Outlines—they create a stir around law campuses annually. But what is an outline? An outline is a synthesis of the cases, statutes, regulations, restatements, and any other sources of law you learned throughout the semester. A way to curate all the legal mumbo jumbo, if you will. Generally, an outline is compiled from information extracted from case briefs, class notes, commercial and other student outlines, and commercial supplements. Many students make multiple versions of an outline with varying amounts of detail to serve distinct roles in exam studying and taking. While outlining is not conducive to a one-size-fits-all approach, some universal principles can and should inform your craft.
i. Synthesize, not summarize
An outline is not meant to be a summary of every discrete piece of information learned in class. Rather, the goal is to synthesize the various sources of law studied throughout the semester to glean what the law really is. To engage in this deductive and inductive reasoning exercise, you must do more than summarize every case you read—rather, you must identify how various cases work together to shape the law on a specific legal issue. Throughout the semester, you should have been briefing cases to dissect the legal rules and holdings of each case. Now is the time to see how these pieces work together to shape the law. Key to this process is understanding that distinct legal issues interact with each other; simply working through cases in a linear fashion often won’t allow you to parse through the nonlinear landscape of law.
ii. Prioritize function over form
Obsessing over the format of a document meant to serve as notes happens to the best of us. Don’t fall into this trap when it comes to outlining. If you’re doing it right, your final product will be “messy”—full of handwritten notes, hypotheticals gleaned from practice exams, and tabs for easy access. Outlining is necessarily an iterative process. It can and should be refined as you take practice exams. You’ll never really have a finished, polished product, even on test day. That’s okay.
iii. Do you
You want your outline to make sense to you. A well-done outline may be somewhat incomprehensible to someone else. Personalize your outline with your own organizational system. This may mean color coding according to whether a source is primary or secondary law; differentiating between black letter law rules and application of such rules to particularized fact contexts; highlighting circuit splits, alternative holdings, and splits between minority and majority jurisdictions; or color coding the various parts of your case briefs that are folded into your outline. No matter how you choose to do it, make sure of two things: 1) your process is helping you learn the law and 2) the complexities of the law that are likely to form the basis of exam questions will be easily accessible in your outline.
i. Copy and paste case briefs
This is by far the most common mistake made by law students. You’ve been working hard on case briefs all semester and think to yourself—why not just compile them, and voila, you have an outline! The serious problem with this approach is that it continues to view cases in isolation, as they’re often taught in law classrooms. In reality, judicial opinions are a lawmaking vehicle that act in coordination with each other and with other sources of law. To discern the state of the law on a particular legal issue, you must connect the legal rules pronounced in various cases. For example, one case in civil procedure may help illuminate what a minimum contact is for personal jurisdiction; another case may help illuminate what it means for a claim to arise out of such contacts. Your outline should do the work of connecting these cases together to clarify the process of asserting personal jurisdiction.
ii. Include legally insignificant detail
It’s tempting to bog down an outline with details. It helps appease the anxious voice in your head that fears omitting that one important fact. But in the world of outlining, less truly is more. Law exams are usually timed, and a succinct outline will serve you better. For example, it is often helpful to include the legally significant facts of seminal cases to allow you to engage in nuanced analogical reasoning on the exam. But beware of flooding your outline with irrelevant facts or procedural history that won’t help when applying the law to a novel fact context. Some opinions may be flooded with dicta—use your judgment on what, if any, to include. Including the author of a majority opinion, the division of a court’s vote, and other procedural details may similarly take up unnecessary space, unless your professor assigns particular significance to these facts.
iii. Use a preprepared outline
Last but certainly not least: use these principles to make your own outline. You’ll hear plenty of your friends boast about how much time they’re saving by using commercial outlines or outlines made by former students. While these students may have saved time by using a canned outline, they also failed to gain the nuanced understanding and retention that comes from the process of outlining. Outlining is not a mere cheat sheet to get you through an exam; it’s a learning process. Forcing yourself to distill information to the legally significant and connect superficially disparate concepts is where the learning happens. Not to mention that you’ll never know your way around someone else’s outline the way you can know your way around your own. Time spent outlining is not time lost; it’s knowledge gained.
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