Law students hear constant reminders about the need to outline their courses. Often students approach outlining as a chore that must be done, but they don’t understand why outlining is so valuable. As we’ve discussed previously, outlining helps law students to gain a deeper understanding of the law and synthesize various course materials. Today, I want to talk about how to use outlining to predict the future. Most law students don’t realize that they can use a well-developed outline to predict the types of legal issues that will appear on the exam.
So how can you do this? In “Perfecting the Law School Outline,” I stated that the first step to creating a strong outline is to organize it around legal issues rather than cases. I also described the various categories of information that should be included in the outline. For purposes of prediction, some of the most important categories of information include: policy arguments; competing approaches to the same legal issue (such as majority vs. minority approaches, or common law/Restatement/Uniform Commercial Code); legal issues where there are a range of cases and hypotheticals illustrating complexity in how courts apply the law; and observations about how one legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline (for example, for your section on the tort of negligence, you might note that defenses and other legal concepts such as contributory/comparative negligence, joint and several liability, vicarious liability, etc. may also apply).
Professors like to test the nuances in the law—areas where there are competing approaches, shifting outcomes based upon facts or policy approaches, and fact patterns that require students to recognize how a series of related legal issues must be addressed in the essay. If, when you create your outline, you look for those nuances for each legal issue and include relevant, focused information about those categories of information, you will be able to identify possible exam topics. Questions will be less surprising to you, and you will have already thought about that legal issue in a context that will be more applicable to the exam. Specifically, you will have organized the law in a way that allows you to more easily access it for exam purposes (in other words, anticipating part of the IRAC/CREAC/TREAC format for legal analysis). The result of outlining in this way is less time thinking and organizing once you are in the exam, giving you more time to demonstrate your understanding and ability to apply legal concepts.
In the end, a good outline is a way of taking more control over your learning process. Doing the hard work during the outlining process translates into less stress and better outcomes.