Most law students compile “outlines” of the material covered in each of their courses. This helps improve their understanding of legal principles and maximize their performance on exams and other assessments. An outline is not just a compilation of notes taken in class. It may contain a combination of class notes, summaries of cases and other course materials, and a student’s own thoughts and analysis. The scope may vary depending on the topic.
Should I make my own outline?
Yes, you should make your own outline. Even if you find another outline based on the same casebook, each professor takes a unique approach to the material. Their exam likely will reflect that approach to some extent, so your outline should reflect it as well. (And a professor’s approach can change over time, so picking up an outline from their course several years ago may not be a “magic bullet.”) Also, the process of making the outline will help you learn the material. Structuring the outline and explaining the legal principles in your own words will make it easier to understand how they interact and how they might be applied.
Should I look at other outlines?
While you do not absolutely need to look at other outlines, you may want to do so if you are having trouble understanding a concept from class or if you are unsure how certain issues fit together. Looking at the material from a different angle can clarify something that you might have missed. However, you should be aware that outlines by other students (and even commercial outlines) may not be entirely accurate. They also may not reflect your professor’s interpretation of the material. Thus, checking out other outlines makes the most sense if you need clarification about the “black letter law” in a certain area. For more subjective questions or concerns, you may want to consult your professor during office hours.
Justia Case Law Outlines
Justia provides outlines of key cases for over 30 law school topics, which contain links to the full text of each case. You can use these case outlines to improve your understanding of a topic and potentially enhance your course outline as needed.
What is the best way to make a law school outline?
The best way to make a law school outline depends on the student and the way in which they learn. Before making an outline, you should think about how you process information. If traditional bullet points or Roman numerals work for you, you can take that route. If you process information better with diagrams such as flow charts, you should feel free to integrate them. Some students may want to use colors and symbols, while others may find that this approach distracts from the content. If a course has several distinct sections, you may want to create a table of contents. If a course covers numerous cases, you may benefit from a table or index of cases. The key point is that the information should be displayed in a way that makes it easy to understand and remember, and easy to locate a certain topic within the outline.
When should I start making my outline?
You should start making your outline as soon as possible, ideally after the first few classes. You can then update your outline after each class, or perhaps each week. Updating the outline in small chunks allows you to synthesize and integrate the new information while it is freshest in your mind. This also creates a miniature review session in which you can reinforce your knowledge of what you learned soon after class. In addition, each update to the outline may involve a look back at related concepts, which can function as a brief review of that material. These miniature reviews can make the process of reviewing for the exam at the end of the course smoother.
How should I organize my outline?
You may want to organize your outline according to the structure of the syllabus in your course. This can help you see the concepts from the same perspective as your professor. However, if you feel that certain topics fit together more intuitively in a different way, you should feel free to organize your outline accordingly. Professors often do not start at page 1 of a casebook, and professors who use the same casebook to teach a certain topic often move through the cases differently. Each time that you update your outline, you may want to scan through the outline or the table of contents and think about where you should place the update.
How long should my outline be?
Your outline should be long and detailed enough to explain all of the relevant principles in the course, but not so long and detailed that the key information no longer stands out. (And it should not be so long that you are overwhelmed by the prospect of confronting it!) The length may depend to some extent on the complexity of the topic and the ease of your understanding. If most of the concepts in the course seem straightforward to you, your outline may be fairly concise. If the course covers a sophisticated area of law in which you have little background, you may need a longer outline to help you understand the context.
Do I need an exam-specific outline?
You might need an exam-specific outline if your professor limits the length of the outline that you can bring to the exam. Some students create a comprehensive outline for review purposes and a summary outline for the exam. While you should start working on the comprehensive outline early in the term, you may want to wait until later to create the summary outline. This is because you may not know at the beginning of the course which concepts are most important (or most likely to be tested), so you may not know how much space to allocate to each of them. Remember to allow some time during your exam preparation for making the summary outline if you need to do this.
Should I review my outline before taking an open book exam?
Yes, you should review your outline before taking an open book exam, even if there are no restrictions on the materials that you can bring. During the exam, you will need time to read questions, spot issues, and plan your answer. You will not have time to look up every relevant legal principle in your outline. Think of the outline as a fallback resource for double-checking your understanding of a specific nuance, rather than an answer sheet. You should arrive at the exam already having mastered the material, and the best way to do that is by reviewing your outline. Check out our test taking tips for more information on preparing for law school exams.
Should I review my outline during bar review?
You can look at your outline during bar review if you want clarification on a certain aspect of “black letter law” that applies in the state where you are taking the bar exam. However, you should not use your course outline as your bar review outline for that topic. The outline is tailored to a certain course and professor, while bar review takes a more generic approach to the law. Reviewing the nuances that your professor explored probably will not help you on the bar exam and may even confuse you by obscuring the basic principles that the bar exam tests.