Six law school outlining dos and don’ts

1L 2L academic advice academics legal studies outlining study skills

For the not-yet-initiated, a law school outline is a supercharged version of class notes for a law school course. One critical difference between an outline and your class notes, however, is that an outline should be the distillation of the entire semester’s coursework. Instead of full case briefs, think quick summaries of the issues and holdings.

Below are some dos and don’ts to help you tackle your law school outlines.

DO start outlining early (DON’T wait until Fall/Spring break)!

Resist the temptation to wait until breaks towards the end of the semester to start outlining. Ideally, breaks should be for fine-tuning your outlines, taking practice exams, and, importantly, recharging with your friends and family. Leaving yourself enough time at the backend of the semester allows you to more fully take advantage of office hours and any study sessions that your professors and/or TAs may hold prior to exams.

DON’T reinvent the wheel

Use your syllabus as a guide. Tracking your outline to the thematic organization of your syllabus reinforces the order of key concepts. On a contract exam, is it likely that you would ever start your analysis with a promissory estoppel argument? No, you would first determine whether there is a valid and enforceable contract claim because promissory estoppel only arises if there is no valid contract. Uneasy about a particular subject area? Consult your school’s law library and consider supplementing your outline with study aids, hornbooks, and treatises.

It’s common for law school student groups (and generous 2Ls and 3Ls) to provide “outline banks” and circulate outlines from previous years. If you choose to use them, take care to use them as a springboard for your own work and annotations. Remember, you should never exclusively rely on the outline of someone else. Outlines shouldn’t just be your Command+F -friendly version of your casebook. They are not only an exam-day tool. The outlining process itself is key to crystalizing the course material. Outlining yourself is also the only way to ensure that your outline contains the most up-to-date information and accurately reflects the current state of the law. 

DO follow your professors’ outlining instructions

It’s frequently said in law school that you don’t just take a class, you “take the professor.” A good Evidence outline will explain hearsay and cover each of its exceptions. A great Evidence outline addresses hearsay and its exceptions, and is geared towards the class taught by your specific professor, their interests and their particular view of that area of the law. For example, maybe your outline includes several hypotheticals that implicate FRE 803(5), Recorded Recollection, since that is your professor’s “favorite” exception.

Further, typically professors will inform you of their rules and preferences for using outlines. For instance, your Criminal Law professor may permit you to bring only printed hard copy outlines to your exam. Your Corporations professor may allow you to use hard copy outlines in addition to outlines saved to your computer, but only those that you have “meaningfully contributed” to. Another class might prohibit the use of any materials/outlines that have been circulated from other students. When in doubt, err on the side of caution, and always consult your professor, 1L mentor, Dean of Student Affairs or student handbook if you are not sure what is allowed. It goes without saying that law school and law school exam periods can be a very stressful time. Regardless, remember that you are on track to become a member of a profession that values ethics and professional integrity. Prepare, stay calm, and don’t let the academic integrity that helped get you here fall by the wayside!

DO create an “attack” outline

For many, myself included, a 100+ page outline can be a sort of academic “security blanket.” However, an outline that’s the length of a small textbook may do more harm than good. Never lose sight of the fact that you are being graded on the quality of your exam and not whether your outline rivals the best treatises on the market. If you are sifting through pages and pages of your outline to cite twenty cases that all stand for the same proposition, that’s wasted time that could be used for getting all that great content in your brain onto your exam page. Additionally, an outline should be an exam tool and not a crutch. Do you really understand the elements of a crime or are you relying on your outline to house the language you plan to regurgitate on test day? If the latter is the case, there may be conceptual gaps that will impact your ability to successfully issue spot and tackle the exam question at hand that should be addressed.

So much of one’s success in law school (and a legal career), hinges on the ability to “see the forest through the trees.” Since law school grading is curved, it is critical that you communicate your grasp of the fundamental concepts and show your ability to methodically apply the law to the facts. This is where an “attack” outline comes in. This shorter and more concise outline is your high-level document that has the information needed to quickly issue spot and analyze an exam question. For instance, an attack outline may have flow charts, important frameworks, methods of proof, checklists, lists of key statutes, or affirmative defenses and their requirements – whatever elements that are crucial to demonstrating your mastery of the tested topic and will set your exam apart from the rest.

DO incorporate some sort of organizational scheme (but DON’T prioritize form over substance)

Does the idea of creating hyperlinked tables of contents or color-coded tabs make you giddy or feel like you’re about to break out into a cold sweat? Either way, on exam day, you have limited time to process the questions, issue spot, extract the needed information from your outline, and plan your responses. You should dedicate as much time as possible to writing a great exam and the least amount of time digging through (or deciphering) your outline, so ensure that you’ve tailored your outline to your own learning style before test day.

DO take practice exams while using your full/attack outlines

It’s the only way you’ll discover any holes in your outline materials and in your understanding of the class material. Simulating test day while equipped with your outline will also reveal whether the outline will help aid your ability to ace your exam. Are you positive that your outline has a case summary that exactly matches a fact pattern, but for some reason you can’t locate it? Better that you realize you need to finetune the organization of your outline during a practice exam instead of on the actual test day. Additionally, not only will these practice sessions help you increase your familiarity with the sections of your outline, but they will help build your confidence and keep you calm(er) on exam day. 

Morgan holds a JD from Vanderbilt University Law School and a BA in American Studies from Wesleyan University. She is a former lawyer admitted to practice in the State of New York (having worked in both government and BigLaw), and most recently was the Script Coordinator on a Netflix TV show.

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