Tag Archives: outlining

Effective Collaboration on Law School Outlines

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

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Image courtesy of stockphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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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/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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/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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A 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases in Law School

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Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday I explained what a case brief is and why case briefing helps you to be: (1) prepared for class; (2) organized and focused on the important law for legal writing assignments; and (3) prepared for later synthesis and outlining of course materials. The first step to briefing a case is reading the case. As we’ve talked about before, law school reading is generally very different from most students’ previous reading experiences. This is because the focus is on critical reading. Often, students are used to being able to read class assignments quickly, skimming to identify what’s important. In contrast, cases are very dense in terms of information, and they require focused reading and attention to detail to unpack everything that’s important. A quick read will leave you without important information that you’ll need for class and on the exam.

With that in mind, here is my 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases for Law School:

(1) Read the case. I know, I know. This seems obvious. But bear with me here—there is a method to my madness. The first time that you read a case, you should just read through it without taking any notes about what the case is about. It is during this first read-through that you should look up any legal terms you don’t understand and make notes to yourself about their meanings. One of the reasons why it takes so much time to read a case, especially in your first semester of law school, is because of the new legal language that may trip you up in your reading. When you come across legal words and phrases that you do not understand, you should stop, look them up, and make note of their definitions. Black’s Law Dictionary is a good resource for law students. You can access Black’s Law Dictionary on Westlaw, and it is also available in print form and as an app for iPhones and iPads.

(2) Read the case again, this time marking important points and taking some notes. Once you have read through the case once, start reading through the case a second time. It is at this point that you should begin to mark important parts of the case and take notes. Some students first underline important aspects of the case in pencil or pen and make notations in the margins of the case book. Visual learners often use highlighters—they may even use a different color to signal each part of the case.

You should also begin taking notes at this point—your notes will become your case brief. Tomorrow, I’ll explain more about what should be included in the case brief. Right now, I want to focus on the note-taking process though. Some students hand-write their case briefs, while others type them. Whichever form you choose to use, you want to make sure that these notes are organized and easy to read, as you’ll refer to them in class and as you begin synthesizing and outlining information in preparation for your exams.

(3) Reread the case yet again. After you’ve completed the process I described above, you’ll realize that there are some things about the case that you still do not understand. At this point, you should go back and reread the case yet again, focusing specifically on the things that you need to work through. You may reread some parts of the case multiple times, in fact. As you continue to work through the case, you will add to your Case Brief until it is completed.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll begin to explore what you should include in your case briefs. In the meantime, start reading!

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Making the Most of Summer Law School Classes

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Image courtesy of naypong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Many law students choose to take classes during the summer because (a) they want to graduate in less time, or (b) to reduce the number of classes they have to take in future semesters. Students often believe that summer classes will be “easier” because they are only taking one or two classes instead of five. Although there is definitely a benefit to taking fewer classes at one time, the drawback is that summer classes generally last half the time. Instead of lasting 14 or 15 weeks, the entire course is usually crammed into 7 weeks.

How can you make sure that you obtain the greatest benefit from taking summer classes and set yourself up for academic success? Here are four tips for making the most of your summer law school classes:

1. Create a study schedule, and stick to it. It can be tempting to take a relaxed approach to your studies in the summer, as there are so many distractions: summer movie series, outdoor activities, longer days . . . you get the picture. You should definitely make sure you take some breaks and enjoy your summer, but you still have to take a disciplined approach to your studies. The best way to do this is to create a study schedule for the summer semester. You don’t want to get behind in a class that only lasts 7 weeks.

2. Start outlining early; don’t wait until the last minute. Students often wait until several weeks into a semester to start outlining. If you take this approach in the summer, the outline will never be finished. Outline each topic as you finish it in class, and you will be better prepared for the final exam. Even though it’s summer, you still have to do the same things you need to do during the rest of the school year to be successful.

3. Don’t miss class unless you absolutely have to. Missing one class during the summer is often the equivalent of missing a week during the rest of the year. When a class has a condensed schedule, it can be difficult to get caught up if you miss even one class. Save class absences for true emergencies, and have a plan for getting quickly caught up if you have to miss class.

4. Learn from the past; don’t repeat it. Make sure that you review your exams from Spring Semester. If you did not do as well as you hoped in a class, set up an appointment to go over your exam. I’ve also discussed how to get the most out of past grades here and here. Use those past final exams as a basis for how to approach future exams.

Taking summer classes can contribute to your overall success as a law student if you approach them in the right way. Make the most of your summer studies!

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

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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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Filed under General, Grades, Law School Exams, Outlines