Category Archives: Outlines

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. Once this type of outline is completed, some students 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. 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.

Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Flow Charts and Diagrams: Still other students create flow charts or diagrams to organize course information. 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. You can use these tools to simulate the type of analysis you 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/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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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What is a Law School Outline?

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.

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Making the Best Use of Study Aids

Study aids come in a variety of forms, such as treatises, hornbooks, commercial outlines, and study guides. Sometimes your professors will assign study aids as either required or suggested reading for a course. Often, the professor has selected this additional material because it supplements the reading from the casebook in some way. Many law students also purchase study aids on their own, without a professor’s recommendation, or they may check them out of the law school library.

So what is the value of a study aid? If used properly, study aids can enhance your understanding of what you are studying. The key is to do your assigned reading first, and then, after you have created your case brief, refer to any supplemental materials to clarify things that you didn’t understand. Or, if you are in the process of synthesizing course materials and creating an outline, you might use a study aid as a way of checking your understanding of the law. Some study aids contain practice multiple choice and essay questions that can be used as you are studying for your exams.

Where problems arise is when law students attempt to rely upon study aids as their primary way of learning new material. Keep in mind that you need to know what your professor expects you to know. Exams are based upon assigned course materials, and the study aids will have information that is presented differently or has not even been covered in your course. Learning is a process in law school—you gain more and more understanding of the law by going through various layers of studying and learning—reading cases, creating case briefs, taking notes in class, reviewing and updating your case briefs and notes, and synthesizing course materials by outlining or some equivalent process. If you skip multiple steps in the learning process, you will not know the law at the level that you need to know it for your law school exams or the bar exam. As with other areas of the law school experience, attempts to take shortcuts will backfire.

Another problem that law students have is that they are overwhelmed by the number of study aids out there and don’t know which one(s) to choose for each class. Costs add up and, for many law students, purchasing very many study aids is just not an option. Not all study aids will be equally valuable—they vary in format, and what works for one class may not work for another. Before buying any study aids, talk to your law professors and see what they recommend for your classes. If your law school library has study aids, look through them first to see what you find most helpful. Academic Support offices also often have study aids that you can look through or borrow.

The bottom line is that study aids can complement your other study efforts, but they can’t be a substitute for doing the hard work.

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Racing Against the Clock: Time Management Techniques for Law School Exams

Image courtesy of Winond/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Winond/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Anyone who’s ever been in law school has had this experience: you’re writing or typing along on your exam, fingers cramping and back stiff from sitting in the same position for too long. All of a sudden, you look up at the clock and realize that you only have five minutes left before the exam is over. The problem: you have at least 30 minutes’ worth of material to cover before you will complete the final essay question. All you can do is rush to get as much of it crammed in as possible. The end result is that your essay ends in jumbled confusion, and your grade is lower than you had hoped for.

Time management can be a challenge for many law students, even when they have studied hard before the exam. Many law school exams are intentionally designed to take more time than you will actually be given. In order to succeed on those types of exams, you need to not only be prepared for the content of the exam but also have a strategy for how to tackle the exam. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for developing your own time management strategy:

  1. Always allocate time by the number of points or percentage of grade that each section of the exam is worth. For example, maybe your exam consists of two essays and 30 multiple choice questions. Each essay is 1/3 of the total exam grade, and the multiple choice is 1/3. The exam is scheduled for 3 hours. You should allot 1 hour for each of the essays and 1 hour for the multiple choice (each multiple choice question getting two minutes). Time should almost always be allotted according to how much that part of the exam is worth. Once the exam starts, calculate your end times for each part of the exam—and most importantly, stick to those times! Don’t be tempted to “borrow” time from one part of the exam to have more for another.
  2. If you have control over which part of the exam you take first, think carefully about your plan of attack. When the exam consists of both multiple choice and essays, students invariably want to tackle the essays first because that is where they feel the time constraints the most. But when you tackle the essay first, there is a temptation to “borrow” time from the multiple choice section if you aren’t done with the essay when the time allotted for that section runs out (see suggestion #1). To avoid that temptation, I recommend taking the multiple choice section first. If you have extra time left over once you complete it, you can save it for a later section (or for reviewing the multiple choice one more time), but you will make sure that you give the multiple choice the time that it is worth.
  3. Finally, outline or chart your essay answers before you start writing. So many students start right in on writing their essays without organizing their thoughts first. There is a temptation to do this when time gets tight because students know they will not be graded on that outline. But effective outlining proves more efficient in the long term, as it allows you to determine what issues you want to cover in your essay and what facts relate to those issues. You will see which issues are minor and don’t deserve as much time in your essay versus those issues that have numerous relevant facts and will be worth more credit. By jotting down facts that go with each issues, you also create efficiency because you will not have to go back and read the fact pattern again and again as you write your essay.

The key to managing time in law school exams is creating your time management strategy before the exam even starts, and then sticking with it. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish in a limited amount of time!

