Outlining

Why do law students outline?

Law students outline to organize their notes, cases and information from other sources into a document to use in studying for exams. The outline pulls together and organizes all the rules from the cases and materials that you have read for that course.


Why not just buy a commercial outline or use one that an upperclass student has prepared?

Outlining is more about the process than the finished product. Much like a traditional law school essay exam is not about "the answer," but more about how you derived your answer. You must construct your own outline to achieve maximum reward. If you struggle with putting an outline together throughout the semester, you will begin to see "the big picture". This doesn't mean you must avoid other outlines because often other outlines may fill in the gaps or spark further ideas when you are stuck. But you must not substitute someone else's work for your own. If you do, you will never learn what you need to know. The value of an outline comes from making it, not having it. As you prepare your own outlines, you develop the skills necessary to understand the law in a way that will help you apply it to resolve the issues in an exam question, under pressure, and with time constraints.

What do I need to begin an outline?

Three things:

  1. Your Casebook
     
  2. Your Notes
     
  3. Your Syllabus

Like many students, you may also need an outside source, such as a hornbook, a commercial outline, or other student outline. These sources are used to supplement your reading from the casebook and class notes. A hornbook is best used as an authoritative source that ties together and explains legal concepts in a straightforward, informational format. A commercial outline generally is a clear, concise source of the black letter law.

Note: Some professors will tell you not to use commercial outlines, and some very successful students do not use them. You must grapple with the material to understand it, and this can be difficult and time-consuming--but when the light bulb goes off in your head, you will see that the time was very well-spent. However, if you cannot understand the material from reading the casebook, class notes, and from talking with the professor and other students, you need to seek help from other sources.

 

When do I outline?

Throughout the semester. After the first few weeks, try to outline each course, every week. Certainly, outline when you finish a section or chapter in your casebook. You might want to set aside Saturdays for outlining. Each week, add to the previous week's information. Some students outline a week or two before the exam. This is too late and results in extreme stress and "information overload."

How long should an outline be?

Long enough to be comprehensive, but not so long that the length is oppressive. Meaning--the length varies. You should have one comprehensive outline when you finish outlining at the end of the semester. You should condense that outline to several pages of black letter rules, principles and phrases that you can commit to memory during the study period and use as a checklist during an open-book exam. Other student outlines of the same professor's course might give you an idea on the length of your outline, but again: another student's work could be used as a guide; it should never become a substitute. An outline should not be a word-for-word regurgitation of your notes and case briefs. An outline is a summary of what you've learned. Think of an outline as a completed jigsaw puzzle; it should represent your attempt at putting all the pieces of what you've learned into one cohesive picture.

 

How do I put an outline together?

Step 1

Look at the table of contents of your casebook. What are the major categories listed (such as negligence, strict liability)? As an analogy, imagine you're putting together a puzzle; the first thing you need to do is look at the cover of the box to see what the completed picture should look like.

Step 2

Write down all of the categories listed in the table of contents. These should be the major sections of your outline.

Compare the order of the table of contents to the order that you covered the material in class. If your syllabus covers the material sequentially, from beginning to end, then your outline can follow the order of the table of contents. If your professor covered the material out of order or skipped certain sections of the book, use your syllabus as a guide in establishing the order of your outline. But still use the categories listed in the table of contents as the major sections of your outline.

Let's say you're outlining torts and the first section, according to the table of contents, is "negligence."

 

   Torts Outline

  1. Negligence

 

Step 3

Directly following the heading, write a general sentence/paragraph about the topic. While the information may come from a casebook, hornbook or class notes, use your own words to explain the subject to yourself.
 

Torts Outline

  1. Negligence
  • Unintentional conduct that falls below an acceptable standard of care...

 

Before continuing with the rest of the outline, ask yourself these questions about that section of the textbook:

  • What is this section about?
     
  • What set of problems are presented by the cases in this section?
     
  • How were the problems resolved in the cases? What do the case notes add to your understanding of this section?
     
  • What issues arise from these problems?
     
  • What rules (and principles) can be applied to solve the problems?
     
  • What policy purposes are served by the rules and/or principles?
     
  • What were the societal conditions which required the rules to be developed?

These questions set the stage. They help you put the topic in context and see the big picture.

