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September 11, 2004

Juristudents for Mac: Notetaking Tools Review

After using the law school note-taking/outlining software Juristudents for a few days, I'd say I'm going to stick to my tried and true OmniOutliner.

Note: Dave has already reviewed this product and I largely agree with everything he says.

More about Juristudents and some notes on other outliner options...

Juristudents provides a great structure to help you record important information in an organized way so it will be meaningful to you later. The multi-pane working environment works well. When you open a class, you have a side pane called the "Course Outline" that includes "topics," cases, rules, and statutes, and a main pane for notes. Click on any topic or case or statute, you'll get the text you entered for that item. Creating a case brief is easy, and you can customize the blank brief template to eliminate repetitive typing. The default template prompts you for case name, citation, page in book, facts, issue, rules, rationale, and holding. I learned on my own to create these kinds of sections for a case brief, but it would have been a lot easier in my first year of school if I'd had something like this to remind of what to look for and to cut down on my work in taking it down.

The "Course Outline" pane is seriously lacking. Currently, the program does not allow you to move the notes and topics around in your "Course Outline." Or rather, the only way to do it is to copy the contents of an item, e.g., a case brief, then create a new item where you want to move the case, paste in the contents of the first item, then delete the original. This is cumbersome at best, a deal-breaker at worst. How many of us create outlines with such precision that we don't need to move things around? Not me. I move sections of notes all over the place all the time. Also, as I've been getting used to the software, I've ended up creating subtopics and case briefs under the wrong main topics simply because I didn't understand how the software worked—when you create a new item, it doesn't always show up where you want it or expect it. Now I need to go back and correct those errors, and that should be an easy process. Instead, it's quite time consuming.

I often find that I'm taking notes on topics and realize later that many of those topics fall under a larger umbrella topic. Without being able to move topics around easily in the "Course Outline," it's nearly impossible (a potentially massive amount of cutting, pasting, and renaming of topics is involved) to change the "level" of an item in an outline and add an umbrella topic.

What if you want to insert a subtopic between two other subtopics? You can't do it w/out, again, a ton of cutting, pasting, and renaming.

Bottom line: Moving items around in an outline should be fast, simple, and follow standard outliner conventions. Without that ability, the software is simply crippled. The model should be something like the mailboxes window in Mail, but even better would be to make the "Course Outline" behave more like a real outline (a la OmniOutliner), including "indent" and "outdent" commands. Also, the "Course Outline" feature should give you options on how to "auto-number" items in your outline, just as OmniOutliner does. OmniOutliner calls this "styles" and allows you to choose whether a topic heading begins with an A, a, 1, i, I, etc. You can specify these preferences by "level" in the outline, so that all top-level headings are A, B, C, second level are 1, 2, 3, etc. You an also speciify whether they're bold, italic, etc. Juristudents should give users this kind of flexibilty with its "Course Outline"—that's what an outline is all about, right?

One other deal-breaker for me: although it lets you export your outline, the exported file has zero indentation. All levels of your so-called "outline" are flush left. The exported file indicates different level headings via bolding and changing the size of the font, but the levels of the "outline" aren't indented as a regular outline would be. In other words, the software doesn't produce a real outline, even though it says it will. The ultimate for me would be if Juristudents could create an OPML file that I could then open in OmniOutliner or any other program that supports the format. The beauty of such a file is that you can expand and collapse levels with ease, allowing you to see as much or as little of your data as you wish. This is how I create outlines, and this is what I'd like a law school notetaking tool to help me do. The ability to see your entire 40-50 page outline collapsed to 1-2 pages of main headings or expanded to whatever level you'd like to see is great for studying around finals time. I've learned to take notes in such a way that what seems to be the most important information is in the top headings, with miscellaneous class discussion below in subheadings that I can just collapse (and largely ignore) when it comes to studying for an exam. Very handy.

Miscelleneous other drawbacks:

  • Command-H should hide Juristudents; this is a standard command across all Mac apps. Instead, Command-H brings up a find/replace dialogue. Why?
  • Command-C doesn't seem to work for "copy" in some of the fields, even though the Edit menu indicates it should.
  • Case brief and statute titles should accept punctuation such as colons and commas. I like to put the entire case title and citation in the "title" of the case brief so that all that info will show up in the outline. You can do that with Juristudents, but not if you want to include a comma or colon.
  • Typing in a large text field slows down the more text you type. It gets worse with different fonts, so that you may type a whole line of text and you'll only actually see what you've typed after a few seconds of lag. I've seen this a lot in newer, unpolished applications. I have no idea what causes it.

