Category Archives: Outlines

A Road Map to Success on Law School Exams

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The most common way to study for law school exams is to create an outline for each subject, synthesizing everything from the course (case briefs, class notes, etc.) into a single coherent document. Outlining is an effective way to study, as it forces you to consider how cases, statutes, and hypotheticals fit together. A good outline identifies the key legal issues from the course, pulls the rules, definitions, and explanations from the cases related to those issues, and organizes the material in such a way that the student can predict how to use that material on the exam.

Although outlining is a solid approach to your law school studies, some subjects benefit from an even more focused approach – a technique that I’ll call “road mapping.” A road map takes the material related to a legal issue from your outline and turns it into an action plan for how you will analyze that issue on an exam. If you take this approach, each legal issue should have its own road map. When you identify that legal issue in a fact pattern on the exam, you will know exactly how to tackle that issue.

So how do you create a road map?

  • First, start with identifying the issue. The issue is the starting point on your road map. You may want to think about what types of facts may signal that this issue is “in play” in the question. For example, if you are taking a Torts exam, and the defendant is identified as an employee, you may ask yourself: “Could there be a vicarious liability issue here?” Usually, you’ve identified all possible issues for a subject in that subject’s outline, so this step is usually easy.
  • Second, ask yourself: “What should I do first?” Generally, the first thing that you want to do is identify the appropriate rule for the issue. Does this issue have two or more possible rules? In many subjects, there may both majority rules and minority rules. Some professors may assign jurisdiction-specific reading based on the state your law school is in. And in Contracts, for example, you must determine if you should apply the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) or the common law. As soon as you realize that there is more than one possible rule, you know you must answer a preliminary question. For example: “What jurisdiction are we in?” or “Is this a contract for the sale of goods?” Identify what the steps are for determining the applicable rule. Then based on which rule is chosen, determine what the actual rule statement should be.
  • Third, ask yourself: “What should I do next?” Answering this question requires you to think about how the rule should be explained or defined further. Does the rule include a series of elements that must be met? If so, how would you work through those elements in an essay exam? Keep repeating this process until you reach the end of your rule analysis portion of your road map.
  • Fourth, ask yourself: “Are there exceptions to the rule that I’ve identified and explained?” Those exceptions should be included in the process as well – after determining if the rule would otherwise be met, you will want to work through the possible exceptions.
  • Fifth, ask yourself: “Have courts applied public policy to their analysis of this issue?” If so, you will want to identify and explain what public policies may be applied to the issue, and determine when you would want to go into that policy discussion.
  • Sixth, having gone through this process, identify at which points you would want to include facts from the exam hypothetical in the analysis. Note in your road map the places where you would apply the legal rule to the hypothetical facts.
  • Finally, note how you would approach the conclusion to any analysis of this issue.

As you can see from the steps above, the key to a good road map is being intentional. Don’t just memorize rules – think about how you would apply those rules to a new set of facts. Your road map should be an action plan for how you would tackle each issue on the exam.

The last month before finals is the perfect time to create road maps. Much of your outlining should be completed by this stage, and you should be focused on reviewing material and taking practice exams as finals approach. An additional benefit to road mapping: you will identify aspects of  legal issues that you don’t yet understand, and you have the time at this point to work through those legal issues and go to your professors’ office hours to refine your understanding of the material.

(Want more information about how to effectively outline for law school exams? I’ve previously explored this topic here, here, here, and here.)

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Using Study Groups to Develop Hypothetical Practice Questions

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Yesterday, we explored some of the dos and don’ts for effective law school study groups. Today, I want to take that discussion a step further and explain how the members of your study group can develop your own hypothetical practice questions as you prepare for final exams.

One way to test your understanding of course material in law school is to go through hypothetical questions, but your casebooks and commercial study aids often have a limited number of practice questions. Students often ask me where they can find more practice questions, and I always explain that it is possible to create your own hypotheticals. This approach is particularly effective if you participate in a study group. For the best results, you should first complete your outline of the legal issue(s) you want to practice.

