Commercial Study Aids– Should 1L Students Use Them?

My law students often ask me whether they should use commercial study aids such as commercial outlines, canned case briefs, hornbooks, or treatises.

Many law professors are strongly against commercial study aids, considering them to be a poor substitute for the student’s own work in summarizing cases and outlining the substance of each course they take. (When I was in law school, some of my professors even forbade us from using commercial study aids!). I agree with this perspective to some extent, but I also think that commercial study aids can serve a limited, yet helpful educational function for law students. I will elaborate in a series of posts on various types of study aids, beginning with commercial outlines.

I want to preface my look at commercial study aids by stating my opinion that more helpful than any commercial study aides a law student (particularly a 1L student) uses will be the study aides you create or participate in yourself – primarily, writing your own outlines for each course, and taking practice essay exams made available by your own professors and then studying model answers they provide or asking them to review your answers and give you feedback. Still, commercial materials of various kinds can be helpful in some capacity.

I’ll first discuss commercial outlines. It’s worth noting at the outset that several companies publish commercial outlines, and that some individual outlines correspond directly to particular major casebooks for a particular doctrinal course. So if you use a commercial outline at all, first check whether anyone publishes one that corresponds to your casebook for that course.

Commercial outlines can be useful, but you will do yourself a serious disservice if you use commercial outlines as a substitute for writing your own outlines. You should not rely on commercial outlines instead of writing your own for several reasons. First, even if the outline is geared to your casebook, it may not focus on the same topics that your professor focuses on within that casebook. Second, your professor may have a different idea from the outline writers as to what is significant about the topic, what should be focused on within the topic, or how to interpret a particular case or line of cases. Third, commercial outlines typically do not contain extremely sophisticated analysis of cases and may even sometimes misstate certain aspects of cases.

However, commercial outlines may be very helpful for several limited purposes. First, they can give you a nice concise structural overview of the topic — a “forest” view to complement the “tree” view that you get from reading one individual case after another in great detail. Second, commercial outlines can give you a good starting point for creating the bare-bones structural skeleton of your own outline. That is, they can show you the names of the various topics within a subject (for example, within Torts, intentional torts and negligence, and then further breakdowns of the issues within each of those), where each topic ends and the next begins, and how those topics relate to each other. This can provide you with a very good start to digesting the material you have been reading in the cases and beginning to fit it into a mental map or rubric. Building a mental map of a topic is the first step to being able to issue spot when given a set of facts, which is the main skill tested on law school essay exams. Another thing commercial outlines can do for you is to give you another way to think about individual cases (and the role of each individual case in making up the area of law) in addition to what you gleaned from reading the case yourself and from discussing it in class. That function can also be achieved by reading commercially-prepared case briefs. Note, however, that commercially-prepared case briefs also have many of the same drawbacks of commercial outlines that I just discussed.

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