Welcome to Ahead of the Curve, our new series for incoming 1Ls. We’re getting lots of questions about what law school to attend, how to pay for it, and what people can be doing now to set themselves up for success in law school. Stay tuned, and be sure to sign up for our free mailing list and check out the Start Law School Right course to ensure you’re ready to go on Day One!
Law students often struggle with how to effectively incorporate their case-related course material into their outlines and exam prep. On top of reading and briefing cases, after class discussion, you will have notes capturing your professor’s take on a case. As you work on drafting your outline and thinking about how cases could factor into your exam, keep the following advice in mind.
1. Consider Your Specific Course
How your professor deals with cases on the exam will vary widely. Some professors will want cases cited; some professors could not care less. Before you begin constructing your outline and while you are thinking through your briefing and note keeping approach for a course, try to get an idea of the professor’s approach to cases on the exam. The earlier you know the type of exam and type of questions a professor tends to ask on exams, the better you can prepare cases throughout the semester to meet that challenging exam awaiting you at the end of the course.
2. Gauge The Importance Of The Case
When adding cases to your outline, use discretion. Main cases and note cases should not be treated equally. Minor note cases do not need to be in your outline at all. One way to gauge the importance of a case is to consider the time you spent discussing the case in class. If your professor spent two days dissecting and discussing a particular case, you can bet good money that the concepts of that case will be on the exam. Class notes are key here. Try to consider this during the semester and put a star next to things the professor practically telegraphs will be on the exam. Make notes to your outline-drafting self in your class notes. By the time you get around to outlining, you will appreciate your reminder.
3. Distill Your Case Brief And Class Notes
When crafting your outline, do not just copy and paste your briefs into your outline. As with everything in law school, you have to find the approach that works for you. Some prefer an outline with minimal case examples and some prefer a more case-heavy outline. The key is to not get caught up in case details. Exams are about applying the law, so your outlines should be too. Cases can be tools you bring to bear on exam day, but the exam will not be on the cases. Does a case layout factors to consider that you may need to apply for the exam? Does the case provide a particular two-step analysis? Major cases will likely be represented in your outline, but only in the form of concise distillation of your brief and your case notes. For a great approach to constructing your outline and how to incorporate cases, see Jennifer Warren’s post 4 Steps to Creating a Useful Outline in Law School.
4. Make Outlining More Than A Means To An End
Especially when adding cases to your outline, reducing course materials into an outline form should be an incredibly valuable opportunity to review and synthesize information. Sitting down and trying to reduce pages of briefs and class notes into three or four bullet points on an outline is tough, but it will be worth every bit of effort. Actively mulling the material will lock it in far more than passively rereading the case or listening to a lecture. Take the opportunity to review and learn the material as you outline. A happy byproduct of all that work is a handy, concise outline you can review before the exam, but much of the benefit is in the creation process.
5. Rely On Class Notes
When outlining, you can use your briefs as an aid, but especially rely on your class notes. If you need another reason to not copy and paste briefs into your outline, they can introduce errors. Remember that you briefed the case before you went to class and before you really understood the subject matter. Using your class notes, you will naturally emphasize what the professor emphasizes and you will avoid accidentally studying your own mistakes.
6. Tether Concepts To Cases (If Helpful)
Whether you have to cite case names on the exam or not, all of those cases you read and discussed at length during class should play some role in your exam prep. Even if the professor says you don’t have to know case names, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all that case reading business was for nothing. Don’t succumb to an undergrad mentality. You read and dissected all of those cases for a reason. Maybe you don’t need to make case-name flashcards, but you will still need to understand the logic and concepts developed in your cases. People differ on this, but tethering outline concepts to cases you sweated over all semester always helped me make sense of the law. There is plenty of abstract reasoning in law school, so treat cases in your outline like anchors to reality.
7. Do Not Reread Cases
Assuming you have diligently read and gone to class during the semester, rereading while making your outline or studying doesn’t maximize your limited study time. There is a time for reading, but once you have moved on to outlining and exam prep, you have to prioritize. In the context of late-stage exam prep, Law School Toolbox tutor Ariel Salzer makes this point –
“You don’t have time to slog through a bunch of dense court opinions. The most important thing right now is being able to remember and use a case if you see a situation in a fact pattern that triggers its application. Reading the case again won’t help much with this. Finding and reviewing the rule from the case and doing more hypos will. (Read more tips in Ariel’s post – What you Should and Shouldn’t Do During Reading Week.)”
8. Use Fact Triggers, But Don’t Include Case Facts
Don’t waste time and space with fact summaries in your outline. Facts are most generally irrelevant come exam time. The holdings and the logic of cases are what matter. That said, associating colorful facts can help you remember the cases and the underlying law – who forgets the hairy hand case? If it helps you, leave triggers in your outline to jog your memory, e.g., “pizza delivery guy case,” “gun in the glove box case.”
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.