Here are 5 steps for creating hypothetical practice questions:

  1. Identify specific legal issues that you want to practice. The best issues for this purpose are complex issues—the kind that you might have some difficulty with on an exam. For example, in Civil Procedure you might want to practice how you would apply the law to fact patterns where the Erie Doctrine or Subject Matter Jurisdiction was at issue. For Constitutional Law, you might choose to focus on Equal Protection or Due Process issues. For Evidence, maybe you want to explore some of the hearsay exceptions.
  2. Assign each member of your study group a time period or jurisdiction for their hypotheticals. Taking this approach ensures that two people do not bring the same hypothetical to the next group meeting. For example, if your group is going to study the Erie Doctrine, maybe one person looks for Erie cases from the Second Circuit, another looks for cases from the First Circuit, and the third looks for cases from the Third Circuit. Just make sure that, if the law has changed in recent years, you do not assign time periods prior to any changes in the law.
  3. Each person will look for cases on Westlaw, LexisNexis, or other legal search platforms that focus on the legal issue your group has chosen. You may choose to create your own search terms or may look to see what other cases have cited the cases you studied in class. Just make sure that any cases you choose are still good law! (An added benefit to this process is that you practice your research skills as well!)
  4. Look for cases that have a well-developed but concisely worded set of facts and good explanations of the legal outcomes. The statements of facts from your cases will become the foundation for your hypotheticals, and the court’s explanations are your answer keys for the hypotheticals.
  5. Have each member of the study group bring 3 to 5 hypotheticals to your group’s next meeting. Take turns having each person present one of their hypotheticals. The other members of the group should talk through their legal analysis for that hypothetical, based upon their outlining and studying prior to the group meeting. After the group’s analysis is complete, the person who brought the hypothetical should explain how the court actually resolved the legal issue(s) in the underlying case.

Taking this approach, your study group can create an endless number of hypothetical questions. The process of talking through the legal analysis for these hypotheticals, as well as explaining how the court actually resolved the legal issues in this case, will improve your understanding of important legal issues and provide practice for how you should analyze similar fact patterns in your exams.

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Using Study Groups to Study for Final Exams

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

With final exams coming up soon, I’ve had a number of law students ask me about how to use study groups to study for final exams. Study groups can be very helpful as you are preparing for finals—if you take the right approach. But it’s important to avoid some common pitfalls associated with study groups if you want to maximize their value in the upcoming weeks. Today, we will explore some of the Dos and Don’ts associated with law school study groups.

Don’t use study groups to divide up the work. Sometimes law students think that study groups can provide a shortcut for creating an outline. They will divide up the course materials among the members of the group, with each person only creating one part of the outline. The problem with this approach is that outlining is about synthesis. Some of the most important parts of law school learning take place as you weave together the course materials and figure out how everything fits together. Students who take the “divide and conquer” approach to outlining only fully understand the material that they have outlined on their own—if they are tested on the legal issues that others outlined, they do not tend to perform as well.

Instead, do use the study group to reinforce your own outlining. Some of the best study group meetings take place when everyone in the group has already tackled his or her own outline. Set a specific goal for what legal issues everyone must outline prior to the study group meeting. When the group comes together, you can compare what each person has done. If you have identified something you don’t understand, maybe another member of the group has figured that issue out and can explain it to you. You will be better off as you begin to see how others have interpreted the course materials, and you can clarify your own understanding of the legal issues. Even students who are teaching other members of the group benefit in this environment, as the process of teaching the material helps the teacher to understand it even better as well.

Don’t let study groups become a time drain. Sometimes study groups meet for long periods of time without really accomplishing anything. Law students usually have limited time available to study, and it’s important that your group study sessions do not degenerate into a gossip fest or otherwise not accomplish its goals.

Instead, do create an agenda for each study group meeting. Get the members of your study group to set goals for what you want to accomplish at each meeting, and create a plan for how you will accomplish those goals. Make sure that the study group stays on track at each meeting so that your goals are accomplished and your time is used effectively.

Don’t schedule so many study group meetings that you don’t have time to study on your own. Study groups can be one effective way to study, but as I talked about before, it is important to have the time to work on your own outlines as well.

Instead, do schedule study group meetings to ensure that you maximize both your personal study time and the benefits of the group. If properly spaced out, study group meetings can provide additional motivation for your studies and a system of accountability. There is nothing like knowing that someone else expects you to have something done to help you stay on track with your personal study plans.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog post, when I will explain how a study group can be used to create and explore hypothetical practice questions! And happy studying!

