Is there another tool that lawyers rely upon more—yet think about less—than the humble legal pad?
Yes, I know. If you are a devotee of any version of the cult of productivity, you have likely tried to stop using legal pads in favor of some unholy combination of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, an app like Evernote, and the horrible mess that is the Reminders feature in your Outlook calendar. That approach is just fine if you are seeking to streamline your workflow. However, for note-taking—a lawyer skill you will always need until you shuffle off this mortal coil—you should be using a legal pad.
This presumes, of course, that you are taking notes by hand—because you should be.
Doing so increases your retention and forces you to pay attention (rather than mindlessly pounding away on your laptop or starting a game of Fruit Ninja on your iPad) to what details are important. It also allows you to look much more attentive when talking to a client, rather than burying yourself behind an electronic screen.
So what legal pad should you be using?
Lawyers in firms big and small will likely answer this question with “whatever is in the supply closet.” Solo attorneys will likely modify this answer to “whatever is cheapest at Staples.”
Both of those answers are terrible.
Your legal pad is a vital tool and is worth a few extra dollars even if it comes out of your own pocket. If you are ready to spend the money and can bear the sticker shock, Levenger legal pads are far and away the best you can buy.
I started using them, in large part, because I use a fountain pen, and fountain pens bleed through a lot of supply closet/Staples type paper. However, you do not need to be a pen addict to love the Levenger pads. The same ridiculously thick paper that makes them fountain pen friendly also makes them far more impervious to tearing than the legal pad you stole from opposing counsel’s conference room last month. I routinely throw my Levenger pads in a bag full of headphones, books, charge cords, iPads, Ibuprofen bottles, and lunch. Through all of this, my Levenger pads hold up just fine. Doing the same to cheap legal pads only leads to a crumpled mess.
Even if you do not care about the weight, brightness, or smoothness of the paper you write on, Levenger wins for baking in the Cornell method of note-taking.
The Cornell method, which features a wide-left margin, separates your notes into an annotation section and a notes section. That annotation section can serve a couple of purposes, both of which are useful for lawyers.
- It can be where you put your major headers and thus create an organizational scheme for your notes on the fly.
- It can be where you write notes to yourself about things you need to follow up on — a phone call to make or an additional question to ask.
If you are some sort of Philistine who refuses to take advantage of the Cornell method, Levenger also has full-page ruled legal pads. (Levenger also has more esoteric things like storyboard paper and dot grids, but I am assuming you are taking notes, not sketching out your next screenplay or designing a gazebo for the house. They also have recycled options for most varieties.)
Levenger legal pads also have a feature you will not care about until you try to go without it later: A header box with the Topic, File Under, Date, and Page pre-printed.
Having that header box allows you to organize your notes by project/case and topic. This forces you to remember to date and paginate. I think of myself as an organized person, but really what I am is a person who will be organized as long as you make it impossible for me not to be. If you are the same, built-in headers are for you.
But wait, you say! $32 for five notepads is ridiculous and I do not care about fancy paper! What should I buy?
You should not let your skinflint-ness deprive you of the opportunity to use the Cornell method. Head over to Office Depot and spend $6 on two TOPS FocusNotes pads. You get the Cornell ruling and a nice note summary section at the bottom (something the Levenger pads lack) but you get it on ridiculously thin paper. Give these legal pads a shot, and, perhaps one day, you will be enough of a Cornell notes fan you will graduate to the big leagues and buy a decent legal pad online instead.