“Working memory,” commonly known as short-term memory, is the memory function you use in everyday life. Imagine going to a bagel shop and paying for your bagel that costs $1.35 with a five-dollar bill. You might calculate in your head the change you should receive back. But to do this, your brain must retain the numbers only long enough to do the subtraction because you won’t need to remember the cost, what you paid, or the change you received, a year later.
Likewise, if your supervising attorney asks you a question about a particular case, you remember the question long enough to answer it. If needed, your brain converts the information to long-term storage, like important case deadlines.
Because the ability to memorize is critical for legal success, here are a few additional ideas to make memorization in the legal field easier for you.
“Chunking” is a sneaky way to compress bits of data into fewer units. For example, the US Department of Justice is often abbreviated as “DOJ,” thus decreasing the memory task to one bit. The more you can decrease the number of memory “bits,” the easier it is to memorize information.
Suppose you want to memorize the nine justices serving on the US Supreme Court. You can try to memorize the long string of nine names, or you can break the judges’ names down into sub-units or categories like this:
- Chief Justice: Roberts
- Women Justices: Sotomayor, Kagan, Coney Barrett
- Strict Constructionist Justices: Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Alito, Thomas
- Retiring Justice: Breyer
Each category has at most four bits of information. With a memory span of seven bits, it’s easy for your brain to memorize each category's information. Once you know it, your brain can convert this short-term information into long-term storage.
Melody and Rhythm
Remember “The Alphabet Song” in school? The song makes it easy for little kids to learn all 26 letters, a stretch for a seven-bit memory. The song breaks up the alphabet into short strings of letters.
Each of these subunits is only three or four bits of information, making the task of memorization simpler. A quick search on YouTube results in a few songs using the same method about contracts and the statute of frauds, such as Thompson's Contract Song and the Statute of Frauds Song.
A mnemonic is any memory device to aid in recall. A common one is IRAC. The letters stand for Issue of Fact, Legal rule, Application of rule, and Conclusion of law. It can help you write logically when drafting briefs or memos. Another is COALCON, for the basic elements of a simple contract: Contract=Offer, Acceptance, Legal purpose, CONsideration.
However, as the number of letters and complexity increases, it may be difficult to use the mnemonic. For example, MyLegs, a prompt to help recall when the Statute of Frauds applies, can be tricky. You might recall the mnemonic but not what the letters stand for. (Marriage, Year, Land, Executor, Guarantor, and Sales)
To use this effectively, try creating a melody to assist in memorization like this:
I married her for land
no guarantor of love, and
when she died within a year
as executor, I sold her goods
for five-hundred-dollar bills
This probably won’t win a Grammy, but it serves the purpose.
Your task in memorizing legal principles and concepts is to be creative and use your own style in applying these memory tips. If you do, you might serve as one of the lucky seven judges on a state’s highest court.