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Making the Best Use of Spring Break in Law School

Law students the world over look forward to breaks from law school. Some students view these breaks as a holiday—a time to get away from the intense daily demands of their studies, travel, and visit with family and friends. Other students have ambitious plans for catching up or getting ahead in their studies. Regardless of which approach you take, you are probably pretty happy when you see Spring Break finally approaching. There is nothing wrong to either approach to Spring break, at least in the abstract. In fact, the best Spring Break plans should probably include some of both. The key is to come back to law school after the break in a better place than you were before—and accomplishing this task takes just a little advance planning.

Here are a few tips for making the best use of your Spring Break or other holidays:

Set reasonable goals for studying during the break. I often have law students tell me that they are going to outline for all of their classes during the break, do practice exams for each class, get ahead in their reading assignments, and read a bunch of supplements. Spring break can be the perfect time to work on getting caught up in your studies, but it is important to set realistic goals. After all, Spring Break usually only lasts a week. You aren’t superhuman, and you can’t do everything. When you set unrealistic goals for yourself, it is easy to get defeated and give up when you realize that you can’t get everything done. Instead, decide what your highest priority items are, and focus on those first. Create a study schedule for yourself during the break, and set reasonable goals for what you intend to accomplish during each of those study sessions. You will be focused and productive, and your efforts will build momentum for the weeks leading up to final exams.

Image courtesy of smokesalmon at

Image courtesy of smokesalmon at

Give yourself permission to take some time off. Don’t get me wrong—it’s good to work on getting caught up on your studies during Spring Break. In fact, I encourage you to do so. But it isn’t particularly healthy to work long days every day during the break, including weekends. There is still a lot of time before the end of the semester, and you don’t want to burn yourself out. If you take a little time off from your studies, you will come back refreshed and ready to tackle the hard stuff. At the minimum, give yourself a couple of days off entirely. Do something fun. Get out of the house. See your friends and family. Read that book (for fun) that everyone has been talking about. Go see a movie. Do something entirely unrelated to law. On the days that you study, take regular breaks. Maybe you will decide to get up and do your studying from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm each day, and then take the rest of the day off. (You can even accomplish this if you travel on vacation during the break—just make sure your goals and study schedule are reasonable!) If you set realistic study goals for yourself and create a study plan to achieve those goals, you will be able to build in some time to relax as well. Your studies will be more productive, and you will return to law school ready to tackle the remainder of the semester.

Image courtesy of digitalart at

Image courtesy of digitalart at

Make vacation plans that recharge your batteries, not leave you even more tired. Maybe you are caught up on your law school studies, and you’ve decided to go on vacation during Spring Break. (Or you are making it a combination study/travel break!) It’s important to make sure that your vacation plans don’t leave you exhausted as you are heading back to classes. It’s still a long uphill climb to final exams, and you won’t be setting yourself up for success if you have run full speed the entire break. It’s best to avoid the type of Spring Break plans that were popular in undergrad, where everyone partied hard and drank heavily every night. Think about what you need to do for yourself to recharge your batteries while you on vacation, and following through on those things will help you in the long term. I also recommend that you not plan to come home at the very last minute—it’s good to give yourself the time to get sorted about before classes resume, and you will have reading to do for your upcoming classes.

Above all, think balance. As with everything in law school, taking a balanced approach to Spring Break and other holidays will help to keep you on the right path to academic and personal success.


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Tackling Conclusory Legal Analysis

One of the common comments that law students receive on their legal writing assignments and exams is that their analysis was too conclusory. Often, students don’t really understand what the professor means by this comment. Even if they do understand what the comment means, they don’t know what to do to improve their legal analysis.

So what does the professor mean when he or she writes that your analysis was conclusory? Legal analysis is conclusory when it jumps too quickly to the answer to the question without explaining how and why the answer is correct. For example, in your exam essay, you may have appropriately identified an issue, mentioned some of the facts related to that issue, and then concluded what the result should be for that issue. You may have thought that you appropriately explained your answer, but, in reality, you left too much of the answer in your head instead of putting it on the paper. This type of answer will generally receive limited credit from the professor.

