Conscious note-taking: A dying art

2 mins

It’s easy to switch to auto-drive when taking notes. Here’s how to banish FOMO and save a few forests in the meantime.

One of the biggest lessons for me over the past few years has been to recognise useless note-taking for what it really is – USELESS.

Why you need to banish FOMO

Useless note-taking is a bad habit that crystallises during the formative years of law school. This habit is grounded in our ‘Fear of Missing Out’ or ‘FOMO’ – a source of why we take extensive notes that no one (including ourselves) read later on. Worse, these notes make little sense when you try to circle back to them. For many students, it is a common source of angst before the exam period. This was particularly so for me when I realised at the end of term that the typed notes I made were a bloated mess.

The incidence of useless note-taking increases when we are using our laptops to type ad-hoc words that tumble out of the mouths of our lecturers. As a lawyer, useless note-taking reigns supreme when you realise that you just produced 60+ pages of notes while sitting through a court trial that no one (except the office scanner) was going to ever read. (Say hello to my best friends, the office scanner and the giant vortex that is the law firm document management system.)

Use note-taking for good, not evil

The purpose of this piece wasn’t to dismiss (or in modern-day terms, ‘dis’) the value of note-taking. In many ways, our human brain is simply incapable of retaining vast amounts of information without the help of written records. Note-taking should be used as a tool for quickly recalling information, not recording every moment in time.

My journey

It took a fair while for me to break this habit. In my first few years of practice, I would take extensive notes during court hearings. None of these notes were ever later referred to or used. These written notes were often seen by lawyers as a way of proving that you, as a warm body, were physically at a court hearing. This is a real shame because we often miss out on the important arguments made as we frantically scribble everything down.

As a judge’s associate, I noticed that verbatim note-taking was a more widespread problem than I had previously realised. The entire exercise was a pointless one, given that transcripts would be issued at the end of each hearing day. Seeing lawyers scribble frantically while they sat at the Bar table often made me want to yell out ‘STOP! You’re wasting your time, just listen and learn’.

In essence, we should all think more carefully about WHY we take notes and HOW we take them.

Tip-top tips

Some lessons I picked up over the years:

  • Have a clear idea of why you’re taking notes.
  • Less is more.
  • Handwrite, don’t type (and I can guarantee that you will remember more).

If you’re in a court hearing:

  • Restrain yourself from frantic scribbling.
  • Listen carefully to what your barrister is saying – and don’t be afraid to correct them if they have the wrong facts.
  • Limit your note-taking to (1) any questions that a judge may want answered (often over the lunch break); (2) concessions made by the barrister for the other side that might help your case; (3) orders made at the end of a hearing, as a judge may want you to draft these orders and send them to the associate; and (4) any critical life-or-death information (which is often never).
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