Lawyers Should Take Notes by Hand

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New research confirms what many of us have believed all along: taking notes by hand — with a pen and paper — is better than typing. Setting aside the potential for distraction (games), the act of taking notes on a computer actually interferes with your memory.

Taking Notes by Hand Improves Retention

RelatedCornell Notes PDF Generator

According to Vox, psychologists Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer investigated the effectiveness of different styles of notetaking by having students watch a 15-minute TED talk while they took notes. A half hour later, they had to take a test on the material that included both factual and conceptual questions. Students who took notes by hand performed better than students who took notes on a laptop, no matter what Mueller and Oppenheimer tried.

It turns out that typing speed is a big part of the problem. When you have a keyboard, you have a very strong tendency to transcribe what you hear, even if you try not to. But when taking notes by hand, you have to (a) pay attention and (b) decide what is important.

Based on this study, at least, there is no question how lawyers should be taking notes: by hand.

Of course, one of the reasons for typing is so that you can take down more information that you can digest later. To control for that strategy, the researchers let some students review their notes before taking the test a week later. That did make a difference — for the students who took notes by hand. Laptop-notetakers actually performed worse when they had a chance to look at their notes.

They also tried instructing the laptop-notetakers to slow down and take notes in their own words. Even with those instructions, the students wrote down a lot more than the students who took notes by hand, and underperformed on the test as a result.

To sum up, the act of taking notes — by hand — matters.

Lawyers Should Not Take Notes on Laptops

Here is the actual breakdown of the students’ performance on factual and conceptual questions:

Screen Shot 2014 06 03 at 4.55.00 PM 640x460 Lawyers Should Take Notes by Hand

As you can see, laptop users did pretty well on factual questions, relatively speaking, but they fell far short on conceptual questions, which involved comparing and analyzing ideas from the TED talk they watched.

Lawyers certainly need to be able to retain facts, but the application of those facts to the law is conceptual, using the researchers’ terminology. Based on this study, at least, there is no question how lawyers should be taking notes: by hand.

Lawyers Should Take Notes by Hand

Lawyers take notes all the time, obviously, and it is probably a good thing that many still rely on the humble legal pad.

Related“Why My iPad Will Never Replace my yPads”

If you are paperless, it’s still a good idea to take notes by hand. Just toss them in your inbox and scan them when you get a chance. Or, if you want to get fancy, there are plenty of note-taking apps that let you use a stylus and your tablet instead of a pen and paper.

Now, Mueller and Oppenheimer did not test note taking on tablets. It is possible that the benefits of taking notes do not carry over from paper to tablets. But if you are taking notes by hand, it probably does not matter whether you are using a pen and legal pad or a stylus and iPad. If there is a problem, it would just be that taking notes on a tablet is actually a little slower than pen and paper.

Besides, typing is probably the least-effective way to get a transcript of a deposition or hearing. Use a voice recorder (or voice recording app), instead, or just get the transcript of the hearing. Then you will have the best of both worlds.1

Laptops Are Bad for Client Relations

There is another reason — not in the study — why a pen and paper or stylus and iPad might be a better choice for client meetings, at least. Your laptop screen is a physical barrier between you and your client. And if you are looking at your laptop instead of at your client, it sends the message that you are not listening.

[W]hether or not you have a laptop in front of you, use a pen and paper or stylus and tablet for your note taking.

Instead, sit and listen actively to your client during meetings. Your relationships with your clients will be better for it, and you will probably ask better questions and do a better job remembering what they have told you. If you really need a verbatim transcript of client meetings, consider recording it, or have an associate play the role of court reporter.

If you regularly need to access court records, client files, or forms during client meetings, use an iPad or Android tablet instead of a laptop. A tablet is less intrusive and easier to share with your client. If you absolutely must use a laptop, keep your fingers off the keyboard unless you need to look something up, and talk to your client about what they are doing as you do it.

And whether or not you have a laptop in front of you, use a pen and paper or stylus and tablet for your note taking.

Featured image: “Hand of Japanese businessman taking notes” from Shutterstock.


  1. Don’t try to record in court without asking permission, obviously. 

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  • Scott Bassett

    I went to college and law school long before there were laptop computers. All of my notes were taken by hand. When studying for exams, I would rewrite my notes at least twice, each time becoming more concise. That process got me through college and law school.

