The past year has posed some unique challenges to law students. Chiefly, the shift from in-person to at-home learning required most of us to adapt to our learning environment. But we have also adapted similarly at least once before: when we started law school.
If you are like me, your undergrad study habits were day and night different from those you had to adopt in law school. But just because transitioning to law school or adapting to virtual learning can be daunting, it’s not impossible. And there are tools that I have found make a significant difference when it comes to cutting out distractions and organizing all of my drafts, outlines, class slides, notes, and work files.
Today, I want to share the top five resources that I have used for the past three years. These tools are not exclusively used for law school, so feel free to apply them at work or while pursuing your undergraduate degree. Most of these suggestions can be used for school, work, or just personal use. So, let’s get into the list:
1. Note Taking
Some of you may see this section and think “Why is this #1? I already have a notebook and pen to take notes.” No doubt you are one of the many who prefer to take notes by handwriting them. And of course, most people are likely aware of the research suggesting that handwritten notes increase a person’s understanding and retention of the material. More on that here.
And if you still want to handwrite your notes, I would suggest getting a tablet and e-pen. For instance, I use my iPad and Apple Pencil to handwrite notes during class that I can then transcribe and add to outlines or other study resources.
But notebooks are bulky. Pens get lost. There is no way to transfer those written notes into an outline. That is why having a note-taking app on your computer and/or tablet is so important. These apps allow you to type notes, copy/paste them, organize them in books, binders, pages, cards, and several other digital formats.
Here are the apps that I would suggest:
At OU Law, all of our students have Office 365 accounts with access to the complete suite of apps. One of Microsoft’s most popular tools is One Note. One Note is an open format note-taking space. It allows the user to organize notes into folders with subsections that contain each individual “page.” And I say “page” because there are no page breaks. You have a vast expanse to dump as many notes as you want into.
I suggest One Note because I use it as part of my Office 365 suite. It stores all my notes on a cloud server so I can access and edit them from any of my devices. The fact that it synchronizes with all of my other Microsoft apps is a massive convenience.
I used Evernote in Undergrad. From what I recall, it is a good note-taking app that allows for plenty of personalized organization and formatting. The primary reason I switched to One Note over Evernote was the fact that I use Microsoft apps almost exclusively like a majority of the legal profession does. However, that does not mean that Evernote deserves to be discarded. If you prefer a different interface and aesthetic that One Note doesn’t offer, check out Evernote.
This one is pretty new. Craft is an iOS app that I use to take notes and organize my podcast projects, blog ideas, and personal book studies. I have, so far, really enjoyed the functionality and organization of Craft because it allows me to move content freely on each document. Also, it allows the user to create pages and cards within documents that contain additional content. If you are a visual learner, or if you juggle more creative responsibilities in an iOS environment, I would suggest trying it out.
2. Cloud Storage
I mentioned this briefly in the previous section, but it definitely deserves a place on this list. Cloud storage isn’t new, and it keeps growing more relevant. For a brief explanation, storing your data on the cloud means that you are most likely saving it on an encrypted server owned and protected by a company that enables you to access it through the internet. These services allow you to access and edit your documents from almost any device from anywhere with a connection to the internet.
I can’t even begin to adequately emphasize the importance of auto-save during law school. Auto-save is a function that most cloud services offer that will track your changes to a document and save them in real-time. This means that if your computer dies or crashes after you just spent hours drafting an outline, your progress will be saved!
Of course, all cloud services will offer slightly different experiences, so I would first suggest using the one you are most comfortable with. However, I would also be remiss if I didn’t also stress the importance of vetting the security of the service. If you work with or have sensitive data, make sure that the service you use has adequate security. Multiple server locations also protect your data against loss due to natural disasters.
I won’t go into too much detail on my suggestions for these because I think it really depends on how well the service you use integrates with the rest of your apps and software. But, I do suggest either OneDrive or Google Drive for students, because they both allow you to work collaboratively and they will auto-save your work when you edit on the cloud. If you are using a cloud service for work, I would suggest using a business account, which will provide better encryption and security.
