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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.

Every pre-written outline I saw in law school was 50 or 60 pages long. I can recall a goofy One L handing me an outline she had purchased. She had this silly gleam in her eyes: “Can you believe this outline? It’s fantastic! 75 pages with every detail imaginable. And I didn’t have to write a word!”  There is only one word that can adequately respond to this: IDIOT.

So don’t do any of that. It’s a waste of time and affirmatively harmful. Write your own outlines and keep them short.

Hornbooks are a key to the next piece of an exam-focused One L strategy.  A hornbook is a book that contains a summary of the “black letter law” on a particular topic that is covered in a first year class. A good hornbook synthesizes the cases and explains a concept and its ancillary components in a very understandable way. Sometimes a professor will assign a hornbook as a recommended reading tool.

For example, a commonly assigned hornbook in US law schools is Farnsworth, On Contracts. It is fantastic. There are hornbooks for every major subject area that you will have in the One L year. In an appendix I suggest one for each One L class, but you would do well to try to figure out which one your particular professor likes. It is very possible that he teaches his class and writes his exams almost directly out of that hornbook.

If you use them correctly, hornbooks are very powerful tools for developing your understanding of the basic subject matter covered in a One L class. A good hornbook takes the cases, synthesizes the rules from them, and then presents the rules on the page of the hornbook in the form of simple sentences stating the law. And it does this very efficiently. It distills out everything–it won’t make you slog through the cases again, or waste time in minutiae.

A good hornbook will clearly state the most important rules and the reasoning behind them in succinct terms. The hornbook will then explain the rules that flow from the main rules, the basic reasoning for the corollaries, and how they relate to the main principles. Finally, a hornbook will clearly state variations from the rules and the reasoning for the variations.

Professors love to separate out the good exams from the great exams by testing your knowledge of the most important variations from the main flow of the law of a subject. A hornbook is invaluable for making sure you know those, and more importantly, making sure you understand why they have emerged from the soup and are now “the law.”

Knowing this, one of the first things I would do in a class after I received the syllabus would be to take the hornbook I had bought for the class and locate the sections in the hornbook that covered the items in the syllabus. I would then copy those sections out of the hornbook, and staple the pages together. For a year long class, I might end up with a 30 or 40 pages long mini-hornbook that covered all the topics in the class.

I would use this mini-hornbook all year in the class to learn the material. I would also use it at the six weeks from exams mark to review an entire class as I put together the outline. Reading a hornbook as an exam approaches is like having a professor teach you the class all over again, without all the Socratic theater to slow you down.


  1. John
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I’m a one L this year and your book came highly recommended to me. Its also the most concrete advice I’ve received so far. Anyway, my question is what are your thoughts on joining clubs and organizations in law school? Any benefit to the job hunt process or to life in general?

  2. Gary Young
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink


    Take it from a guy who hires One Ls as law clerks and 3Ls as lawyers for my firm: clubs and orgs — save 1 — have virtually NO value in the job market. Any value that a club has is dramatically outstripped by the measurables: Class rank and GPA.

    The one organization that has real value? The primary academic law review at your school. But notice, the value of that organization isn’t because of what you do when you join it. Membership on law review is valuable only because it is usually a very credible evidence of superior academic performance when some lawyer is looking at your resume. So too with “Order of the Coif.”

  3. Crystal
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know about. What I was told was to create one long outline for each class (don’t wait until the last minute, and start the outline a few weeks after class begins). The original outline should be an organization of your class notes. If you don’t understand the rules you get a Gilbert’s Outlines, Emmanuel’s outline, or hornbook which clearly states the ROL and reasoning, and put those rules under each topic discussed in that class. About 4-6 weeks before exams, you should begin memorizing or going through the long outline, and creating a shorter one. Depending upon the material covered in the class (some classes cover way too much material or topics to condense the information to just 15 pages), the shorter outline will likely be between 15-30 pages. As you get closer and closer to exams, you then begin to develop hypotheticals or take practice exams, and outline your answers to those questions. That strategy has always gotten me an A. Basically, you can’t wait until 4-6 weeks before an exam to begin outlining and learning material for classes, if you want A’s and B’s (well, at least most students, and especially 1L’s). Word of advice for all, is to try to outline from the syllabus (especially if you prof. has provided a detailed one.

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