Tips for Successful Law School Outlines
Published: Nov 18, 2021
The holidays are almost here, and if you're a 1L, that means 'tis the season to study for your first set of law school exams. Ideally, you've already started outlining—if you haven't, now is the time to start. Here are a few outlining tips to keep in mind.
Your outline is a road map.
What is an outline, and why create one for each class? In law school, an outline is a tool that helps you organize the dense materials you’ve covered in class into a structured, easy-to-digest format. Your outline should include rules of law and elements, case summaries, policy considerations, hypotheticals, and other notable points your professor discussed. The goal is that, once you’ve finished your outline, you’ll have a framework that covers everything you need to know in one place. Your outline is your home base as you review and memorize concepts, go through hypotheticals, and take practice exams. Plus, if your professors administer open-book exams, you’ll be able to use your outline as a quick reference tool during the exam.
Start outlining now.
Law school classes cover a lot of material, so you shouldn't wait until the last minute to start outlining. The longer you put off outlining, the more likely you are to forget the nuances of materials you covered—and knowing those nuances is the key to beating the curve. At this point in the semester, you should prioritize your outlines. That's not to say you should forego reading for class entirely, but you'll get the most "bang for your buck" at this point by prioritizing exam prep. Outlining is where concepts come together and you start to see the forest for the trees, which is what matters for exams.
Use your class syllabus as a guide.
Even if you're creating an outline from scratch, you don't need to start with an entirely blank page. Your professor is the one administering the exam, so tailor your materials accordingly by using the class syllabus as your starting point. First, copy and paste the class topics listed in your syllabus as main headings to create a “skeleton” outline, and then build from there: Add your class notes, case summaries, hypos, and any key points from commercial supplements that aid in your understanding. There are infinite ways to organize your outlines, but ultimately, you should build them in the way that makes the most intuitive sense to you and your learning process.
You don’t necessarily have to start from scratch.
For many students, creating an outline from scratch is the best way to ensure you truly grasp the material. But some prefer to use an outline created by a 2L or 3L who came before them and did well in the class. Bottom line: You know your study style best, and it might work just fine for you to work off an outline somebody else created. But if you do, be active in using it as a study tool. Don’t just read the outline—add your own notes, fill in gaps, and make necessary updates. Your professor probably changes the course each year to include different topics and cases, so don’t miss out on important points by relying solely on an outdated outline.
Think of your outline as a working document.
By this point of the semester, topics and concepts you initially found confusing are hopefully starting to make more sense as you've gained more context. That said, if you started outlining early on, don’t be married to the original structure and content of your outline. Even when classes end, your work on your outline isn’t done. During the study period, you should continue to refine and shorten your outline as you get a better handle on the material and can recall more details by memory. By exam day, your outline should be as short as possible, with brief phrases and words to jog your memory rather than a treatise on the course.
Don’t plan to use your outline during exams.
Even if you’re allowed to use your outline during an open-book exam, tackle studying as if you won’t be able to. Law school exams include a built-in time crunch, so you don’t want to waste precious minutes flipping through your outline. Your outline is there as a crutch in case you completely blank or need to double-check a concept here and there—it’s not an answer key. Dedicate as much time to reviewing and practicing as you would for a closed-book exam.
Happy outlining, and best of luck on your upcoming exams!