There can be several reasons for conclusory analysis in an essay exam. First, most law school exams have time constraints—when students are concerned about running out of time, they tend to rush through their analysis so that they can move on to the next issue. This is particularly the case when the professor has designed an exam with more issues than are possible to cover during the time allotted. When you are trying to mention as many issues as possible, it is easy to gloss over more detailed analysis. Second, many students assume that they don’t need to explain the law that is applicable for an issue because the professor knows that law—they think that, because the professor taught them the material, they don’t need to explain why their answer is correct. Third, students often fail to fully develop their explanation of the relevant legal rules and how courts have interpreted those rules because students do not know that law well enough—they may not have memorized the appropriate tests or definitions, or they may not have thought about the course material in a way that allows them to connect what they have studied to the issue. Without that explanation of the applicable legal rules, there is no foundation for the rest of the analysis of that issue, and your legal analysis is vague and flat.

The problem with conclusory analysis is that it prevents you from receiving full credit for that issue. Professors generally give the smallest amount of credit for identification of the issue and your answer for how that issue should be resolved; most of the points for each issue are awarded for the parts in the middle—the explanation of the relevant legal rules and how courts interpret those rules, and how those rules should be applied to the fact pattern set out in the instant question. Even if you identify a lot of issues, you still will be lacking the points you need for a higher score on the exam. It’s a lot like what it used to be like in those math classes you took as a child, when your teacher wouldn’t give you full credit if you didn’t “show your work.” It isn’t enough to just get the right answer—the path you took to get there is important too.

So what can you do to make your legal analysis less conclusory? One way to make sure that you go through the appropriate analysis is to apply a form of the IRAC/TREAC/CREAC analytical structure that you have learned in legal writing. Each professor has his or her own preferences for the analytical structure, but usually your analysis should follow some sort of IRAC, TREAC, or CREAC form. Commonly, the professor prefers that you state the resolution of the issue up front, as either a thesis or conclusion, rather than just stating that the issue exists. Using an analytical structure helps to remind you not to skip important components of the analysis. It also allows you to demonstrate to your professor that you understand why the answer is the answer—you didn’t just get there by accident.

Although it may seem like you are taking away from the time you need to write, your analysis will usually be better, and therefore receive more points, if you quickly outline or chart your answer before starting to write your essay. Outlining in advance helps you to determine how much time you need to spend on your analysis of each issue. If the issue is not complex, the facts demonstrate that part of the legal test is not at issue, or there are few facts to apply to the law, that is a signal that you can be more concise in your analysis of that issue. You can state outright that two elements of the legal test aren’t at issue, based on the facts in the hypothetical, and move on quickly to the elements that need more development. You will make better use of your time as you write and score better because your analysis will be organized, focused, and efficient.

Finally, one of the key ways to improve your analysis is grounded in what happens before the exam. The more you have synthesized course materials by developing a strong, properly organized outline, the more you have committed to memory the legal rules, tests, definitions, etc. that will be the foundation to your analysis of issues on the exam, the better your written legal analysis will be. This is true whether your exam is open book or closed book, as grounding yourself in the law will help you to think about issues in a more nuanced way. How you approach your studies and preparation prior to the exam is directly related to the effectiveness of your legal analysis in your exam essays.

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3 Tips for Spotting Issues in Law School Exams

It’s that time of the semester when law students are beginning to think more about exams, either because they’re in the midst of midterms (if their law school has midterms) or they’re anticipating final exams. One of the skills required for success on law school exams is the ability to spot legal issues. Law school essay questions contain complex fact patterns that incorporate numerous legal issues. The more issues you are able to identify, the more opportunities you will have to show your understanding of legal principles and your analytical abilities—and capitalizing on those opportunities contributes to better grades. Issue spotting can also help you on multiple choice exams. When you are able to identify the specific legal issue being tested in the question, you can use your knowledge of the relevant law to eliminate wrong answers and help you identify the best answer.

With these benefits in mind, here are 3 tips for spotting issues in your law school exams:

1. Outline, Outline, Outline!: The most important key to being able to spot legal issues on law school exams is the preparation that you do before the exam. In recent weeks, we’ve spent quite a bit of time exploring the best approaches to outlining in law school (for more information on outlining, see here, here, here, and here). If you have organized your outline in the right way, you will already have identified the possible types of legal issues on an exam. You will also have an understanding of the important rules and tests that relate to each issue, as well as key policies and relevant case examples.

