The best strategies for outlining


By Alison Monahan

With the fall semester just beginning, most students have not yet begun to think about exam preparation. However, there is no time like the present to begin outlining. Many students prefer to hastily throw together their outlines in the last few weeks of the semester, but that often results in partial outlines, supplemented by a commercial outline or a copy of that mythical outline passed along through generations of law students. Little of the work is your own, and consequently, the tool is not as useful. The purpose of the outline is to help the law student organize and summarize all of the material from the semester, in a way that is manageable, logical and concise. Waiting until the days and weeks right before finals to begin outlining represents a missed opportunity. Here are a few tips to make your outlines useful and easy to create from day one of the semester.


         1. Begin with the syllabus

Your professor has given you the golden ticket in your quest to build a powerful outline: The syllabus. The syllabus is a good place to begin, because your professor has revealed their perspective on what is critically important in this class. They have highlighted the topics and cases that will be discussed and ultimately tested. Transfer the syllabus into an outline format (it may even come to you that way) and use it as the foundation for your outline. Everything else you do for the rest of the semester can be plugged into this well-organized base document.


          2. The table of contents is next

 Once you have figured out the basic map using the syllabus, you can fill in the finer points and greater detail using the table of contents in your case book. The publisher will put the cases in context for you. The cases will be grouped according to legal principle or set of laws. Use that information to gain a better understanding of why the cases you are reading are important and how they all fit together. Combining the syllabus and table of contents in this way provides you with an organized vessel in which to incorporate your class notes and case briefs to develop the perfect outline.


          3. Integrate case briefs as you go

It is easy to get behind when it comes to outlining. Law students are reading for several classes, writing briefs, taking notes, talking in class, and trying to remain calm through it all. Wait to begin integration of your case briefs when you understand how they all fit together. Once you have covered a case in class, incorporate the most important aspects of your briefs (which you will be able to identify from your lectures) into the outline you have created. Incorporate your case briefs after each class or possibly at the end of each week. Don’t wait too long. It doesn’t take long for things to pile up and get out of hand in law school. Adding content from your case briefs after you have discussed them in class, heard what the professor emphasized, and after you are sure you understand the most critical elements is ideal.


         4. Class notes capture what matters in class

Whether you type or hand-write your class notes, when it is time to integrate the class notes into the outline you have built from your syllabus, table of contents, and case briefs, the process will force you to review and further synthesize the information from your notes while you type it into the outline. You will be able to highlight and identify the points your professor emphasized and the things that you are fairly certain will be covered on the exam. Some people think that it is unnecessary to incorporate case briefs and class notes into an outline. That may be true for some, but for many, this is an opportunity to revisit the material after it has been discussed in class, and to incorporate the most important parts into a single outline document from which to study.


          5. Commercial outlines for verification

Once you have completed a particular topic in your outline, or maybe at the mid-term, you can use commercial outlines to check the information you have in your outline. I am not recommending that you add things from the commercial outline, because if the topic has not been covered in the syllabus, table of contents, cases, or class lectures, it’s unlikely that the professor will cover it with the exam material. I am suggesting that the commercial outline might help you further synthesize or understand the material that you suspect will be on the exam.


           6. Finally, reduce, reduce, reduce!

By the time you complete the five steps above, you probably have a giant outline. It’s not uncommon to end up with a 50 to 100-page outline (a 100-page outline is too long!). Law students cover copious amounts of information in each class in law school, but the key is to create a functional resource to help you prepare for exams. A 75-page outline is not useful for exam preparation. It is critical to analyze, synthesize, and reduce. As you continuously review your outline, you should be witling it down as you become more and more familiar with the material. You need to keep and organize all of the relevant topics, legal rules, and details, but you need to get all of that into a condensed format that will allow you to study for the exam. 10 – 20 pages is good. Even reducing your outline to a stack of notecards can be effective. In truth, your outline should be as long as necessary to be useful for you. If it helps you retain the black-letter law, case references, and relevant information emphasized by your professor, it is a perfect outline for you.


Outlining is a lot of work, but completely worth it in the end.

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl’s Guide to Law School®, which is a leading resource for women (and some men) embarking on a legal career. Alison is also a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox® and Bar Exam Toolbox® which provide free resources, tutoring and a variety of courses and tools to help law students and bar exam takers succeed with less stress and anxiety.