What Exactly is a Law School Outline?

Posted by William B on 4/29/19 5:55 PM

law school admissions

Pretty soon after you’ve arrived at law school, you’ll probably start hearing about “outlines” and “outlining.” Fellow students will ask when you’re going to start outlining for Torts or Contracts. The bar prep representatives will start trying to sell you outlines for your courses. High-quality outlines prepared by students in years past will become sought-after commodities.

In my first semester of 1L, I found all this talk bewildering. Was there some difference between “outlines” and class notes? “Outline” suggested a something condensed: wouldn’t it be better to study using my all my class notes and case briefs? I became aware that I was supposed to do something called “make an outline” for my courses, but my early attempts were really just typed and cleaned-up versions of my handwritten notes from the semester.

Law Exam Prep Is Different

What I eventually learned—and what I wish I had learned earlier—was that, just as law school exams are radically different from the kind of exams you take in college, they require a radically different kind of preparation. The meat of most law school exams is usually one or more “issue spotters:” a big, complicated set of facts that raise the various legal questions you’ve discussed in the course. So, a Torts exam might describe a wild Rube Goldberg series of car crashes, explosions, slip-and-falls, and shark attacks among half-a-dozen different parties, and then ask you simply to “identify and evaluate the claims the parties may have against each other.” Unlike essay exams in college, which usually expect you to give a complete and thorough answer to any questions asked, law school exams almost always feature more issues than you can identify and discuss in the allotted time. But your goal is to address as many as you can, and in most courses, the more issues you spot, the better your grade.

The trick to maximizing your ability to quickly and correctly dispatch issues is an outline. The outline isn’t really something you use to study. Instead, it’s something that you use during the exam: it consists of succinct breakdowns or even checklists of rules, elements, and defenses. It helps you efficiently apply legal rules to particular facts during a time-pressured exam, since a checklist is going to be much more organized and methodical than your panicked, swirling thoughts will be during the exam.

Outlines Are Exam Tools, Not Study Aids

Even if you’ve never seen Aliens, you’ve probably at least seen a parody of the iconic scene where Sigourney Weaver gets into a robotic exoskeleton so she can fight the giant alien queen. Think of your outline like that exoskeleton: as a device that makes you better and faster, able to tackle a challenge you couldn’t handle without it. Studying for law school exams is less about learning the material and more about building an effective exam-taking exoskeleton (though you end up learning the material in the process of building your outline). That’s part of why taking practice exams is so important: the practice exam is an opportunity to field-test your outline, to learn what its strengths and weaknesses are.

You probably never made anything like a law school outline in college, and your first outlines will hardly be your best. Mine certainly weren’t! But taking law school exams, and producing outlines for them, is a skill like any other, and you can learn to do it better. Thinking of your outline the right way—as an exam-taking device, rather than as an aid to studying before the exam—will help speed this process.

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