Law School Outlines: It’s All About When You Start

When it comes to separating good law students from great ones, there’s one key difference: how they approach outlining.

While most students tend to worry about how to create law school outlines, the better questions are when to start the process and what to do with your law school outlines once you’ve created them.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Outlining basics
  • The importance of starting early
  • Creating your own outline
  • Outlining the outline of your outline (seriously)
  • Outlining tips

 Law School Outlines: The Basics

An outline is an aggregation of the specific material assigned for a class, organized so that you can access details quickly and understand broader concepts.

The theory is that you’ll master complex and lengthy course material by creating and working with law school outlines. Plus, many professors allow you to use your outline during the exam.

There are lots of ways to create a law school outline. When thinking about the structure of your outline, a good place to start is your professor’s syllabus. As for content, most students use some combination of their class notes and case briefs, and then systematically remove unimportant information until only the essentials remain.

Some students start with another student’s outline and customize it to fit their needs. The pros and cons of these two methods are discussed later.

Why Timing Is Everything

Almost every professor will tell you to start outlining early. Our research shows that the vast majority of highly successful students prepare their law school outlines throughout the term, yet most students don’t start the process until just before finals. They fall into the trap of constantly playing catchup on daily reading assignments (something LearnLeo’s study tools can help with).

Here are some outlining pointers we picked up in law school (and from talking to a lot of professors and students):

  • Outline whole topics. Don’t start outlining after week 1, since you won’t get anything out of it if you don’t know any substantive law. Instead, start outlining when your professor finishes the first topic, then continue to outline in chunks as the semester progresses. Cover the entire topic in your outline and build upon your outline as your professor finishes subsequent topics.
  • Master each topic. After you outline a topic, talk to your professor or study group while the material is still fresh in your mind. Resolve any ambiguities and figure out the nuances so that you have a firm grasp on the material. When finals roll around, you may need to refresh your memory, but you won’t have to relearn the early material like the folks who haven’t outlined yet.
  • Ongoing review. As you add topics to your outline, review all prior topics and make any necessary additions or references (as many topics in a course may overlap with prior topics).
  • Reorganize. As finals approach, all you’ll need to do is outline the last topic. Then analyze the overall structure of your outline and consider reorganizing it to suit your understanding of the material.

Here are some common pitfalls that students encounter when they start outlining late:

  • Using your outline. Creating your outline isn’t enough; you need to know it inside and out. Some students make the mistake of finishing their outlines hours or minutes before the exam. Exams have huge time pressure, so rifling through your outline looking for things during the exam will end badly.
  • Practice exams. They are crucial for understanding how your professor poses exam questions. You’ll also want to test your outlines under exam conditions and adjust them afterwards. Top students take 3-4 practice exams (which take 4 or more hours each). Other students take 1 if they’re lucky—they spent too much time outlining at the end of the term.
  • Time is short. Outlining a class from scratch will take 3-4 days and practice exams take 1-2 days. Your study period is less than a week and you have 3-4 days in between finals. You do the math.

Should You Create or Borrow Outlines?

Creating your own law school outlines from scratch is time consuming, but it has advantages. You’ll know the outline, learn a ton while creating it, and find your style. Plus you’ll get faster at building your own. Once you know how you like your law school outlines, it will be less risky to borrow them in the future.

Just because you create, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also borrow outlines. Getting outlines from good sources can make your own outlines better. They can provide ideas on formatting and style, help fill in details you missed, and verify your understanding of key concepts.

Borrowing someone else’s outline as the basis for your own sounds appealing at first, but can be dangerous if you don’t know your outlining style. If you choose to go this route, then make sure you start with an outline that is:

  • no more than a year old (professors do change their curricula, especially if the book edition changes)
  • for the same professor (professors are idiosyncratic, that’s why you shouldn’t start your outline with a commercial outline)
  • from someone who did well in the class

Next, customize the outline to suit your needs and style (which is why you need to know your style). Many students will spend significant time reorganizing, adding to, and annotating borrowed outlines, so budget time for the process.

Finally, familiarize yourself with the converted outline. Arguably, you will never get to know a converted outline as well as you would your own outline, which is why we recommend building your own outline at least once.

Tip: Try to get outlines from upperclassmen early in the semester. Their outlines will give you a roadmap for the entire course. Having good outlines early on will help you understand cases sooner, predict what the professor will emphasize in class, and get a head start on your outline.

Create 3 Outlines for Each Course

Many law school professors and administrators recommend that you build 3 outlines for every course—a comprehensive outline, a condensed outline, and a checklist. Creating each outline will force you to review the materials at least 3 times and increase your mastery of the material. Ideally, on exam day you’ll hardly need to refer to any outlines because you know the material that well.

Step 1. Comprehensive Outline

This can be as simple as combining your course notes and case briefs into an initial outline. Comprehensive outlines can be more than fifty pages long, and should contain all the material covered. Including case facts is useful during this stage, as it will help you to identify similar fact patterns on the exam—professors love taking facts from existing cases and changing them slightly to create exam questions. LearnLeo’s outline feature can expedite this process.

Step 2. Condensed Outline

This is your primary outline for taking the exam. Most exams will permit you to bring in as many notes as you wish, so you will be free to bring in both your comprehensive and your condensed outlines. Most of your exam time, however, should be spent using your condensed outline. You should only use your comprehensive outline to jog your memory about specific cases or fact patterns.

To build your condensed outline, start with your comprehensive outline and cut it down to approximately 10 to 20 pages. Focus on rules of law and specific steps of analysis that you can apply during your final. Cut most of the facts and other details. Consider going from your topic and case driven comprehensive outline to a topic and rule driven condensed outline as exams will focus on your understanding of how to apply rules, rather than the specifics of any given case. Some students also format portions of their condensed outline into a flow chart or list step-by-step instructions with the questions asked at each stage of the analysis along with the rules to apply for each one.

Step 3. Checklist

Exams test both speed and command of the material. Your checklist enables you to find information quickly under exam pressures. To create your checklist, simply cut your condensed outline to 1-2 pages of topics, subtopics, and processes for interpreting legal rules and concepts (you’ll learn a ton of these).

During the exam, make a mark by each issue you spot and address. If you get towards the end and have an empty patch on your checklist, then look over the fact pattern again–you may have missed something.

5 Tips for Successful Outlining

  1. Prepare responses for questions or issues you know will appear on the exam. In your outline, write out rules and explanations exactly as you want them to appear in your answer, so you won’t waste time crafting prose under exam pressure.
  2. Identify grey areas in the law. Professors love to test on areas where there is ambiguity in the law, requiring you to argue both sides. Prepare the arguments for each side and add them to your outline.
  3. Know what your professor thinks. Professors love policy questions. If your professor has written an article on the subject, then be sure to read it and include a summary in your outline. Professors tend love it when people agree with them.
  4. If a principle or rule is counterintuitive, then be sure to include it in your outline.Sometimes the law requires you to be unfair. Professors like to test these principles.
  5. Look for topics with no cases. Professors need to test concepts that spread out the curve. They also understand that students who fall behind tend to compensate by only reading assigned cases, so professors like to test obscure theories with no accompanying cases. If you find these tidbits, then put them in your outline—it could mean the difference between an A and an A+.

For more on preparing for law school, check out the other articles in our Pre-Law series:

Keep an eye on the blog for more Pre-Law articles.

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