There was a common refrain going around the halls of Columbia Law School when I was a student there. Everybody that you asked seemed to be in agreement that the time to start outlining and really get serious about finals was after the Halloween party that the law school puts on every year. I may or may not have done this my 1L year. It was a long time ago. I don’t remember. But if I did wait until the end of October to start outlining, I would never admit to it. As a 1L, you need to start outlining for your exams as soon as you finish a subject area in one of your classes. Here are four reasons why:
1. Outlining Takes Practice
I used to outline in college, and I think I was pretty good at it, thank you very much. Every semester, I would take very detailed notes, transcribe everything the professor said in class, and then add in important details from the textbook about what I had missed or about what the professor had glossed over in class. You may have had similar experiences with outlining in college or maybe you’ve outlined presentations you’ve given. A law school outline is completely different from these experiences. Law school outlines are approximately 30-pages and include the course’s major subject areas, black-letter law, and application notes. Writing an outline for the first time can take some practice. Some common problems for 1Ls include making outlines that focus on the facts of the cases read in class or writing lists of legal trivia. A law school exam doesn’t test case facts or legal trivia, so an outline that focuses on these two things won’t get you very far. In order to be able to write a good outline as a first semester 1L, you need to start really early in order to develop the necessary skills.
2. Outlining Helps You Learn the Material
The main point of outlining (and any other form of exam preparation) is to learn the material. Even as a 2L and 3L, there aren’t a lot of other ways to master the details of a particular course without sitting down and writing those details down. Sometimes you may think you completely understand a course, but then sit down to write an outline and realize that there are many aspects of it that you aren’t clear on. For instance, maybe you didn’t know that the subjective intent of a defendant who commits an intentional tort doesn’t matter, or maybe you never really understood how the parol evidence rule works. Without outlining and struggling with the material, you probably wouldn’t have realized what you didn’t know until you were sitting in the exam room. Even taking practice tests won’t help you learn all the details because practice tests just aren’t long enough to cover the entire course.
3. Outlining Is a Process, Not a Result
All of this just feeds into the point that outlining is a process, not a result. The purpose of outlining is to write the outline, not to have the finished product. When students start outlining late in the semester, they often realize that they’ve saved way too much work for the last minute and are in way over their heads. Since they don’t have enough time to write an outline themselves, they look for other ways to obtain an outline like dividing up outlining responsibilities within a study group or buying a commercial outline. Neither of these methods substitute for outlining. You won’t be able to learn the details from an outline because you’ll gloss over those parts of the outline that you aren’t familiar with if you haven’t struggled with the underlying material. (Additionally, an outline written by your law school buddies, even if they’re A students, may be completely wrong or unintelligible to you.) The real takeaway that you should get from outlining is that there are no shortcuts to obtaining your finished outline for the exam because the only way that outline will be valuable to you is if you’ve written it yourself.
4. Outlining Will Make You Focus Your Studying
The final reason that you should outline at the beginning of the semester, rather than at the end, is that by going through what you’ve written down, underlined, highlighted, etc. so far, you’ll learn what you should have been paying attention to during the semester. The main things that students often neglect to do during class are clearly write down the black-letter law and pay close attention to the ambiguity inherent in that law. When you write an outline, it’s these two things that you’ll be making sense of, so you’ll need all the information about them that you can get. Outlining early in the semester will give you time to switch gears and start focusing more on the black letter law and its various applications, ultimately saving you a lot of time as you outline the rest of the semester.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Is Tryptophan Plus Outlining a Recipe for Disaster?
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