2. Create an Issue Checklist: One way that you can make sure that you do not miss important issues is to create an issue checklist for each of your classes. Creating a checklist is easy. Just take an outline that you have done for one of your law school classes, such as Property, Torts, or Evidence. Go through your outline page by page, making a separate list of all legal issues and sub-issues. Write out the list in the order that it is organized in your outline. Don’t include any details–your checklist should be made up of key words and phrases, not tests, definitions, case names, or other detailed information. Think of the checklist as something similar to a grocery list. If you were shopping for the ingredients to make a certain recipe, you wouldn’t write the entire recipe out again to take to the grocery store. Instead, you would just list the ingredients you need to purchase. That’s the approach you want to take to the checklist as well. If the outline is the recipe, your checklist is the shopping list of ingredients.

Once you have your checklist organized the way that you want it, commit it to memory. When you go into the exam, use the checklist to make sure that you don’t miss issues in the hypothetical fact patterns. You can use the checklist to identify legal issues in both multiple choice questions (short hypotheticals) and essay questions (longer hypotheticals).

3. Identify Relationships Among Legal Issues in Advance: There are usually relationships among certain legal issues. If you identify those relationships in advance, you are more likely to recognize them in fact patterns during the exam. For example, one major legal issue in Torts is negligence. But if you see a negligence issue in the fact pattern, you know that there are other legal issues that might also be relevant, such as vicarious liability, joint and several liability, comparative/contributory negligence, various defenses, and various types of damages. As you begin to identify issues in that fact pattern, you should look for any facts that suggest that those legal issues are at play as well.

If you notice, the common theme to these issue-spotting tips is advance preparation. What you do before the exam is what ultimately makes your issue-spotting efforts successful!

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I’ve Created My Outline: What Do I Do Now?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

I’ve talked quite a bit about outlining in the past several posts. It is important to recognize that outlining is about the journey, not the destination. Because it is part of your learning process, you should view each outline as a work in progress. As you go through the semester, continue to revise and condense what you have already included in the outline, even as you add new material. Review and reevaluate your outline regularly so that you gain a stronger understanding of the course materials and reinforce your memory of what you have learned.

Continue to adjust your outlines to meet your needs for each class. After completing a section or two of your outline, look at any old exams you have obtained from your professor. Ask yourself: Does your outline help you to answer the question on the exam? Does your outline contain enough information? Have you included too much detail from cases without fully developing your understanding the area of the law?

Ask yourself whether there are parts of your outline that need to be committed to memory, such as important definitions or elements of legal tests. You may decide you need to create flashcards for these important concepts to make that information more portable and easier to remember.

The more you work on your outline, the better it will become. As I stated in an earlier post, if you approach your outline in the right way, it will be the only thing that you need to study for the final exam. And, most importantly, you will gain a deeper understanding of legal concepts that will stay with you–not only for the final exam but for the bar exam and the practice of law.

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Effective Collaboration on Law School Outlines

Image courtesy of Ambro/

Image courtesy of Ambro/

Over the past few days, we’ve explored a lot of important information about law school outlines. First, I explained what a law school outline actually is and answered some of the most frequently asked questions about outlining. Then I addressed the key things to consider as you are creating an outline. Most recently, we talked about different forms that an outline might take, depending on your learning preferences and what feels most comfortable to you. Today, I want to discuss how law students can effectively collaborate on their outlines.

Law students often ask me if they can work with others in creating an outline. After all, time is at a premium in law school. It often feels like there are not enough hours in a day. After you get done reading and briefing cases for all of your classes each week and completing your assignments for Legal Writing, what time is really left for outlining?

Often, when students are thinking about collaborating on outlines, what they are really thinking about is dividing up the outlining duties. In other words, each member of the study group will complete one section of the outline and disseminate it to the other members. If there are four members of the study group, each person only has to create one quarter of the outline. Students especially are tempted to take this approach when they wait until the last few weeks of the semester to start outlining. I want to caution you about using this strategy—it may seem to make your life easier in the short term, but in the long term it will hurt you. As I’ve explained before, outlining is synthesis—it is learning. It is personal, and there are no shortcuts. You should not divide up the outline among members of your study group, with each person only creating one small part of it. The result of that approach will be that no one will know the material very well, except for the part that that person actually created. (A better way to cope with the time constraints is to outline each section of your outline as soon as you have finished learning about it in class. It can also help to tweak your approach to time management—revisit your study schedule to determine how best to incorporate outlining into your day.)