3. Ambient Noise
Alright, this one is big for me. I took a lot of online classes in undergrad and obviously have taken a majority of classes virtually since the COVID outbreak last March. That means I spend a lot of time at my computer, at home, surrounded by distractions. One way I stay focused; ambient noise. For me, this works best with the sound of a breeze, rain, thunder, a crackling fire, or some repetitive melody. If you are interested, you can read an article about the effect of background noise on studying here.
Again, this one really depends on what you find most useful. There are so many apps and webpages that provide ambient noise that trying to name and differentiate them in a blog post would be foolhardy. However, I will say that there are three platforms that I am likely to turn to which depends on the project that I am working on at the moment.
If you are a science fan, you will probably like this one. Brain FM is a premium service that offers ambient music scientifically developed to improve brain function and information retention. I have used this when I need to dig deep into class readings or extensive legal research. If you are interested but not ready to pay for the service, Brain FM does offer a three-day free trial.
The app I use most often is Noiisy. Noiisy allows me to mix my own ambient noises by selecting what sounds to include and adjust their respective levels. I enjoy this especially because it allows me to decide exactly what I want to hear. I also use this for providing ambiance when I read at night or am having trouble falling asleep. It also includes a timer to set your playback to anything from 1 to 120 minutes. And it’s free!
If you don’t know where to start, and you don’t want to install an app, you can always turn to YouTube! YouTube is famous for having a massive library by creators in nearly every corner of the internet. This includes a massive library of hours-long ambient noise mixes. Any time I want to mix it up, I will go to youtube and browse its libraries until I find something that appeals to me. And, again, it is free!
4. Password Manager
You should have unique, strong passwords for all of your accounts on the internet, which, admittedly, can seem almost impossible. In law school, you are going to accumulate a lot of new logins. A lot. So, how are you supposed to come up with passwords for all of those sites? Come up with one good one and just apply it to all of them? No.
Instead, you should get yourself a password manager to help you create and save your login information. This way, all of your accounts will be more secure, and you won’t have to consistently go looking for your old passwords. They will all be in one place! I cannot stress how useful a password manager is when you use several different legal research sites, class pages, and personal accounts like Netflix, or Disney+, or Amazon Prime. And if you aren’t convinced yet, take a look at this article by the NY Times about why you need a password manager.
First, I would decide how much you are willing to pay for a password manager. Because you will have to pay for a really good one. But they are not all that expensive in comparison to the security they provide. I am comfortable suggesting both 1Password and LastPass, but if you are interested in exploring more options you can start with this guide.
5. Browser Extension
Now, it is time to talk about the window you will spend most of your time using; your browser. I use Google Chrome because it has always been the most reliable browser in my opinion, although Safari has improved lately and is the other browser that I use more for personal browsing. Chrome offers a vast market of extensions that run within your browser window and offer added functionality. For me, these are the extensions that have added the most value to my browser:
If you have ever conducted academic research online, you know the struggle of copy/pasting information and keeping it organized. If you ever thought “there has to be a better way to do this” then you are right. PowerNotes was created to specifically help law students and lawyers organize their research by developing a tool that works within your browser. This means that you can read a case on Westlaw, Lexis, Bloomberg, or anywhere on the internet and save it directly to your outline. For me, it has saved me a ton of time and streamlined my research process because I don’t have to constantly switch windows to save my research. If you do any research and drafting, check out PowerNotes.
Do you like pretty pictures and motivational quotes? Then download Momentum. Momentum is an extension that changes your default new tab page with a daily photo and mantra. You can also personalize it with your name, show the weather for your location, and run a to-do list on it. I enjoy the relaxing and stunning photography that it uses. It is always nice to have a peaceful screen when you are in the middle of a stressful project or just starting. Momentum helps me be productive and find some peace of mind at the same time. And it is available on several browsers!
Of course, no list of browser extensions would be complete without mentioning Grammarly. After all, we are all human, and we make mistakes. So, let Grammarly help out and flag any misspelled words, comma splices, or conflicting verb usage. I won’t go into depth on this because I feel like most everyone has enough of an understanding of what it offers.
I hope you have found something valuable from this blog. Again, any of these suggestions are freely offered for students of any variety as well as attorneys or other professionals. Ultimately, I see these apps and tools as ways to improve productivity and reduce overall stress.