It may sound crazy to talk about how to outline when we are already three quarters of the way through the school year, but outlining is a skill that you can constantly improve—whether you are a 1L, 2L, or 3L. I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss “best practices” for outlining. Maybe after reading this post, you will discover something that strengthens your outlining skills and make your outline do more work for you.
Of course, we use the word “outline,” but a law school outline can be so much more than a document organized by Roman numerals. While it is certainly possible to organize information from course materials using the traditional Roman numeral format, outlines can utilize many forms. Some students use bolding, underlining, tabs, and bullet points to organize their course information, while others use the tables function in Microsoft Word to create organized sections. Still others find Mind Mapping a useful technique. Experiment with different ways of organizing your outline—you may be surprised about what works best for you. You also may discover that what works for one class may not work as well for another. Outlines are personal and should support your understanding of how the course material comes together.
One reason why the outline is so important is that it really is the place where you learn the law. By synthesizing various course materials (case briefs, class notes, other assigned reading, etc.), you gain a deeper understanding of legal issues and see connections among legal concepts. You 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.
So what should your outline contain? Regardless of format, all strong outlines contain the same basic types of information. The first step is to make sure that your outline is organized around legal issues rather than cases. For each section, start with the legal issue that you are going to focus on. Make sure each section has the following parts, as applicable: (1) history/development of the legal issue over time (For example, when you studied 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); (2) any rules/tests/factors relevant to the legal issue, along with any definitions of key legal terms; (3) policy arguments relevant to how courts decide this legal issue; (4) competing approaches to the same legal issue (such as majority vs. minority approaches, or common law/Restatement/Uniform Commercial Code); (5) cases and hypotheticals illustrating components of the outline described above (in very brief form, focusing on facts relevant to understanding the legal issue that is the focus of this part of the outline); and (6) any observations about how this legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline (for example, for your section on the tort of negligence, you might note that defenses and other legal concepts such as contributory/comparative negligence, joint and several liability, vicarious liability, etc. may also apply).
If your outline contains this information, it will be the only thing that you need to study for purposes of 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.