    But I love technology and quickly adopted the laptop computer as my primary method of taking notes when working on my cases at both the trial and appellate levels. Then, in the summer of 2011, I purchased my first iPad. I bought a stylus or two (or more) and began taking notes on the iPad. It was easy to sync the notes back to my primary computer using SugarSync (others use Dropbox or Google Drive for the same purpose).

    I recently bought the new Sony Digital Paper device, which is like a very large and very expensive Kindle, but with the ability to take handwritten notes on screen and sync them to your computer via the Worldox FileCloud service. Its advantage over the iPad is that the Sony Digital Paper has an e-ink screen that is easier on the eyes that the iPad’s backlit LCD. Anyone who has compared reading on an iPad (or any competing tablet) with reading on a Kindle will understand what I mean. I couldn’t spend a full day reading and annotating trial transcripts on the iPad (using the iAnnotate app) without considerable eye strain.

    The Sony Digital Paper screen is also larger than an iPad, giving you a full-size replica of an actual sheet of paper. Yet it is very thin and light, even lighter than an iPad Air. I’ve been using it to read and annotate PDF copies of trial transcripts in the week that I’ve had the device. Next month I will use it in place of my iPad during appeal oral arguments.

    The $1,000 price may prevent the Sony Digital Paper from becoming a big seller, but for lawyers or anyone else who has to read and annotate PDF files or carry a large number of documents with them for quick reference, it bridges the gap between the old ways of paper and the modern digital world.

    One thing hasn’t changed. My handwriting is still legible only to me.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      One thing hasn’t changed. My handwriting is still legible only to me.

      Try this.

      • Muerteyguadaña
    • http://www.texasemploymentlawblog.com/ Christopher McKinney

      I keep trying to write with a stylus on my iPad but can never get up to speed. Or my palm activates something, etc. Wish i could make it work. I’ve tried just about every note taking app out there but no luck.

      • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

        I’m not a huge fan, either. I’ve done it a few times, but I much prefer a regular old pen or pencil and paper. Plus, then I can use my iPad for viewing documents, which is something it does much better.

      • Modred189

        It’s because Apple has no wrist-detection software. You could try some of the bluetooth options, but they aren’t much better and are very costly. You need to look into a tablet that has proper wrist detection. Some of the Samsung tablets have Wacom-enabled screens and styluses which are somewhat better, but you’re saddled with Android.
        Look into the Dell Venue 8 Pro. It has a dedicated stylus (only ~$20 on top of the $200 tablet) that actually switches OFF the finger-activated part of the touch screen, so it’s impossible to activate something. The only drawback is that the stylus is almost TOO slick on teh screen, and takes some getting used to.

  • Naomi Fein

    This is the same advice that journalists should adhere to when interviewing a subject. Long ago I read something in the New Yorker from one of their long-time writers, who said she never used a tape recorder for interviews; she found she only listened well and was able to ask good follow-up questions when she was physically taking notes.

    • Paul Spitz

      The tape recorder is still a good backup, however, when the subject claims he or she was misquoted.

  • John

    Livescribe= best of all worlds. Total audio recording eases the mind, relaxing the note taking so it’s just the key things. You can sketch a picture, discuss it with the client, and hear, years later, how the client understood what you were explaining.

  • Susan Gainen

    I hear the screams: “My handwriting is awful! I can’t read it myself! I can’t be expected to write for an hour…” If you are older than 45, you have a handwriting history because you were taught it in grammar school. If you are younger, and certainly if you are under 25, you may have had as little as an hour a week of handwriting instruction. The solution: practice. If you were to take up an instrument or a new sport, you would practice. The excellent collateral benefit is that you can select superb tools for handwriting. I strongly recommend a gold-tipped fountain pen. The difference between gold-tipped and any other tip is like the difference between ice skating on ice and ice skating on a rug. (A not-quite-direct quote from a magazine article from a San Francisco-focused life-style magazine from the mid-1970s.)

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Hipsters have ruined fountain pens. Everywhere I go, people are using fountain pens. It’s no fun being into fountain pens anymore.

      (Although if you are, come hang out in the excellent fountain pen thread in the Lab.)

    • qning

      To be fair, the tip of the fountain pen nib, the part that hits the paper, is iridium or some other hard metal so you can have steel nibs which are just as smooth as gold nibs because the paper contact is the same. Of course gold is generally capable of providing more flex which can be helpful (encourages a soft hand which in turn lessens fatigue – among other reasons) but otherwise the gold is practical for corrosion purposes.

      • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

        The flex is the difference. Gold nibs are generally more expressive and less scratchy. Some steel nibs are pretty good, though. The cheapo Platinum Preppy actually has a great-feeling steel nib. It’s not nearly as good as my gold-nibbed S.T. Dupont, but the Preppy only cost $4, and it beats out many steel-nibbed pens in the $10–75 range.

  • Kris L. Canaday

    Proof I’m not [completely] crazy! Now I have backup whenever someone jokes with me about using a pen and legal pad still.

  • Joseph Dang

    I went to law school when laptops were still expensive and rare in the classroom. As soon as I got one my grades improved dramatically. I type 10 times faster than I can write. I used an old but simple and effective outline app (forget the name but it was from Corel and wasn’t wordperfect). At the end of the class that was my outline. Each class’ notes, compiled into one big file. I write slow and ugly. Laptops are a godsend.

    That’s for taking notes. For creative stuff I like pen and paper.

  • http://www.aaronkirschenfeld.com Aaron Kirschenfeld

    My problem is buried in the process of turning handwritten notes into digital files that can then be turned into course outlines. (I’m a rising 4L — dual-degree w/ master’s in information science.) I found that I was just scanning in my handwritten notes as PDFs or image files, where they were not at all searchable, even in Evernote… because I write in cursive! So, perhaps learning to print again, somewhat quickly, is what I need. Or some kind of Evernote-branded legal pad or looseleaf paper, improving the chances of scanning in something searchable.

    That said, not having a laptop open during class did improve my level of distractedness. See the lengths I went to in order to make that possible here: http://www.aaronkirschenfeld.com/discretionary-distraction/

    I have no doubt that taking note by hand is good on all accounts. I just wish there were some way to solve my particular problem. Any suggestions out there?

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Text recognition is always sketchy with handwriting. Fortunately, like the act of taking notes in the first place, the act of manually reducing your notes to an outline helps you to learn it better.

      Instead of copying and pasting your notes, just keep doing it manually.

      • http://www.aaronkirschenfeld.com Aaron Kirschenfeld

        I guess I have always liked having a neat-looking, typed outline with plenty of indenting, bullets, sub-bullets, sub-sub-bullets, etc. But I can try a totally handwritten outline next semester and report on the results.

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          I didn’t mean that you should hand-write your outlines. I just meant that it is not worth copying and pasting from your notes. Use your handwritten notes to help you type up your outline, but don’t worry about copying and pasting.

  • mkolber

    Personally, I like using a tablet and stylus. Notability is my #1 go-to general purpose app. But my guess is that it suffers from the same base problem as typing. A gadget requires attention and the, even small distraction associated with it degrades listening/learning/analysis/retention skills. Pen+paper is automatic for most of us after long, long years of practice, pretty much starting about age 2 or 3 with a coloring book and crayon. Except for very few, typing is not in that category. Maybe tablet+stylus (or finger) will reach that level but not for a while

  • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

    Here’s our review of the last-gen Livescribe Echo. The early reviews of the Livescribe 3 make it sound like a great pen ruined by a pretty terrible app, but I think I’d like to do a review and make up my own mind. Stay tuned.

  • Ethesis

    It is important to not only review the tools used for note-taking but the style of notes taken. Thirty years ago there was some substantial research on law students that reflected that the most common method of taking notes used by law students was actually inferior to not taking notes at all.

    That did not lead anyone to conclude that notes should not be taken. Alas, it also did not lead to the standard introduction to law school also including a short, fifteen minute module, on note taking styles and what is better than nothing and what is worse than nothing.

    The “pure transcription” style of note taking is very common with those who take notes on computers. It is remarkably ineffective.

    This really calls for a study constructed around testing note taking effectiveness before and after training on how to take better notes, then a study that compares note taking using the same methods on paper and on computer.
    The study should also segregate by the number of years the student had spent using a computer, as I found in my own practice that it took me a much longer time to transition thinking modes between the two than I would have expected.

  • Modred189

    Through law school, I used my laptop, but always transcribed those notes by hand when studying for exams. I did the same for the Bar. Doing the same for the Patent Bar right now.
    In my practice, I use a Dell Venue Pro 8, which has a FANTASTIC dedicated stylus with amazing wrist detection, coupled with One Note/OneDrive syncing. Between the speed, accuracy, syncing, and ability to convert the handwriting to typed text if necessary, I have found no better alternative on the market for the price ($200).
    Everything else either has no wrist detection (ipads), poor detection (Samsung tablets) or is twice (iPads or Android Tablets) or five times (Surface Pro) as expensive. And not to mention it has full Windows 8 on it.