How to Tackle Law Assignments

Student Supplement Peter Hungerford-Welch associate dean, Inns of Court School of Law, City University, London © Reed Elsevier (UK) Ltd 2004 Just started a law degree. It's a daunting business, but Peter Hungerford-Welch has some tips from the top - taking full advantage of learning opportunities - best ways to tackle written assignments and examinations.

As a university student, you have much more freedom than in your earlier studies. That freedom means you have to exercise greater self-discipline. You will, of course, have lectures, seminars and tutorials, and these give a basic structure to your studies. But you will also have a great deal of 'free' time.You have to manage your time so that you do all that is necessary in order to secure a good degree, as well as having fun. It's all about balance.

You need to hone your time-management skills

Look back on your earlier studiesat what time of day do you study most effectively? Try to keep that time of day clear and free from distractions so you can do your work then.

Work out how many different tasks you have to complete in any given week (classes to prepare for, assignments to write, etc) and make sure you divide your study time so that you can do each of the tasks.

Attend lectures, seminars and tutorials, and do the necessary preparation.

Reading lists can sometimes be a bit daunting

In some cases, the lecturer will have prioritised the reading.

If not, and you find there is too much on the list for you to get through, don't be afraid to seek guidance from your tutor about how to prioritise the reading for yourself.

Don't expect to be spoon-fed. You learn best by finding out for yourself.

Educationalists call it 'active learning': you remember facts more easily if you have had to find them out for yourself, rather than being given them; you understand concepts more readily if you have to work out and apply the principles yourself, rather than being told what to do.

Learning opportunities for a law student usually take four main forms: lectures, seminars and tutorials, private study and 'extra-curricular' activities (such as mooting or debating).

How to learn from lectures Lectures can be used for a variety of purposes: to provide an overview of a topic or to impart basic information about the key principles relevant to that topic (as a precursor to more detailed study); to focus on particularly difficult aspects of a topic; to look at different approaches that may be taken when analysing a topic; to relate different parts of the course to one another; to put topics into a broader context so you can see the bigger picture.

Don't assume that in the lecture your role is simply to listen and to write down what the lecturer says.

It used to be said that the lecture was the method whereby material was transferred from the lecturer's notebook to the student's notebookwithout going through the mind of either.

Today, such a didactic approach is regarded as very poor practice (not least because the students will have switched off within the first ten minutes!).

Lectures require active participation

For example, you may be expected to answer questions posed by the lecturer or to discuss issues with students sitting nearby.

To derive the greatest benefit from lectures, you must cultivate your note-taking skills.

Remember: the object is not to write down every word that the lecturer says.

Get into the habit of noting only key points, so you can remember the key things that the lecturer said and how the lecturer developed the arguments he or she was putting forward.

It is also important to realise that the lecture is not an end in itself.

After the lecture (while it is still fairly fresh in your memory), you should review your notes (making sure that they are in a form that will make sense to you in a few months) and make sure you understand the concepts or principles the lecturer was talking about.

The lecture is only over when you have thought about it and incorporated it into your understanding of the subject.

Successful seminars Seminars and tutorials may seem even more daunting, not least because there are fewer students and so it is harder to hide in the crowd.

Seminars and tutorials serve several purposes: to explore (through discussion) concepts that are particularly difficult (where a lecture and/or private study may not be enough to ensure comprehension); to allow you to practise your problem-solving abilities; to further the development of your communication and interpersonal skills; to provide feedback on your writing skills and your analytical skills; and to help identify and resolve any conceptual misunderstandings you may have.

You should use the seminars and tutorials to consolidate and to deepen your understanding of what has been covered in lectures and in your private study.

To be effective, seminars and tutorials require active participation by the students.

In these classes, you should be interacting both with the tutor and with your fellow students.

You must have done the preparatory reading set by the tutor and you must have thought about what you have read, and you should make sure that you have completed any written assignments you have been set.

As you are doing your reading, make sure that you take note of anything you don't understand.

When you have finished, review your list of queriesit may be that some have resolved themselves in the course of your reading or thinking.

If there are any points you don't understand, make sure you raise them in the tutorial or seminar.

Don't be afraid of raising difficulties in class; the chances are that you are not the only person having problems understanding whatever it is.

