Students often ask me if it’s possible for a law school outline to be too long. My answer? Absolutely!
When is an Outline Too Long?
Outlines can definitely be too long. What is too long? 100 pages is too long.
Most law schools have at least one outline floating around that is a transcript of every word ever spoken by a professor. Is that the perfect outline? Generally speaking, no.
But, Lee, it’s a complete transcript of the course! Everything I need to know is in there, right?
Well, sort of.
But what are you going to do with that information? Can you memorize a 100-page outline? Can you look at that outline and give clear statements of black letter law? Does it help you structure your legal analysis? Typically, the answer to those questions is “no.”
Then what good is that outline to you?
How Did the Myth of the Perfect 100+ Page Outline Originate?
I think the age of computers has changed the idea of what the “outline” should be. Back in the day when my parents were in law school, they typed out outlines on a typewriter or wrote them out by hand.
Would you type a transcript of a class on a typewriter? I don’t think so!
Computers have made it all too easy though to have incredibly detailed and formal outlines, but I don’t think they are doing us any favors.
How Long Should Your Outlines Be?
So, how long should your outlines be?
An outline should be as long as necessary (and this depends on the class).
I can’t give you an exact length, but here’s a guideline: When an outline holds only pertinent information, it doesn’t get too long.
What do I mean by “pertinent information”?
- Black letter law
- Attack plans
- Case references
Do Case Briefs Go in the Outline?
“But, Lee, should I put my case briefs in my outline?” No! “Why not?” Because they are already in your study materials!
When you make an outline, it is in addition to the other study materials you have (for example, case briefs and class notes).
You do not need to throw all of that away. Can’t remember the facts of Lawrence v. Texas? That’s okay! You can go back to your case brief and review. Or you can check your class notes, or even the case itself.
But re-typing (or even worse — copying and pasting) that information into your outline is not going to do you any favors.
You’ll just end up overwhelmed and confused. Remember that the point is to LEARN THE LAW, not to memorize the detailed facts of specific cases.
You have to move from cases, to understanding, to application.
Keeping your outlines focused helps with this process!
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Want more outlining tips? Check out the next two parts of this series:
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Hi Lee, this has been really helpful but I wanted to ask about what you meant by pertinent info.
I am currently trying to write up an outline of one of my modules in law school and so far, I have a table of content, a few diagrams/flow charts and a system of highlighted Acts, Cases and Key words.
However, my point of concern is that I have been going through my textbook and trying to condense down key concepts eg: How to know whether or not an exemption clause can be relied upon.
How much information would you say is too much/ unnecessarily detailed? Because my university said that we shouldn’t be putting *everything* in and I’m worried that even with my condensing, I’m still putting too much information. For example, regarding whether or not an exemption clause has been put in, I have written down 3 ways that it can be incorporated. Underneath each way, I have written a sentence with some details about it.
1) signature >> (case name)
>> only claimant needs to
>> must be a contractual
Hello! The best way to see if your outline is complete enough for your prof’s exam is to test it out. Hopefully your prof has given you practice exams that you can start working on. If not, try out some bar questions as bar subjects are typically the same as 1L subjects. That is really the best way to see what needs to be in your outline. Note, different profs can want you to recall different things (do you have a prof that always wants you to raise policy issues?), so your outline might not look the same as the outline for a different class. But that is why you test it to make sure it is complete enough. Also, it is a living doc! You can always add to it as you study and do practice questions.