Final Suggestion:
A product like this is a great idea, but Juristudents still needs some work. I don't think most students create what I call "real" outlines; for most people who just use Word to create "outlines," this software may simplify the process and produce a product like that you're used to. It could definitely help first year students because it creates little informational spaces for you to fill, reminding you of the things you need to look for and helping to make sure you don't miss important bits. However, like a lot of new software, I'd say Juristudents needs to work out a few bugs before it'll be really worth the $50 its maker is asking.

Other Options:
There are several other good outliner/notetaking options for Mac users, including my favorite, OmniOutliner (with a complete version of the U.S. Constitution in outline form! see the "Sample Documents" download on this page). More feature-rich (but therefore more complicated) options include the closely-related Circus Ponies Notebook and Aqua Minds' NoteTaker. These programs apparently started from the same code base, so they are similar in lots of ways. I've spent more time with NoteBook and I really do like it; it's elegant and feature rich, but I've had difficult adapting to its outliner conventions—I just can't type notes as fast w/it as I can w/OmniOutliner. One cool thing NoteBook does that I'd like to see more programs do is it creates an automatic index for all the words you've entered anywhere in your notebook. This has potential to be a valuable study tool. For example, if you wanted to find every instance of "perpetuities," you can flip to the index and see each instance in context so you can quickly find the one you're looking for. Unfortunately, since the program indexes every single word, the index quickly gets large and rather unwieldy; it would be nice to be able to index only certain key words, but I don't think this is possible yet.

Finally, another info manager that many people rave about is DevonThink. I used this a great deal my first year in law school; it has a clipping service that makes it easy to copy text from the web into your DevonThink database, so I clipped all the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that I was going to be tested on into a database and had them at my fingertips in class and during finals. (NoteBook also has a similar clipping feature.)

As Dave mentioned in the comments to this post, Windows users might want to try Storelaw (he didn't like it) or Notemap.

See also:, "archives from the golden age of outliners."

Posted September 11, 2004 01:01 PM | law school mac geek

Are these programs better than the outlining/notes feature in Word:Mac 2004? And if so, how?

Posted by: Phil at September 11, 2004 03:58 PM

Good point: Word 2004 offers a "notebook" view which borrows a good deal of the handy functionality from something like Circus Ponies NoteBook or AquaMinds NoteTaker. It allows you to create expandable/collabsable outlines, and to assign "styles" to each level of the outline so they can begin w/I, A, i, a, 1, etc. It won't import or export OPML, but it's getting there. I have yet to see what it would do with a large outline (40-50 pgs), but I bet it would do just fine. If you don't mind running MS products, this might be a good option for outlining/notetaking. It certainly has the advantage of easy conversion to a regular Word doc so you can share it w/all your friends and help them get an "A" as well. ;-)

Posted by: ambimb at September 11, 2004 11:18 PM

I only am okay with using it since I stole the developer edition--the one that doesn't even require that you enter a code key #. (I'll send it to you on iChat over your stolen internet connection sometime, if you're interested.

I've heard that law school is cut-throat. Do you share with many people, or just your close friends? And is everyone expected to reciprocate equally? If someone is obviously struggling, will you help him/her? To what lengths? I'm curious how your background as a teacher will play in to your answer.

Posted by: Phil at September 12, 2004 04:06 AM

My experience has been that law school is only as cut-throat as you make it. Some people play that zero-sum game (where they see any good thing that happens to someone else as a bad thing for them, and vice versa), but I don't see it that way, and so far I don't think that's hurt me. I'm happy to share w/anyone, but people don't generally ask much. (I posted a few outlines here last spring.)

At GW, you can find outlines for just about every course onlline -- the student government hosts an outline bank for exchanging outlines, and if that doesn't have what I'm looking for, I've always been able to find a good outline for any class I've taken just by asking around a little. I've never seen anyone obviously struggling, but maybe that's just because people try to hide that. My advice would be to share and share alike, you reap what you sow, etc. I started Blawg Wisdom largely to facilitate such sharing and do my little part to dispell or overcome the idea that law school has to be cut-throat.

Posted by: ambimb at September 12, 2004 10:41 AM

Guess I was wrong. Cool.

Posted by: Phil at September 12, 2004 04:46 PM

Well I don't have a Mac, so I can't use OmniOutliner... but I have been trying the trial version of StoreLaw over the past few days. While I think the wordprocessing portion is far from perfect, I think it will suit my needs fairly well, and will keep me much more organized than trying to pull together a bunch of word documents into a coherent outline. I think I am going to purchase the full version this week.

Posted by: Unreasonable Man at September 12, 2004 11:32 PM

I LOVE OmniOutliner. Not being in law school yet, I use it at work for a number of things, including certain kinds of inventories. Then I use the companion product, OmniGraffle, to create flowcharts of the outline. Very excellent.

Posted by: kristine at September 23, 2004 09:45 PM

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