Yesterday I talked about what an outline actually is and addressed some of the general questions law students frequently ask about outlining. Today, I want to explore the outlining process—in other words, how you can get started in creating your own outlines. It can be hard to take the first step in outlining because first-year law students don’t always know where to start. Today, I’m going to walk you through that process.
1. Make Conscious Choices About Organization.
One of the keys to a good outline is organization. Organize your outline around legal concepts, not cases. This can be difficult to do at first. In order to be prepared for class, you focus on cases. That is why your class preparation includes the creation of case briefs. Once you start thinking about preparing for exams, though, you need to flip your preparation upside down—start with legal concepts, and use cases as examples of the concepts.
The order of those legal concepts also matters. Students often use the course syllabus or the casebook’s table of contents to guide them in organizing their outlines. Those sources can be a good starting point, but it is also good to think about how you would use the information on an exam. Don’t feel constrained by the order presented in the syllabus or casebook if a different order makes more sense. For example, the first thing that students often study in Contracts is damages. After you finish studying damages in the first several weeks of your Contracts class, you should go ahead and create that section of your outline. But, if you think about the life of a contract, damages really fits at the end of the process. Later, you will learn about the legal requirements for contract creation and rules regarding contract breaches. As you continue adding material to your outline, you might choose to place the section for contract creation at the beginning of your outline even though you studied it after you studied damages. You then might place the section on contract breaches in between those two other sections. Organizing your Contracts outline in this way will help you to anticipate the order in which you will use that material on an exam.
2. Compile a Thorough List of Issues and Sub-Issues.
For each section of your outline, you will need to identify the legal issues and sub-issues that should be included for that section. You can begin to compile a list of issues and sub-issues for a section by going through that part of the course syllabus and related table of contents material from the casebook. After you have compiled a list from these sources, begin going through your case briefs, class notes, and other course materials, adding to your list of issues. What you are looking for are key words, phrases, and rules.
As you begin to identify key legal issues, group similar concepts or ideas (in other words, the sub-issues) together under each of the issues. Ultimately, your outline will be divided into sections based upon general legal concepts, and within each of those sections you will include more specific concepts.
3. Use Legal Terms of Art But Otherwise Put Your Outline in Your Own Words.
Many of the issues and sub-issues you will identify contain legal terms of art. You should make sure that you include those legal terms of art in your outline, as well as their definitions. Be careful to not just copy information word for word from course materials though. You should attempt to put as much of your outline into your own words as possible. The process of rewording this information will make it yours—you will understand and remember it better. It will also help you to identify legal concepts that you still don’t understand. If you can’t put it into your own words, maybe you need to go back and review that material once again before moving forward, or you may need to go see your professor to ask more questions about that topic.
4. Include All Relevant Information in Your Outline.
Although there are some variations in content depending on the course you are outlining, strong outlines usually contain some common components. First, your outline will contain the legal rules and tests that you have learned through your reading assignments, class lecture and discussion, and other course materials. If a legal test has four elements, you will develop all of the elements of the test as part of the outline. You will also note the basis for each rule, such as the common law, the Restatement, a statute, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Uniform Commercial Code, etc. Make sure that you outline includes definitions for all key terms.
You also want to include any exceptions to the rules. Where there are different rules that may apply to a particular legal issue, depending on the jurisdiction or facts in the case, make sure you set out what those alternative rules are. For example, maybe there is a majority rule which applies in most courts, but a few states take a different approach (in other words, there is a minority rule). Or maybe there are differences between the common law approach to an issue and the approach taken in the Restatement.
In some subjects, there may be defenses that apply in certain situations. One example that illustrates this approach happens in Torts. Maybe the plaintiff claims that the defendant has committed the intentional tort of battery because the defendant grabbed the plaintiff by the arm. The defendant might assert that he acted in self-defense, based upon the fact that the defendant grabbed the plaintiff’s arm as the plaintiff was about to stab him with a knife. It is important to note any defenses that correspond with the legal issues you are outlining, and fully develop those defenses as you would develop other sub-issues.
Furthermore, in some courses policy arguments may also be important. In classes where the courts or your professor has focused on policy arguments as part of the analysis, you should also integrate policy arguments into the relevant places in that course outline.
There are also some other things that you may need to include in your outline, such as context information. For example, when you study personal jurisdiction in Civil Procedure, you read Pennoyer v. Neff. Although not everything is this case is still good law, it may provide helpful context for your understanding of the current state of personal jurisdiction law. Context information, such as the history behind a legal concept, may help you to better organize what you have read regarding that subject.
5. Include Cases and Hypotheticals as Examples of Issues, Not the Focus of the Outline.
You may have noticed that so far I haven’t really talked much about cases. As I mentioned before, your outline should focus on the legal concepts you have been studying rather than on the cases. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include cases at all though—instead, you should use them as examples of the legal principles you are outlining. The same holds true of hypotheticals introduced by your professor during class. You may choose to include hypothetical examples from class to remind yourself of how a particular legal rule may be applied to a specific set of facts.
6. Make Note of the Connections Between Legal Issues.
It is important to make note of your observations about how each legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline. For example, let’s say you are outlining your Torts class. For your section on 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, depending on the fact pattern.
7. Include Your Professor’s Specific Comments in Your Outline.
Finally, you should make note of any specific comments that your professor has made about a legal issue, or anything that he or she stressed in class about that issue. Sometimes students do this by adding a “PROF” label to it, putting the note in bold, or otherwise signaling that what is being included came from the professor.