 

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Getting Past Panic in Law School Exams

We’ve all had that feeling—that moment when you are sitting in the classroom, your professor hands out the exam, and every rational thought flees your brain. You are paralyzed. Sweat begins to bead your forehead. And then the voice in your head screams out: “I can’t remember anything I studied! I’m about to fail my exam!” The challenge is how to move past that feeling of panic and successfully complete the exam.

While you can’t vanquish those feelings of panic with a magic wand, there are things that you can do to conquer panic during exams. As with so much else in law school, one of the most important keys is what you’ve done prior to the exam—your preparation. We’ve talked before about how taking the right approach to outlining can help you to predict what may be tested on the exam. One of the reasons why law students panic at the beginning of an exam is because they are afraid of the unknown. Law students view exam creation as a mysterious and unpredictable process. In reality, as I’ve explained before, professors tend 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 legal issues relate to each other. Identifying those nuances in advance through outlining will make the exam more predictable and reduce your feelings of anxiety.

I have also explained previously about how to create a one-page checklist of legal issues that may be tested on an exam. This checklist is a very specific way of connecting your preparation prior to the exam to what is going on during the exam. If you create a checklist of potential legal issues, you have a mental prompt you can rely upon when that feeling of panic rears its head at the beginning of the exam. How can you do this? If you immediately panic when you look at the exam questions, try this technique: Put your exam aside for a minute and take out your scrap paper. Quickly replicate a shorthand version of your checklist on the scrap paper. Once you have put that checklist on paper, you have a tool that you can use to answer the exam questions. You can literally take each issue on the checklist and evaluate whether that issue is raised by the fact pattern in the essay question. If it is, you can jot down quick notes about what facts you wish to talk about with respect to that issue. By the time that you get through the checklist, you have created a quick outline, chart, or list about how you will tackle the essay question, and the writing should go smoothly and quickly. The feeling of panic will go away as your preparation kicks in!

 

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Essay Exams Are About the Journey, Not Just the Destination (Part 2): Don’t Forget Counterarguments!

In my last post, I introduced the idea that essay exams are about the journey, not just the destination. In doing so, I explained that most of the points in an essay exam are earned by explaining how you got to the answer, not by giving the answer itself—in other words, by “showing your work.” Today, I want to continue that theme by talking about counterarguments.

One of the key ways to maximize the number of points you earn for discussion of a complex legal issue is by exploring counterarguments. A counterargument is simply an alternative argument that you have chosen not to make because you have concluded that your path to your answer is the correct one. In practice, a lawyer deals with counterarguments on a regular basis. He or she must anticipate the opposing party’s possible arguments and address in his or her own pleadings and briefs why those arguments are invalid. By exploring counterarguments in your essay, you demonstrate to your professor that you understand the complexity of the legal issues and are thinking like a lawyer.

Not every issue requires a counterargument. Sometimes the analysis is pretty cut-and-dried, the answer predictable. But more often than not, your professor has chosen to set up legal issues with enough complexity that a counterargument is warranted. Look for legal issues in which multiple public policies are at work—those public policies may create different paths for your analysis. Sometimes there may be competing approaches to a legal issue, such as majority vs. minority approaches, or common law vs. statutory approaches. Or maybe courts apply a balancing test to resolve this legal issue, and you need to compare the essay fact pattern to the facts in a range of cases you read for the course. If you’ve done a good job of outlining course materials, as I talked about here and here, you can predict exactly when a counterargument may be warranted.

Finally, once you’ve analyzed the counterargument, make sure you don’t forget to explain to the reader why your approach is superior to the counterargument—this is the final step to setting up your conclusion of that issue.

Counterarguments are a great way to maximize your success in an essay exam—take time to explore them and don’t just rush to your destination!

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Checklists: The One-Page Outline for Exams

Image courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s that point in the semester when final exams are looming ever closer. What should you do as you finish up the last topics in your outlines and begin that last week of studying before exams? One thing that I suggest to students is to create a one-page checklist of issues they might see on the exam. It’s an easy thing to do. Take an outline that you have done for one of your law school classes, such as Contracts. Go through your outline page by page, making a separate list of all legal issues and sub-issues. 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. Write out the list in the order that it is organized in your outline.

Once you have a completed list, ask yourself: is everything in the order that I would want to use it? An exam essay fact pattern will not include every issue covered in a course, but there may be a set of issues that are related. If your professor covered one issue in the third week of the semester and a related issue in Week 10, you may not have thought to put those issues next to each other in your outline. But the checklist is the time to consider how you might link issues together. Reorder your checklist in the way that makes it most useful for the exam. Remember my Robonaut example from last week–it’s important not just to have the right tools but also to have those tools work best for you.

So, how should you use this checklist? 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 fact pattern. You can also use the checklist to test whether you know the tests, definitions, and other detailed information that goes along with the key words in your checklist. If you can’t easily access those details in your memory, it is an indication that you should go back to that part of your outline and review it again or maybe create a flashcard or two on that subject.

