One of the most important tools for studying for exams in law school is the outline. Because of the importance of outlining, this week my blog posts will focus specifically on that topic.
What is an outline? An outline is an attempt to reduce all the materials from a course (syllabus, class notes, case briefs, notes from outside reading, statutes, hypotheticals, and other problems) into an organized study aid. In other words, it is a synthesis of your law school course materials. Outlining is the bridge between your daily preparation for class and your exams. If you do it properly, your outline will be your primary—possibly even your only—study aid for exams.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about outlining:
Why should I outline?
The answer to this question is really important. Outlining is synthesis—this is the point in the course when you start putting together the pieces of the puzzle. As you create the outline, you learn the material in the process. There is no shortcut for this learning process. If you rely on a commercial outline or one created by another student, you will lack the level of understanding required for success on your law school exams. By synthesizing various course materials, you gain a deeper understanding of legal issues and discover important connections between legal concepts. You will also identify legal issues that you don’t entirely understand—topics that you need to spend more time on, go back and read about again, or set up an appointment to meet with your professor to go over.
When should I outline?
Students also ask when they should start outlining. The answer: it depends on the class. You really can’t start outlining material until you have completed a topic. Look for those times when you have completed one entire topic in class and the professor has moved on to a new topic. Your syllabus or the casebook table of contents can help you to identify when one topic is ending and another beginning, so you can know when to start outlining.
Although you generally don’t want to start outlining a topic until you have finished learning about it in class, it is important not to wait too long to start outlining. Sometimes students will wait to begin their outlines until just a few weeks until the end of the semester. Waiting to outline until the end of the semester not only makes your studies more stressful, but you won’t be able to maximize the value of an outline. There is just not enough time at that point to develop the kind of outlines that allow you to fully understand the material.
How much time should I spend outlining?
If you outline topics as you finish them in class, you should be able to set aside an hour or two each week for each of your classes for outlining. At first, it may seem difficult to add additional time into your schedule, as you already are spending a lot of time reading and case briefing each week. However, as you establish a study routine that includes outlining, you will notice that outlining helps you to review course material and may actually help make the rest of your study time more efficient.
How long should my outline be?
The first draft of each outline is usually the longest, as it incorporates all of the course materials. However, outlines are a work in progress—you will continue to add to it and edit it over the course of the semester, and in the process you will condense it as well.
Although your early drafts may be fairly lengthy, an outline that is too long may signal that you are focusing too much on the details of the cases that you have read, rather than on the legal issues raised in those cases. As you review your draft outlines, you should continue to edit and reduce each outline to its essential components.
What should I do with this outline?
The outline is not an end product—it is about the journey, not the destination. Make your outline a living document. Revisit it regularly and fine-tune it to reflect your growing understanding of the legal issues you are studying and their relationship to each other. As you go through this process, you will gain even more understanding of the law, and you will increase your ability to recall information on the exam.
Check back tomorrow as I explain the steps for creating a strong law school outline.