What is an outline?
It's a concise, organized compilation your class notes and content from an entire class. It should note the key issues, the key facts, and give you an easy-to-read reference tool during the exam.How do I go about creating an outline?
The first step is to take really good class notes
. If you don't do that, then you're sunk. It's essential to write down virtually everything the professor says about facts, law, and the application of law to fact. You'll eventually cut this down later, but especially in your first semester, be prolific. Use your 80 wpm typing skillz to keep up. Get it ALL onto your computer. When you're taking notes, try to do the basics of a rough outline even there. It will eventually be cleaned up and polished, but you need to keep yourself organized. I find the Microsoft Word Outline mode to be invaluable. (Go to View->Outline.) It allows me to organize each line by narrowing level of generality, and it makes it easy to move around a line of text during class when I'm trying to keep up.
Once you have your class notes for an entire conceptual unit of your class (like the "jurisdiction" unit of Civil Procedure), commit a day to outlining it. Set aside 6 or 8 hours the first couple times and get ready to wade in. First, read through all your notes, a couple times if necessary, so you can see how the unit fits together as a whole. That should give you an idea of how to structure it. Next, organize the notes by legal topic (like "subject matter jurisdiction" or "venue"). Don't edit yet (except for correcting irritating typos) since you'll still be cutting things down, but look around in your notes for things that are redundant or irrelevant in context.
After you've gotten a re-arranged copy of your notes, start the hard part: condensing. You should be aiming not for a list of bullet points (which is understandable only to the trained eye), but a comprehensive, substantive compilation of all the legal concepts you've been taught. It's also helpful to include references to specific cases that apply the law (for use during the exam). Take a look at this example outline
to see what your first-cut outline should look like. Go through each section and break apart the subtopics, elements, and other doctrine.
As you go, keep in mind that this is the hardest part of the outlining process, because you have to examine how each case fits into the overall doctrine. Use a supplement to guide yourself, but not as a crutch. It's valuable to be able to see how a newer case doesn't replace an older case, but modifies key terms. I find Emmanuel's especially good for this purpose, since the case summaries are so complete. (Gilbert's are more variant.) Go through all the cases in the section in chronological order, noting any variants of the doctrine applied. Make note of policy justifications or criticisms, as you may be able to use these in writing your analysis of legal issues.
Ultimately the outline should be complete, but organized. You don't want paragraph after paragraph of text, because you don't want to have to read all that during the exam. Make it complete, coherent sentences, but be concise. Check it against the leading supplements (which may be on reserve with your law library) to make sure
you've stated the doctrine correctly. Make sure
that you are not using an outdated doctrine. This is where supplements are especially helpful, so make use of them.
Your big outline is what you will use to do your studying for the final exam. If you keep up with the big outline over the course of the semester (by conceptual unit), then you'll be able to spend more time at the end of the semester fitting it all together and honing your exam-taking skills.How do I use the outline to study?
An excellent question indeed. In the last couple weeks before exams start, create a new, smaller outline that you will use as a quick-reference. Methodically step through each part of your outline and crystallize each doctrine into a few words. Make sure your words are correct, but note the elements of each doctrine carefully. Use phrases or terms of art that you will need to know on exam answers. Pay special attention to legal issues that are testable (like subject matter or diversity jurisdiction) and organize your outline around those issues. Start to turn your small outline into a checklist, which is a roadmap for how you tackle an issue-spotter exam question. The process of paring down your large outline is, in my opinion, the best way to study for the final exam. Take practice exams along the way (using your large outline for reference), and check your answers according to BOTH your outlines and the answer key provided by your teacher.Exam time is coming!
Yes, it is. Make sure you know how your mind works. If you're like me, you have mental triggers on issue spotters, and if you've already triggered all your issues, then you start forgetting doctrine when you analyze an exam question. Know thyself! Look over your outline carefully so you can re-set all your triggers, if you need to (especially if it's a closed-book exam).Are there other resources?
You're probably asking this because my description seems odd and vague. Well, yes. Each person outlines in their own way, so my prescription is not dispositive. However, I took great inspiration from Heidi's blog. She wrote about the outlining process a while back.
You can read some of her other great thoughts about 1L year on Blawg Wisdom
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