One of the most important skills to master during the first year of law school is outlining. There are two reasons for this. First, there’s just too much material that you have to know in depth at the end of the semester to learn it any other way. Second, outlining is the best way to organize the law so that you have a readily accessible list of rules to reference on the exam.
But law school outlining is not like college outlining. I’ve already talked about my college study process in a previous post. Briefly, in college I used to type up everything the professor said in class, add key points from the reading, and then memorize everything. Law school is different because exam writing is not a skill that you can learn just from going to class or by reading cases. You can only learn how to write an exam by thinking about the law and through practice. We’re going to talk about the first step today: how to think deeply about the law and write that law down in an easily accessible outline.
Organize with Topic Headers
The first thing that you need to do is to compile a list of the main topic areas in your course. Generally, your syllabus will be organized by topics like “Personal Jurisdiction,” “Subject Matter Jurisdiction,” “Intentional Torts,” “Remedies,” “Landlord-Tenant Law,” “Individual Rights,” “Equal Protection,” etc. If your syllabus isn’t organized by topics or your syllabus does not mention every topic name, then the next place to turn is the table of contents of a supplement like an Emanuel Law Outline (or check out these supplements that Lee likes). Often law school courses focus too much on the details of cases and particular areas of the law and gloss over the big picture. Supplements are great because not only do they cover the details, but they also give you a great way to organize the material.
Sometimes a topic area has multiple sub-topic areas. In a torts course, for example, you’d want to plug in “Assault,” “Battery,” “False Imprisonment,” “Trespass,” etc. under “Intentional Torts.” You will likely be able to find this information on your syllabus, but you could also use a supplement’s table of contents. If your course didn’t include trespass or false imprisonment, then you wouldn’t have to include this sub-topic (and if you did, then you would probably be docked points for using this additional law on your exam). Under negligence, you’d write “Duty,” “Breach,” “Causation,” and “Damages.” (You might as well throw in “Defenses” there too because you’re going to have to analyze the defenses to negligence when you’re answering a negligence hypothetical.) In a constitutional law course, you might plug in “Equal Protection” and “Due Process” under “Individual Rights.” In a contracts course, you would write in “Expectation Damages,” “Reliance Damages,” “Restitution,” etc. under Remedies. You get the idea. This should all be on your syllabus, or if not, then in the table of contents of a supplement.
Dig Deeper with Definitions, Elements, and Application Notes
The next step is to plug in the definitions, elements, and application under (and next to) these topics and sub-topics. For example, what is an intentional tort? You might want to make a note of that next to your header for “Intentional Torts.” It’s most important, however, to focus on the elements and application notes that you spent most of the semester studying in class.
You’re now at the stage where you have to think about what to put under each topic and sub-topic header. Many students take their class notes and copy down the important rules of law from them with reference to the cases. My class notes were almost always 90% useless, however, so I developed an idiosyncratic way of outlining. I would make a list of all the cases that we had read in class and put those cases under their appropriate headers. Then, I would re-read each case, distill all the law that I could from it, and write that law down in the outline.
At some point during the outlining process or before, I would read the relevant sections of a supplement. I never used outlines like Emanuel’s during law school, but instead preferred to read supplements in paragraph form. The key to choosing a good supplement is to find one that matches the organizational structure of the course. If I was unsure about something (and often just to be sure that I had distilled the correct law), I would check my the law that I had distilled from the cases against a supplement. Finally, by focusing on highly detailed cases, courses often fail to explain how certain laws work with each other. To make my outline more complete, I usually added in some details from the supplement that weren’t presented in the course readings. You should exercise care in bringing in additional information from a supplement, but I think this can be done successfully if you focus on understanding how the rules from the course work with each other instead of on learning wholly distinct additional law.
And for more outlining help, check out what Lee’s written about the subject.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- 4 Reasons to Not Wait Until After the Halloween Party to Start Outlining
- 4 Steps to Managing Law School Material
- Need Help Outlining for Law School Finals?
- How to Cope When You’ve Got Too Much Going On
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