Wednesday, May 16, 2007


With a few exceptions, our grades in law school are entirely dependent on a three-hour exam covering thirteen weeks of material. The notion itself is rather daunting, and becomes even moreso when we think about the subjects we are being tested on. The only way to survive and thrive is to do two things: pay attention to the material during the entire term (cramming at the end of the term is a recipe for failure), and create and maintain an effective outline as a study aid.

After talking with a friend who is now a lawyer about outlining (and disagreeing with him on a couple things), I was inspired to make a post about what I think the form and purpose of an effective law school outline should be. These are my "dos and don'ts" of outlining. Keep in mind that the most important 'rule' of outlining is that it be made BY and FOR you, nobody else, so it has to be tailored to how you think, how you study, and how you learn. This means that MY rules work for ME, and may help others, but are by no means universal. Everyone learns and thinks differently, so read the following with that in mind.

Nevertheless, I have found that there are some things that work, and others that don't, when it comes to making an outline that will be an effective study aid. That is, in reality, the first important point - the outline is your study guide in your words. Many people make these huge outlines that they don't really use because they are too unwieldy, they just do it because they think they are supposed to do it. So. Keeping in mind that you are creating a study guide that you should use during that 1-2 week period before finals, here are my suggestions.

*Too long is too long. There is no rule of thumb, but if your outline is hundreds of pages, it's not only 'not impressive', it's completely useless as a study aid. In my opinion, your outline should be no more than 15 or 20 pages, and even that is probably too long. Last term my longest outline was 11 pages. Why? because you want to recall your entire outline during the exam, and if it's too long you can't do that.

*Rules. That's all that you put in your outline. Just the rules. Make them your own words, don't just copy the rule from the cases or what the prof said, re-write them in your own words.

*Some people advocate putting hypothetical examples in your outline to help illustrate the rules. I am mixed on this notion- if it is the only way to help you memorize and learn the rules, then go ahead. If you can learn without them in your final product, then my suggestion is to leave them out. One way to get around this is the 'rewrite' method - that is, you have an outline with hypos in it, then as part of your study regimen you re-write your entire outline omitting the chaff. It's a good compromize.

*Things to NOT put in your outline:

**Don't put cases or case names in your outline. Rules ONLY. If the rule is named after the case (like Miranda) then go ahead. You have a casebook, your own case briefs, and your notes if you need to look up info on a case. **Excpetion to this rule is for professors who expect you to be able to cite cases on the exam. In those cases, use the case names but boil the case down to one phrase or sentence. You want to be able to recall this information during the exam, and long descriptions get lost.

**In code classes (civ pro, evidence, etc) don't put the rules verbatim in your outline. You have a codebook to look them up if you need to. Refer to them (IE rule 26 - discovery in general), write a brief description and move on. Again, it's best to use your own words (just make sure with the code classes to get it right). For this kind of class, you have to use your code book to study, no getting around it, so there's no reason to write the rules verbatim in your outline. Write them in your own words, summarize them. After all, that is what you'll do on the exam!

**Don't get overly caught up in how your outline is organized. I made this mistake in my first term - I kept moving sections around, re-organizing this and that, and I ended up spending way too much time. The important thing about your outline is that it has all the rules/information you need for the exam in concise and readable format; that it's easy to recall. For me, I actually only use main headings (usually roman numerals) and one sub-heading (A, B, C, etc). Under each sub-heading I just list the applicable rules. I outline in the order the class was taught (use the syllabus), and that's it. No stress.

*Finally, a pretty decent trick that I learned from one of my student-colleagues. It's very helpful to re-write your outline (verbatim or not it doesn't matter) before the exam. The exercise is an excellent way to develop recall. You've written it once, write it again. The act of writing helps the (later, more important) act of recall. You can also create what one of my professors called an "attack outline" - a 1-2 page version of your outline that you intend to memorize and reproduce at the beginning of your exam (with the purpose of aiding your ability to recall the rest during the exam - sort of a 'reminder outline'). I don't do this but I don't think it's a bad idea for those who get really nervous during exams. It can be a very good 'calming' exercise during the beginning of the test which can only be a good thing.

Notice I use the word 'recall' rather than 'memorize'. See, if you are diligent, go to class, read the material, brief the cases, take notes, you will know the material. You will know the material backwards and forwards, you just might not realize that you know it that well. The trick is recalling it during that three-hour exam. That is what your outline is for - to help you recall - NOT to learn the material. this is the primary reason why a long outline is in my opinion completely useless. If you want a long outline, go buy a Gilberts. It takes much less time and effort than making your own (unless you plan on selling yours, in which case it might be worthwhile). A long outline (like those commercial outlines) is a learning tool, a short outline is a recall tool. Your self-created outline should be a recall tool.

Hope this helps, and of course I welcome any comments.


DJ McCurry said...

Great advice! I've been very uncomfortable with outlining and haven't found a process that really suits me, yet. Your post gave me a lot of great insight into the damnable process. =)


Raston said...

I used to use something similiar, but for me the biggest thing was the rewrite of the outline (or study guide as I referred to them as).

That is how I got through some of my hardest PolySci finals in college.

Glorified Hazing Process said...


Re: your question about the 100+ page monster outline for KII, that was only necessary because our prof focused on the facts of the cases and not the law. Plus, as you know, the K book is horrible. So it was a combination of PMBR, Lexis/Nexis, the profs comments and materials she posted on TWEN, and CALI lessons.

How do you study with a 100 pg monster? Well, the outline is something I would just keep with me and read through a couple of times. No need to refer to anything else after the outline is compiled.

After a couple of readings, I used it as a reference while I answered previous exam questions. And finally, I'd get to a point where I'd write out just the topic headings and a few key definitions. Writing the topic headings took up about 10 or 11 pages just like you use. So I suspect we're arriving at the same destination via different routes.

I posted the un-condensed versions of my outlines containing the law verbatim, parts of case briefs, and hopefully enough explanatory material that anyone else can read through it and condense it down.

Most of my outlines seem to be in the 60-70 page range. These only take 1-2 hours to read through. Then prepare questions to previous exam essays, write the headings/key defs by hand and rock and roll.

Congrats on your CM in Research and Writing.