Two Reasons You Need a Law School “Outline” (Loosely Conceived)

Colored pencilsMaking a law school outline serves two purposes:

1. you’re forced to review and synthesize the material
2. it’s a useful reference when you’re taking the exam

You might think these two reasons have little in common. You’re right.

Outlining Forces You to Synthesize the Course on Your Own

The first purpose of an “outline” (and I’m not necessarily talking about some 100-page monstrosity that includes everything that came out of your professor’s mouth over the course of the semester) is to force you to sit down and really pay attention to everything covered in the course.

This is why it’s dangerous to rely too heavily on someone else’s outline, even if they aced the class — if you’re just reading a great outline from the year before, you’re not actively synthesizing the material yourself. Reading an outline someone else made can be useful as a starting point, or as a check on your own understanding, but it’s fundamentally different from struggling to understand the material on your own.

Think about how much harder it is to write a book, than it is to read a book.

It should be clear that a lot more mental effort is required to produce your own synthesis of the material, versus simply reading a summary someone else spent hours producing.

Is Outlining a Waste of Time? Or is it the Holy Grail?

“Outlining” is a funny aspect of law school. I’d managed to go through my undergraduate and graduate education, pretty successfully, without ever once making an official outline of anything.

Suddenly, in law school, the buzz was that you were doomed to abject failure unless you started outlining from day one. As exam day approached rumors started to fly about how so-and-so had a two-hundred page outline (based on a secret passed-down outline stored in a Swiss bank vault in the off season), until I was pretty sure that I, and most of the rest of the class, would flunk out after the first semester.

Obviously that didn’t happen.

How Did I Avoid Flunking Out of Law School?

What saved me from flunking out? Colored pencils.

Yes, seriously. At some point towards the end of the first semester, I was so overwhelmed with how much material I needed to know that I decided to stop trying to update my perfectly crafted, beautifully typed, extremely long “outlines” (which I’d no doubt based on a lovely prior example and updated, well, infrequently), and just decided to write down what I knew.

I got out some blank paper, a pen, and a set of really nice colored pencils I had left over from architecture school. For each class, I looked at the syllabus (focusing on the subject headers), I flipped through the table of contents of the case book, and I thumbed through a commercial outline. Then I started to write.

I made a list of what seemed to be the key principles of each course. Contracts, for example, probably had: Offer, Acceptance, Consideration, and Damages. Each of these became a header at the top of a new piece of paper. Slowly, I expanded each header, combining my class notes, information from prior outlines, and basic principles from commercial outlines and hornbooks until each class started to make sense.

Critically, because I was doing all of this by hand, and I’m inherently lazy, I didn’t write very much. Each main principle fit on a single page or two, and I could spread out all the papers on the living room floor and “see” the entire course at a glance.

Why Was This Approach Helpful?

For me, the idea that everything I needed to know was spread out in front of me on the floor was soothing. I’d been completely overwhelmed by all of the information in my computer outline, and hadn’t had any way to really access it. Seeing everything spread out in front of me made things seem manageable.

But having the short, hand-written outline also made my computer notes more helpful. Since I obviously couldn’t put every single detail into my hand-written notes, I started to cross reference my typed class notes and prior outlines. If I wanted to be able to look up more detail about a particular aspect of the Statute of Frauds (which, to this day I refuse to commit to memory), for example, I’d write “Statute of Frauds” with a one line explanation to job my memory, then note what pages in my other materials covered this topic in more detail.

With these notations, I knew I’d be able to quickly cross reference pesky details I was unlikely to remember during the exam, by simply flipping to the correct page in my longer notes.

Make Sure Your Outline is a Useful Reference for the Exam

Lots of people intuitively understand (or are told) that they need to outline to understand the material. However, it’s less obvious that your outline, however you make it, needs to be usable on the exam.

What does this mean? Think about your typical three-hour law school exam. You come in, read the exam, spend some time making notes, then write furiously for most of the allotted time. It’s a high-stress, time-pressured environment. Consequently, it’s a perfect setup for NOT BEING ABLE TO FIND THINGS in your notes.

Think about what it’s like to be really stressed out, and know that some piece of information is relevant, but not be able to remember where it is. You flip through your notes, knowing it’s just around the corner. You can’t find it. Your blood pressure starts going up, your hands start sweating, and you start silently cursing: “Damn it, I know it was right here! Where is it? Ack! I can’t find it!!! Where is it?!? I am going to fail this class if I can’t find the answer to this!@!@@!”

After a few minutes of this, you’re in no state to think logically about anything.

Practice Makes Perfect

To avoid a stressful meltdown, figure out a system for finding details in your notes, and practice using it before you show up to an exam.

After all, having the world’s most perfect outline doesn’t do you much good if you can’t find what you need!

Read On:

More law school advice, coming right up:

Return to Exam Prep 101.

Have questions about how, or why, to make a law school outline? Leave them in the comments!

Image by brokenarts via stock.xchng.


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  1. also consider checking out http://www.outlines.com/

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