October was the month of treats and frights. On the treat side, you can enjoy changing leaves and an ever-expanding number of pumpkin-flavored items like pumpkin beer, cookies, and hummus. On the scary side, there are haunted houses and the appearance of [too early] Christmas decorations to keep you on edge. For One Ls, the fright is real . . . October brought the dreaded question – “How are your outlines coming along?”
As the saying goes, “Winter [and exam time] is coming,” and if you haven’t started, now is definitely the time to prepare.
Take a deep breath.
Remember that point of an outline isn’t to compete with classmates; the point is to synthesize what you have learned, fill in gaps, deepen your knowledge, and prepare yourself to tackle your final exams. Yes, you have a lot of work to do but you are up to the challenge.
Gather your tools & remember your goals.
Gather your syllabus, class notes, casebook, case briefs, and a supplement if you have one. These are the raw materials you will use.
Next, clarify your goals. You need to create a well-organized outline that presents the material accurately and fully, and in a way that makes sense to you.
Before you start, set a production goal for yourself. You will stay focused until a specific topic is completed or until a certain amount of time has passed. When your mind starts to wander, take action to refresh your attention.
Create the skeleton for a unit of study.
To continue the Halloween theme, start with a skeleton of the topic that you are going to outline. The bones of the skeleton are the rules of law that you have learned.
You probably spend the bulk of class time discussing cases, so it is typical that many One Ls use these cases as the skeleton of an outline. The problem with this approach is an outline is used to prepare you for exams, not for class; rules are the tools you need to solve exam questions. Generally, you won’t even need to know the names or facts of particular cases, but you will need to know the rules and how to apply them. Cases are necessary but they aren’t the bones of your skeleton.
Use your syllabus as a guide to the topics you have covered. If your syllabus is organized around cases, consult your casebook table of contents or a supplement to see where a group of cases fits into an overall topic. Create your skeleton before you get into the details.
Start with the black letter rule.
Write out the full black letter rule before you break any rule into its parts or elements. This helps you see the “forest for the trees” and also can refresh your recollection when you review the topic down the road. Remember that you are going to keep learning and covering additional units of study between now and the end of the year and your brain is going to get even more crowded than it is now.
Break every rule into its elements.
Use your class notes and a perhaps a supplement to make sure that your skeleton accurately shows how elements relate to each other. For instance, do all elements need to be satisfied? Does your rule have one or more exceptions? Is there a balancing test? In order to understand a rule, you must clearly understand the relationship between the elements; show this relationship in a visual way to help cement it in your mind.
Add flesh to your skeleton.
Underneath each element of your rule, show how an element is satisfied; this is where your cases and class notes become critical. How do courts look at this element? What facts make a difference in the outcome of the case?
Look for how cases explain parts of the rules. Even on this micro-level, try to lead with the law rather than the case name. Ask what each case adds to what you know about a topic and include that knowledge. Look for trigger facts in cases; trigger facts are the key facts that satisfy parts of the rule and they will show up in exam questions.
Include important case names with blurbs to help you recall how the rule is applied, but don’t fall into the space-wasting trap of recreating mini-case briefs. Include hypotheticals that the professor used to show how what facts make a difference in the application of the rule. Add policy considerations; consider using a text-box next to your rule or a different font or color text to make it stand out. Keep focused on the take-away tools—what you need to solve exam problems–while you add flesh to the skeleton.
Find a format that works for you.
You may want to use one of the automatic outline features on your computer or you may find that creating another format works better for you. For instance, one of my students used a newsletter template for each topic that had a large banner headline with the full rule at the top of each page. This template would allow you to put the fleshed-out rules in the main column, reserving the narrower right-hand column for items such as policy or attack plans. Another former law student used large sheets of paper that were put up around the room in order to see the big picture of a subject. Do what works for you.
Good luck on those outlines and remember that you are arming yourself with the tools you need to be successful.
Check out these links from Law School Toolbox for more outlining tips.
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