I don’t want you to think that you should never work with other students on your outline though. Collaboration can be effective if you approach it in the right way. For example, your study group could agree that each person will complete the same section of his or her outline by a particular date. Then, once those outlines are completed, the study group could meet to talk through the outline, with members asking questions about things that they didn’t understand. With this approach, each member of the group will leave the meeting with a better understanding of the material because of the discussion. A study group can help students to feel accountable for completing their studies, keeping them on schedule when there are other distractions.

Image courtesy of stockphoto/

Image courtesy of stockphoto/

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Types of Law School Outlines

In the past two posts, we have explored what law school outlines are and what kinds of information they should include. It is also important for you to consider the type of outline you want to create—in other words, its format. Not everyone approaches outlining in the same way—it is not one-size-fits-all. Instead, many students consider their learning preferences in deciding how to format their outlines. Regardless of which format you choose, I want to stress that the content is the same—all of the things that I described in yesterday’s post should be included in every person’s outline.

So what types of law school outlines are there? Here are several options that you may consider, although this is not an exclusive list:

The Traditional Law School Outline: When we use the word “outline,” people commonly think of the traditional, formal documents that are organized by Roman numerals. For example, in Torts, your first Roman numeral might be “Intentional Torts.” Letter “A” might set out the general requirements for Intentional Torts, while letter “B” might set out specific examples of intentional torts to persons, such as assault, battery, etc. Each of those examples would be identified by number, and lower-case letters would further break down the sub-issues within each type of intentional tort. The result is a tightly organized, formal outline. Reading and writing learners often choose to create traditional outlines. Once this type of outline is completed, aural learners may use text-to-audio programs to convert the traditional outline to audio files.

Although many law students do create traditional outlines, there are actually many other forms that also work for synthesizing course material.

The Modified Traditional Outline: Some students like the organization created by the traditional outline but do not like to the Roman numeral system. Those students may use other formatting tools, such as bolding, underlining, tabs, and bullet points to organize their course information. Explore some of the formatting options in Microsoft Word and other programs—you may find a particular formatting tool that works especially well for your outlines. Keep in mind that white space can also be a good tool—too much print concentrated on the page makes the outline hard to study from later.

Like the traditional outline, reading and writing learners often choose to use the modified outline approach. Visual learners may also find this approach helpful. As with the traditional law school outline, aural learners may use text-to-audio programs to convert this type of outline to audio files.

Tables: Some law students use the table function in Microsoft Word or other programs to create organized, visually-differentiated sections. Each section becomes a separate table, and you can even insert tables within tables to further organize information. Because the text is still very much the focus of the table approach to outlining, reading and writing learners may find it useful. Visual learners may also find tables helpful.

Image courtesy of Pakorn/

Image courtesy of Pakorn/

Flow Charts and Diagrams: Still other students create flow charts or diagrams to organize course information, especially if they are visual learners or kinesthetic learners. Translating course materials into flow charts or diagrams, whether in whole or in part, can help you to visualize the process that you will use in applying the law to facts. Kinesthetic learners can use these tools to simulate the type of analysis they will use on exams. If the course information is too complex, you may need to utilize flow charts or diagrams in combination with one of the other outlining techniques I’ve described in this post.

Mind Maps: Occasionally, students find Mind Maps useful, and they may use mind mapping software to create webs of legal information, presented in something different than the traditional linear form. There are a variety of different mind mapping programs out there, either free or available for a small fee. Like flow charts and diagrams, it is important not to oversimplify your studies with this type of tool though. If you decide to mind map, choose a program which allows you to incorporate more detailed information into the mind map.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Flashcards: You may also create a flashcard system, either as your main form of outlining or as a supplement to another outlining form (for example, you might create flashcards for important definitions or legal tests to make it easier to memorize those concepts). Some students color code their flashcards to signal connections between different cards. Others use flashcards of different sizes to signal that the card addresses an issue versus a sub-issue. If you plan to make flashcards your main form of outlining, it is important to develop a system for recognizing the connections between concepts on different cards.

Experiment with different ways of organizing your outline—you may be surprised about what works best for you. Additionally, what works for one class may not work as well for another. Periodically reevaluate your approach to outlining to make sure you are maximizing your outlines’ potential.

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7 Steps to Building Strong Law School Outlines

Image courtesy of pakorn/

Image courtesy of pakorn/

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.

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