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How to Write an Effective Outline (Part 3)

Once I had developed an outline for main categories of law that were covered in a particular class I would complete my outline on each subject from the class room notes, with particular attention given to the main points the professor focused on.

Once that was put into a manageable form, I would re-read each major section of the outline a few times to evaluate whether I understood the basic concepts, but also with an emphasis on whether I understood the logic behind what was at work in that area of the law as a general matter.

It is critical to exam taking to understand how the details of this or that rule are connected to the class topic as a whole. For example, if I was in a Torts class and my outline told me the professor spent a lot of time on the doctrine of “transferred intent,” I would want to know what that doctrine was, of course, but most importantly, I wanted to be very comfortable with how it fit in with the doctrine of “intentional torts” as a whole.

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How to Write an Effective Outline (Part 2)

If you are stupid enough to not prepare your own outline, and then try to rely on someone else’s outline, you should get the lousy grade you will surely receive. Relying on someone else’s outline to prepare for an exam is like taking a placebo when you have a deadly disease that is curable. It may feel good while you do it, but doing it is surely going to lead to your death.

A similarly moronic idea is that a long outline is better than a short one. Huh? The only possible value of an outline beyond the payout you receive when you put it together is the vehicle it provides for internalizing the course material. Impossibly long outlines prevent you from doing this. Your outline needs to be 15 pages of bullet points, MAX.

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How to Write an Effective Outline (Part One)

When you are sitting down to draft your outline, I suggest using three sources. First, look at your class notes to isolate the major areas of the casebook that you covered. Remember, one of the important reasons to go to class is to learn from the professor what topics are going to be on the exam and what are not.


So, when I sat down in my eight hour outlining session for a class, I started by photocopying the table of contents from the casebook (which is usually in the form of a handy outline). Next I would use a highlighter to identify what was actually covered in the class. Everything else can be pretty much be ignored. With this in mind, I would sometimes white out the lines in the case book table of contents that were not covered in class and then recopy the table of contents to erase the parts that were whited out. Doing this had a way of clearing the decks in my mind about what I needed to master. Try it; it feels great.

For example, typically in a first semester contracts class, you are going to cover a very limited range of law, covering three or four major topic areas in the semester: offer, acceptance, consideration, and maybe a couple others.

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Outline Myth #2: The Longer the Outline, the Better.

The legend that has grown up around the long—better yet, the long pre-written—law school class outline is, in a word, legendary. A good outline is thought by some to be magical, with dark powers that can turn a One L frog into a prince. Every so often you will hear about a 75 page monster outline for One L Property class that is a silver bullet come exam time.

Secret societies lurk in the woodwork of some law schools and their only purchase on One Ls is that they own wonderful and glorious outlines and provide them only to a privileged few. Why go to class, some say? We have a copy of Nino Scalia’s outline from 1972 for $40!

Of course this is all poppycock. There is no outline that is a silver bullet. A 75 page outline is worthless. With all due respect to his Honor, I am fairly certain that Antonin Scalia has no idea what you ought to be studying for your exam.

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Let’s Talk Outlining

It is widely accepted that the most important component of exam preparation is the outline of the class. I am not going to disagree with that. An outline of the class is a summation of the black letter law for the subject matter that is covered in the class. You must have an outline of the class built before you begin studying for your exam, or you will not be able to study efficiently enough for the exam to be prepared. No question about it. But before we get too far with this, let me give a few opinions here about the conventional approach to outlining. It’s all wrong.

If you subscribe to the conventional wisdom about outlining, you will go wrong with your outlining in at least two important ways: (1) you will outline your classes throughout the year, bit by bit every day; (2) you will write long, dense outlines, crammed full of every piece of information you have gathered in the cases, in the class room, and from outside reading. Each of these approaches to outlining is better than not outlining at all, for sure, but they will not equip you to maximize the way that outlines can help you succeed on your exams.

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Law School: A Bitter Writing Pill

Legal research and writing is critically important for your legal career, but more importantly for now, your first year exams. Why?

There are a couple reasons. First, and most importantly, whether you know it now or not: you are not a great writer.  I know, I know, you were an English major and your teachers always told you that writing was the best they had ever seen. I know, I know you won some undergrad award for poetry or journalism or whatever and the town Kiwanis Club gave you a dictionary with your name engraved on it.

I’ve heard it all before.  It never fails: guess the E.T.A. of the first time anyone tells a typical One L “as a matter of fact, you aren’t exactly Ernest Hemingway”? It happens about mid-October of every One L year, when I return their fi rst legal writing memo assignments with grades. I grade in red ink, and it’s a bloodbath.

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The Only One L Class that Really Matters

At this point it is pretty clear that one of the primary components of law school success is knowing what is important, and what isn’t. Going to class is important. Preparing for class? Not important. Outlining every day: not important. Outlining a few weeks before exams? Very important. Subject matter of classes? With the exception of one, not important.

The content of one first year class, however, is critically important.

Some law students are surprised when I tell them that it does not matter what classes they take in law school. Apparently they picked classes in undergrad based on their personal interests, and they assume that they should do the same in law school. There could not be anything further from the truth. Ask any practicing lawyer if any of their real law practice relies on anything they learned in a law school class about an area of the law, and most lawyers will look at you like you have just spoken in Portuguese.

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