 

Step 4

Now that you have the main category, look for some parts that you can use to further break down this large concept. Sometimes, the table of contents will give you these parts; sometimes you've talked about them in class. Look for the parts and further subdivide your outline, as below. (To go back to the puzzle analogy, imagine that you've decided to work on the sky, so you gather all the smaller pieces that are blue -- somehow, all these pieces need to be fitted together so that you can construct the sky.)

 

Torts Outline:

  1. Negligence

  • Unintentional conduct that falls below an accepted level of care.

           a. Duty

           b. Breach

           c. Causation

           d. Damages

 

Step 5

Flesh out each subpart with a definition, rule(s), explanation, or, in some cases, further subparts.

Using the puzzle analogy, sometimes the sky is a good starting point for putting together a puzzle because of the color used in each piece--blue. But even the sky may have further subparts, like clouds, sun, stars, etc. Similarly, you may think you've isolated a sub-issue in your outline, but you may need to make further divisions. For example, you may find in doing the torts outline that you can further define and divide duty, like below:

 

Torts Outline:

  1. Negligence
  • Unintentional conduct that falls below an accepted level of care.

            a. Duty

                i. Defined: ______________________________

                ii. To whom owed:

                     1. Traditionally, only those who were in privity of contract were   
                         owed a duty. (majority rule)

As you consider the rules that relate to each legal concept, ask yourself whether you know the different types of rules or other considerations that might apply. You need to know more than the majority rule. Generally and depending on the course, you should understand and add to your outline the following:

  1. Common Law, If different from the majority rule.
     
  2. Minority Rule
     
  3. Statutory Rule
     
  4. Modern Rule
     
  5. UCC
     
  6. Restatement
     
  7. Policy Considerations
     
  8. The particular view of your professor (very important).

 

Torts Outline:

  1. Negligence
  • Unintentional conduct that falls below an accepted level of care.

            a. Duty

                i. Defined: ______________________________

                ii. To whom owed:

                     1. Traditionally, only those who were in privity of contract were   
                         owed a duty. (majority rule)

                    2. Under the modern view, ...(minority rule)

 

Step 6

Find relationships among terms.

Make sure that when you are constructing an outline, you stop to think about the relationship between and among terms.

What is the relationship between duty and breach? Should duty come before causation? Why? Unless you know how each piece of your legal puzzle is connected, your outline will not bring you maximum results. Think about where each piece of the puzzle goes and how and why it belongs here and not there. Be flexible. Sometimes, you might have to move a piece from one place in the puzzle to another. However, as any good puzzler knows, you should never force a piece in where it does not belong. If you can't figure it out, ask another student, or better yet, a professor.

 

Step 7

Add cases and hypotheticals.

Notice that this is one of the final outlining steps. Cases and hypotheticals should be used to illustrate concepts or explain rules - they are only a piece of the puzzle, not the puzzle itself. Ask yourself what concept was this case meant to illustrate? You generally do not need to memorize the names and holdings of particular cases. You need to use what you have learned from the cases to analyze and resolve legal problems as they appear on exams.

 

Torts Outline:

  1. Negligence
  • Unintentional conduct that falls below an accepted level of care.

            a. Duty

                i. Defined: ______________________________

                ii. To whom owed:

                     1. Traditionally, only those who were in privity of contract were   
                         owed a duty. (majority rule)

                         - For example, in the case of the belladonna....

                    2. Under the modern view, ...(minority rule)

 

Step 8

Review and test. Having gone through your draft outline, make sure you aren't missing any pieces of the puzzle. Once you think your picture is complete, test it with a hypothetical. If the outline does not help you answer your hypothetical, you need to readjust. Your goal is to complete the outline with enough time to use it to answer practice exam questions.

 

The following are important summary points to remember when outlining:

  • An outline represents your understanding of how the various aspects of a course fit together, so you must create your own outline.
     
  • Outlining is a process that takes place throughout the semester. Cramming to create an outline at the end of the semester does not work.
     
  • Your outline should be built logically around legal concepts, not cases.
     
  • Use cases and hypotheticals to illustrate those concepts.

 

Adapted and revised  by Larasz Moody from  materials provided by Ruta Stropus and Charlotte Taylor, Office of Academic Support, DePaul University School of Law; and Linda Feldman, Director of Educational Services, Brooklyn Law School; Copyright 2000 Sheilah Vance. Information also provided by Herbert Ramy Director of Academic Support, Suffolk University Law school.

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