In the end, a checklist can be a great way to cap your studying for final exams–list away!

 

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Write and Repeat: Using Practice Exams to Study for Finals

Final exams are right around the corner for most law students, if they have not started already. Taking practice exams can be a great way to study for law school finals, but only if you use them properly. Successful law students often use practice exams to test the adequacy of their exam preparation and to simulate the experience of taking exams. Here are some suggestions for how to make practice exams work harder for you:

1. Don’t take practice exams for a particular topic until you have actually studied that topic. Many students take practice exams before they have outlined the material at issue or committed legal rules, tests, elements, etc. to memory. You will not get as much out of a practice exam if you don’t prepare for it as you would for a graded exam. If you don’t have the important stuff committed to memory, you will waste time in taking practice essay exams because you just won’t be able to recall what you need to write an answer. You will also be guessing much more on multiple choice questions, and the result may not adequately reflect your understanding of the material. Study first to make practice exams a productive use of your time.

2. Take practice exams in a simulated test environment–give yourself the same amount of time you will have to take the graded exam, and take the practice exam in a quiet, distraction-free environment. Practicing the entire exam experience trains your body and brain for what is expected during a graded exam, and it can help reduce stress and exam anxiety by desensitizing your brain to taking exams.

3. Allot enough time to go over the practice exam answers once you have completed the exam. Part of the benefit of taking practice exams is comparing your answers to the model essay answers or correct multiple choice answers. Compare what you have done to the model answers and make note of what needs improvement. Read the explanations of the right and wrong answers for multiple choice–it will help you to better understand how questions are constructed as well as gain a deeper understanding of the underlying legal issues. I recommend setting aside the same amount of time to review the answers as you set aside for taking the practice exam to begin with.

4. Use practice exams as a way of fine-tuning your outline and rethinking further exam preparation. If you don’t get something correct or miss an issue entirely, evaluate whether your outline adequately covers that topic. Ask yourself if you need to create a flashcard for a legal rule so that you have it fully committed to memory. Studying is a process, not an destination–practice exams are a way of checking the health of your studying process before you move forward with it.

So, where can you find practice exams? Often, your professors are a great resource for practice exams. Many professors release older versions of their exams, and you can use those to practice for your finals. You may also want to seek out the Academic Support professionals at your law school, as they often have many practice exam resources. If you are paying for your bar prep course as you go, the bar prep providers, such as Kaplan and BarBri, often provide supplemental materials containing practice exams. Many other supplements also offer practice questions–just make sure those questions cover material you have actually covered in class.

Practice exams are one of the best ways to measure your understanding of course materials and reinforce test-taking skills–just write and repeat!

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Law School and Robonauts

robonauts

A number of years ago I had a summer faculty fellowship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. While there, I had the opportunity to visit the robotics lab, where NASA and academic collaborators were designing a robonaut with artificial intelligence. The goal was to create a robot that could help astronauts make repairs to the space station during space walks. The researcher demonstrated the robonaut’s capabilities for us, ordering it to hand him specific tools. Amazingly, the robonaut could “look” at several tools, choose the correct one, and hand it to the researcher. I was impressed–but then the researcher pointed out something even more incredible. Not only did the robonaut know which tool to choose, it also knew that if it picked up the tool (such as a hammer) by its handle, it would be offering it to the astronaut in a way that would make it less helpful. The astronaut would have to grasp the top of the hammer, rather than the handle–the hammer would not be immediately useful. Because the researcher had spent time thinking about the application of his efforts, the robonaut was designed in a way that made it much more useful to astronauts. The robonaut knew to offer the tool so that the astronaut could grasp the handle.

Law students can learn a lot from the robonaut. What’s important in your work is not just what you put into an exam essay, outline, brief, or other writing assignment–it’s also important to consider how that information is presented to the reader. You should always keep in mind your audience when you are writing, and what that audience needs from you in order to find your writing helpful. That’s one of the reasons why law professors tell students to use the IRAC/TREAC/CREAC formulas as an organizational approach to legal writing. The more that you keep in mind your audience when you are writing, the more you will give the reader what he or she needs to follow your legal arguments and analysis.

Law school outlines work in much the same way. You can spend countless hours putting together an outline for a course, but if the information in that outline is not organized properly it is only so useful. Instead, when creating your outline, you should think about how you might apply information from that outline to an exam. If you organize your outline with its application in mind, you will complete exams more efficiently and effectively. So what do I mean by this? Because law students read and brief cases for most classes, there is a natural tendency to organize outlines around cases. But this is not how you would use this information on the exam–instead, the first thing you would need is the key legal rules, principles, tests, or policies that are illustrated by these cases. Analogizing facts in an essay question to facts in a case you read may be a part of your analysis, but first you must discuss the applicable law. If you organize your outline first around legal rules and then use cases and hypotheticals to illustrate those rules, your outline will function like the robonaut–providing you with course information in the most helpful way.

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