Outlining 101

Worried about outlines? What are they? Should you write your own or use someone else’s? When should you start putting one together? The whole thing can seem overwhelming, but with just a few tips, you’ll be an outlining pro.

Although you may have outlined during your undergrad career, law school exams are much different than any other exam you’ve ever taken, so you need to adapt your outlines likewise. Throughout the semester, you learn the black letter law and concepts through case analysis. However, your exam will not be a resuscitation of this. Instead, most of your exams will include a fact pattern in which you will need to apply the legal principles you have learned to identify and analyze the situation in order to reach a legal conclusion.

Outlines are nothing more than a condensed, organized version of your notes. A good outline will include only those critical topics you will be tested on and should include relevant case law and statutes. You should not include every single word you wrote down, but should instead be a synthesized version of your notes, briefs, reading, and secondary sources in one document.

It is important to start outlining at the right time. If you start the first week of classes, it’s too soon. You don’t have a good enough grasp on the material to know what’s important and the substantive law. But if you’re thinking about waiting until the week before exams, you’ll find yourself struggling to remember the nuances from the first half of the course. The ideal time to start is after finishing a significant topic in the course. Try taking a look at your syllabus – professors often break the semester down into large subsections that they cover over a few weeks. Use this is a guide to setup your own outline.

What should a good outline look like? Well, it should be easy to read. Although that means different things to different people, the better ones usually have clearly defined sections, use bold or italics to emphasize definitions, caselaw, or statutes. Underlining and different font sizes and colors help draw the eye to specific topics. Make sure to include broad categories and then start to narrowly define them using various source elements.

business, learning, meetingNow to the great debate – should you create your own outline or use an existing one? To be honest, there are pros and cons to both methods. Creating your own will far and away provide you the best review of the course material. You will be forced to critically think about each topic in a logical and efficient manner, which is exactly what you want your mindset to be during an exam. However, the creation process can be time consuming and cumbersome, so many students find themselves resorting to using someone else’s outline from previous years. Upperclassman often share their outlines with 1Ls and many student organizations maintain outline banks. Although I would discourage relying 100% on an existing outline, if you have decided you just don’t want to do it yourself, take an existing outline and adapt it to what you’ve learned. Course material often changes from year to year, so a course outline from last year may not include all the same cases or material as this year. Ensure that you go through the outline line-by-line to make sure everything included is relevant. Also, don’t be afraid to add to it! Use your own sources to make it better or reorganize it in a way that makes more sense to you.

Lastly, make sure to constantly review your outline for missing elements and accuracy. Talk with other students in your study group or schedule some time with your professor to go over topics. This will provide an opportunity to not only review the material, but also to find gaps, misinformation, or just add clarity to your outline.

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