Seminars are not designed to be mini-lectures

Sometimes, faced with stony silence, tutors will fall back on delivering a monologue. But they are doing their students no favours, since no 'active learning' will be taking place.

So, make sure you participate as much as you can (without dominating the session!). Answer your fair share of questions. If you are confused about something, say so: don't be afraid to ask questions.

If you are shy, try to catch the eye of the tutor when you want to say something an attentive tutor will help you to join the discussion. There should be a sense of a 'learning community', where everyone supports each other.

Never, ever, say or imply that someone is silly or thick because they don't understand something, or ask a question whose answer is (to you) obvious. When you are debating things in tutorials, make it clear that you respect the views of others: separate the person from the argument they are putting forward.

Active reading You may need to develop your 'active reading' skills

You will know from earlier studies that reading a textbook or article is different from reading a novel.

As you are reading, it is worth pausing every so often to ask yourself what you have learned (and make a note of the key points of this new knowledge) and whether there is anything in what you have read that you do not fully understand (you may need to re-read that section, or maybe make a note to ask your tutor about it).

You will have to read quite a lot of case law.

Remember that in published law reports there will usually be a headnote summarising the facts of the case and the decision of the court.

It is always tempting to rely exclusively on the headnote, but you should read at least part of the actual judgment(s).

If there is more than one judgment and the judges disagreed, make sure that you have worked out which judgments are dissenting.

Judgments can be very long, but there are techniques for navigating them

Most follow a standard structure: the facts of the case, the question(s) to be decided, analysis of previous case law, (often) a summary of the relevant legal principles (this can be a very useful part of the case), and the decision of the judge (where the judge applies the legal principles to the facts of the present case and reaches a conclusion).

In some published law reports, the headnote will point you to key parts of the judgments.

Know your interests Try to take part in extra-curricular activitiesthese will make your studies more enjoyable and will enhance your CV by helping you hone your lawyerly skills.

For example, try mooting or debating, and take up pro bono advice work if you have the opportunity.

If you want to practise as a solicitor or barrister, make sure you spend some time during the vacations working in firms or doing mini-pupillages.

Some subjects in your law degree will be compulsory (the so-called foundations of legal knowledge), but you will also have the chance to study optional subjects.

When choosing options, think first about what interests youyou will do better in a subject you can engage with and it may well be more relevant to your future career.

Testing times Try not to worry too much about the assessment process

Assessments for law students take a variety of forms: essays or problem-based questions; 'take away' papers that you can do at home or in the library; tests under invigilated conditions in an exam hall.

When completing any written assignment, always bear in mind what the assessors are looking for.

They will be assessing your performance against criteria that are likely to include: Have you demonstrated that you have understood the question? Have you identified, correctly and completely, the (legal) issues raised by the question? Have you demonstrated understanding of the principles of law that are relevant to the question? Have you demonstrated the ability to apply those principles to the question you are answering? Your answer should be supported by appropriate legal reasoning (eg through the use of relevant case law).

Is all of your answer relevant to the question? Is your answer well-structured? It is often helpful to draw up a skeleton firstthe key points that you want to make and the order in which you want to deal with them.

The reader should be able to discern the steps in the reasoning process that lead to your conclusion. Have you expressed your answer clearly, concisely and in good English? Assessors regularly complain about poor standards of written English, so make sure that you are familiar with the basic rules of grammar and punctuation.

Make sure that you also understand your institution's rules on plagiarism

Resist the temptation to copy work written by friendsif it is course preparation you will derive no benefit from using someone else's work; if it part of the assessment process you may be subject to disciplinary procedure, with very serious consequences.

When you refer to the work of others (eg passages from textbooks or journal articles) make sure that you attribute your source (name of author and details of the publication, usually done in a footnote).

You may need to think about your examination technique.

In essence, the skill of producing work under examination conditions is the same as producing any other written work for your course.

The key difference, of course, is that when you are writing under examination conditions, you have to work within time constraintsyou should practise doing this well before your first exam (for example, giving yourself a mock exam using a past paper from a previous year).

In most assessments, you have to answer more than one question.

Make sure you know how the questions are weighted (ie how many marks they each carry) and divide the time available accordingly.

If you have used up your time allocation for a particular question, it is usually best to go onto the next question (you can return to the unfinished question if you have some spare time at the end).

Finally, enjoy your studies!