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