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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Outlining for Class...

Last week, I posted some suggestions for students on how to prepare for final exams. The suggestions were taken from a new book that Cristina Knolton and I have written on how to succeed in law school.  I've been told the book will be available in late April, and a sample chapter can be found here.  I thought I would continue the thread and provide some brief suggestions on how to outline and the benefits of outlining in law school.  For blog purposes I've kept this short and truncated:

A Brief Overview

1.  Why You Will Outline:  Many students underestimate the benefits of outlining.  Students should outline not because of the final product.  It's the process that matters.  Outlining forces students to organize, synthesize, and understand more fully the different topics and issues covered in class. Outlining -- done correctly -- can give students a roadmap or a strategy for tacklinge exam questions.  Because of this, borrowing outlines from a friend or using commercial outlines are not as effective.  Commercial outlines serve a purpose (providing an overview of a course or as a tool for understanding the material), but they can't replace the benefits of creating your own outline and organizing, learning, and thinking through the material covered.

2.  When To Outline:  Early! (oops, too late for that now!).  Many students wait until the very end of the semester to outline.  That's usually a mistake.  Starting early allows you to learn the material well before the exam and forces you to identify topics you don't understand - so that you can seek out help if needed.  Plan to finish your outlines before the end of the semester.  You don't want to be using the time right before the exam to learn the material.  If you haven't started yet for this semester, don't stress -- but getting moving on it right away.

3.  What to Outline:  In law school, you can find students with massive outlines -- hundreds upon hundreds of pages of material containing every tidbit of information you'd want to know about a course's subject.  These massive tombs contain the student's class notes, their notes on the reading, their notes from hornbooks, their notes from study group meetings, excerpts from statutes, case briefs, hypothetical questions, the professors musing and ramblings, cut-and-pastes from commerical outlines etc.  These kind of War-and-Peace outlines make students feel warm and comfy knowing that they have transcribed everything anyone could ever want to know about the topic.  The author will be proud.  He or she may even brag about the outline.  It will become a document of worship.  And it will be absolutely and completely useless. 

Good outlines are not information dumps.  An outline should be a condensed, focused, and synthesized summary of the key legal rules.  It should provide a framework through which to answer exam questions.  It might provide examples and hypotheticals.  It will highlight policy considerations.   But overall, it should be relative short.

How to Outline

1.  Get Organized:  Get settled in a distraction-free environment.  Make sure you have what you need to start crafting your outline (course syllabus, casebook, notes, case briefs etc). Most students need concentrated time to craft a good outline. Consider starting off with a template so that you're consistent throughout the different topics you cover.

2.  Organize Around Legal Topics:  Don't organize around cases or statutes.  You want to organize your outline around concepts and legal topics.  The outline needs to focus on the main legal issues and principles of law you studied.  A good way to start an outline is to look at the table of contents from your casebook or your course's syllabus.  Write down the main topics you've covered.   This will ensure you're organizing your outline topically.

3.  Subdivide Into Legal Elements:  After you've identiifed the main topics, break each topic down into its main components and include all the elements for each legal issue.  Be sure to flesh out each part or sub-part with a definition or explanation.

4.  Blend in Key Cases/Statutes:  After you have identified the main topics and key issues within each topic, and the elements to each legal issue, your next step is to include information about the relevant statutes, codes, cases, or other material you've studied. Cases are examples or illustrations of how elements of a rule work in practice.  Don't include full case briefs.  But be sure to note, just quickly, how the cases you have read demonstrate how the rules apply.

5.  Include Policy/Reasoning: For each rule, standard, test, or element, identify the policy considerations behind it.  Professors like to talk about policy in class.  And discussing policy on an exam can make a difference in your grade.  Might as well include it in your outline.

6.  The Condensed Outline: At some point, consider condensing your outline to one or two pages.  This often is done just a few weeks before the exam.  This very short outline should serve as a checklist for the key points in the course.  Memorize to ensure that you spot the issues being tested and have a framework to attack exam questions.  Usually the condensed outline is limited to the basic elements of the different legal rules you have studied in the course.  Condensed outlines are particularly helpful when studying for closed book exams.

A final point.  Keep in mind that oulines are personal things.  They can look very different.  Don't worry if your outline is not as pretty as your friend's.  An outline should be a tool that helps you understand and organize material covered in class.  And again, the process of making the outline is the most important.  What works for you, might not work for someone else.

There's lots of discussion online about outlining in law school.  You can find some tips here, and here, and here. PrawfsBlawg has had some great advice in the past too, including Paul's advice to 1Ls, the use of open or closed-book exams, and a post about tracking down old outlines. Hope this helps.

Posted by Austen Parrish on March 27, 2010 at 06:00 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Something I find surprising about the tone of this post is that it seems to assume that all law students should outline in every class. That just cannot possibly be true, and figuring out who should outline for which classes is really a key aspect of law school success. I never outlined in the traditional sense, though I did make 1-3 page topically organized checklists for most classes with exams (not all take homes, though I should have done a better job on those in retrospect). I graduated in the top 10 people in my class at a top 10 law school.

What I did often do for doctrinal classes was make charts of cases and charts of statutes/restatement sections (organized by topic and sometimes subtopic). I rarely referred to them in an exam, the process was the reason it was successful. For non-doctrinal classes, I only did the checklist. It would have been a waste of my time to outline in a full outline sense. I took notes by hand (so as to not transcribe nor to have to bring my computer to school) and the extra typing seemed like way too much work.

I think some students outline because they think they are supposed to, when really the benefit of outlining is structuring your review of the course and putting the pieces in place to form a full picture. Not everyone can do that through outlining - I suspect I would have done the War-and-Peace version if I tried outlining. Sometimes a flowchart, a checklist, and/or some charts might be a better plan. Or for some, just doing practice exams, reading through notes, and talking through model answers could be a good strategy. The key, I think, is to find a study strategy that helps you get the big picture and figure out the threads tying together the mess of cases.

Posted by: Recent grad | Mar 30, 2010 8:36:22 AM

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