to other platforms. It has limited ways to build your notes, and only a few view modes for working through them.
Notion is our favorite here at Write.law. It has many options to create the perfect note database, but it's never overwhelming. You can create workspaces to keep your notes organized. And it's super easy to add images, comments, tables, and other elements to your notes. On top of all that, fantastic team integrations make Notion an easy choice for legal folks.
3. Microsoft OneNote
All that said, tools you probably already have, like Microsoft OneNote, can also work well. OneNote has flexible organization and the controls will be familar to anyone who has used Microsoft Word or Outlook.
Whatever notetaking app you choose, make sure you invest the time to set it up so that you actually use it consistently.
Top five notetaking tips
Now let’s talk about your notes themselves. For many of us legal folks, taking notes is just something we do. We wing it. We don’t really have a strategy, except whatever we’ve happened to pick up over the years. But effective notetaking is its own skill set. Why not take a note from the experts and hone your process?
There are tons of notetaking processes out there, and many of them can add value for legal folks. You should study and learn whichever system works best for you. But for now, let’s look at few notetaking tips common to many of the pro strategies.
1. Tagging or labeling
How do you find notes that you already created? Many of us have to hunt around for them. But using consistent tags or labels can make finding relevant notes a breeze.
For example, say you are researching a motion to dismiss for a securities case. You're taking some notes on a pretty important case, so you tag the note “Securities MTD.” In months or years from now, when you have a securities motion to dismiss again, you can search for that tag and find every note you’ve ever made that might have useful info on that topic.
Your imagination is the only limit when tagging: Create tags for any particular topics or categories useful to your practice.
2. Organize consistently
Creating a system to keep your notes organized is just as important as tagging. So consider coming up with a consistent organization schema for your notes.
For example: Do you want to include the date at the top of each note? Do you want to keep observations on the left and facts on the right of the page? Do you want to have an area in your notes for next steps or things you need to do later?
Consistent organization will make sure you stay efficient and don’t miss things later.
3. Create shorthands
In real life, you rarely have time for full sentences, and sometimes the information comes so fast that you can't even write full words. Develop your own set of symbols and abbreviations to make notetaking quicker.
Some obvious ones are + or & for “and.” Another simple one is = for “equals.”
Set aside ten minutes to synthesize, organize, and cut down your notes so that they're more useful later.
After you’ve finished a notetaking session (say after doing research or a meeting) set aside a few minutes to make sure your notes will be useful later. Cut any excess. Flesh out concepts that you might not remember when revisiting your notes later. Your future self will thank you.
5. Explore proven notetaking systems
Finally, explore the major notetaking systems out there. Popular ones include the Cornell Note Taking System, the Outline Method, the Charting Method, and the Sentence Method.
And with that, you're well on your way to becoming a notetaking guru. Once you realize how much time and energy you can save with well organized notes, you may never go back!