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Why You Should Write Your Own Outline, and How to Do It

You’re a 1L in your first semester of law school. Exams are approaching. By this point in the semester, you’ll have begun outlining your classes – or at least you should! Why should you write your own outline for each class, you may ask, when there are plenty of commercial outlines for sale, not to mention the outlines that nice 2L gave you for this very class?

Well, the answer lies in the purpose of an outline. The purpose of an outline is not, primarily, to be a magical oracle that will answer all your questions as you take your issue-spotting exam in Contracts. Rather, in my view the main purpose of an outline is to serve as the best darn active learning experience you could hope for. The main value of your outline will be in the making of us, not in the using of it. And if you don’t write it yourself, you will miss out on that whole experience.

Think about it. All semester you have been reading individual cases and thinking about separate legal doctrines and separate points of law. The “eggshell” plaintiff. The reasonable person. What is consideration? How can an offeror rescind an offer? Chances are that you have been so busy finishing the Torts reading for tomorrow and trying to find the time to research for the open memo that your mean legal writing professor assigned (hahaha) that you haven’t had –or taken – much time to see the forest for the trees. Have you sat down and thought about how the stages in formation of a contract, the concepts of performance and breach, and the concept of remedies for breach all fit together into a unified theory of contract law? Writing a Contracts outline is your perfect opportunity to do this!

Yes, writing your own outline for each class is your opportunity to put all the concepts of the course together, to figure out how they fit together, and how those potentially profound but seemingly random observations that your Torts professor likes to toss out in each class actually relate to each other.

So, what is the best way to write your own outline? Here are my main pieces of advice:

1) No course in a doctrinal subject will cover all aspects of that subject, so build your outline around the structure that your particular course actually followed. Start with the skeleton structure of the class as the most general level of your outline. To figure out (or refresh your recollection as to) what topics were covered, go through your syllabus, the table of contents of the casebook, and/or your notes for the semester at a macro level. Also look for any notes you took at beginning of semester, midterm, or end of semester as to how the professor saw the topics and/or themes of the course.

2) Now that you have the skeleton structure, draft the next level of specificity of the outline. To do this, go through your class notes for each day plus the notes you took on the cases you read and distill the essence of what you should get out of that day of class: a) black letter rules, b) policy implications, c) the professor’s commentary or critiques of those two things, and d) how those rules relate to other topics in the class. Plug this information into the appropriate place in your skeleton outline.

3) If there is anything you do not understand, try to visit your professor during office hours and talk to her until you do. If you can’t do that, this may be the time to use a treatise or hornbook to help you understand that sub-topic of the doctrinal area.

4) When you are finished doing these things, you will have a long outline of the whole course. This outline will likely be too long for you to use very much during the exam. As I said, the main purpose of this outline is the learning that you get out of the process of doing it. The second time through the material, with the whole semester in your rear-view mirror for context, you should have a much better understanding of both each day’s lessons and their relation to each other.

Now, you may be wondering – what about my need for a document that I can use to help me answer my exam questions? To create that document, take the long outline that you just created, and distill it into something you can actually use during the exam. This can be a very short version of the outline (just a few pages – under 10), or a flow chart (flow charts are particularly helpful for Contracts and Civil Procedure courses), or whatever other format will help you during the exam. This shorter document is likely to be the document that you actually have time to consult during the exam, though you may have time to look at the longer outline briefly to find more detail on a couple of things.

Armed with these tools, you are ready to take practice exams, which is the other best thing you can do to prepare yourself for exams.

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One response to “Why You Should Write Your Own Outline, and How to Do It

  1. This is great advice! Great post! As I’m in my third year, I relied heavily on commercial outlines, and while I got through the courses, I know I would have a much richer and fuller understanding of the material if I had made the outline myself.

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