Congratulations, you’ve completed part of your law school career and at this point your probably beginning your outline or you’ve already completed it. Maybe you’ve already heard stories. Stories of 1Ls making sixty, seventy even eighty page outlines. If your anything like me your first impression must have been that making that big of an outline is insane. Furthermore your probably wandering how on earth somebody could memorize that much information.
The truth is nobody memorizes that much
The truth is law students don’t memorize their outlines. At least they don’t memorize everything word for word, that would be insane. Ever seen The Paper Chase? If you did before you started law school it likely gave you some pretty frightening ideas about what law school details. In the opening scene the professor calls on a student who basically informs him that he will breeze through law school because he has a “photographic memory”. The professor destroys him, and luckily that was an accurate depiction. Someone with really solid memorization capabilities does not have a huge advantage over other students.
Luckily for you, the goal of studying is not to memorize your outline, although you should be familiar with the outline. The more important thing is that you understand the concepts and issues within the outline because that’s what your going to be tested on in the all-important final exam.
Memorization is not going to get you a good grade
Although it’s true you need to know the applicable laws and be familiar with the applicable cases, law school exams are really testing your comprehension of the legal issues. For example, most professors consider the Erie Doctrine in Civil Procedure the most difficult topic conceptually to learn your 1L year. The truth is though its not very difficult to memorize the applicable cases – Byrd, Gaspirini, Hanna among several others. The difficult part is taking the concepts from the Erie Doctrine and actually being able to apply them to a given scenario on a final exam.
So What Should You Do With Your Outline?
Every single professor and I mean Every Single professor will tell you that you should write your own outline. You’ve got a 2L friend that got an A in your Torts class and you want to use his outline? Forget about it, your only doing yourself a disservice. Compiling your notes and creating an outline is memorization and it helps you re-learn concepts that you covered earlier in the semester.
Once you have compiled your outline then you can take another outline. If you don’t have access to an upper level students outline most SBA’s have an outline bank that you can take advantage of. At this point I recommend using the “good outline” to fill in gaps in your outline. We have a depository of high quality outlines available for free here.
Once your done with this take a look at your outline. Some students (like me) are completely comfortable with having a short outline (less than 30 pages), other students need to fill in every single piece of information and have 50 – 90 page outlines. Honestly this is somewhat of a preference issue, but in my opinion if your outline is that long you should shorten it down to no more than 50 pages. Why? Because most law school exams are time sensitive and a 70 page outline is going to be absolutely useless. But hey, you can also do what some of my peers did and create a 2 page table of contents just so you can sift through the endless pages.
Focus on the Important Stuff
On a related note, your outline should be focusing on the important issues and cases that you read. Notes cases can be important to, but you certainly should not be taking up a page of your outline for every notes case you read. There is a lot of decisions that go into creating an effective outline. You have to decide what the really important concepts are that you should dedicate your time to and what the mynute issues are that deserve a much smaller portion of time and space.
Everyone has different preferences for learning new material. Personally, I like to re-write certain sections of my outline that are significantly more complicated than others. Sometimes I will do this several times.
Flash Cards are not everybody’s cup of tea, but some classes like Constitutional Law for example are extremely case heavy. Every semester I make hundreds of notecards and sift through them a few times a week. It helps me tremendously with remembering cases because I’m naturally very poor at remembering names but I have an excellent memory when it comes to memorizing important facts in a case. Flash Cards are also helpful with learning concepts and definitions. Property Class for example feature a million definitions and concepts concerning concurrent property ownership and future interests. Flash Cards can be a saving grace when your faced with a multitude of new definitions.
If you prefer electronic flashcards there are also numerous online providers of flashcards that you can create from your cellphone. To name a few Quizlet, Brainscape and Chegg are some well renowned providers.
All Work & No Play Make a Law Student’s Life Dull
Outlining is extremely important but its also important to take time for pleasure, sleep and rest. Don’t end up like one of my friends chugging three monsters a day to keep her body moving. Besides, effective learning is only achieved when you are somewhat attentive. If you are bordering on exhaustion you’ll learn more tomorrow by taking a nap today.
I feel like if someone ever put a questionnaire to the students who received As in a class and the students who received a B in the class it would come up with a significant discrepancy in when the students started studying. I’ve noticed that many students don’t really get into writing outlines until two weeks before final exams begin. By then your preparing yourself for four core class exams and you don’t have the time to learn your outline in-depth. Many students don’t even complete their outlines until a day or two before the final exam.
Your best bet is to start early with typing up your outline. Depending on when you have Fall Break and Spring Break these might be the perfect opportunities for you to really nail down your outlines. I understand that it sucks to remain in study mode during break but sacrifices have to be made to achieve higher grades.
The best part is if you do your outline early, you will have opportunities to further your understanding of the matter by taking practice exams with your outline.
So your done with your outline and you can put it away now right? Wrong, learning in law school sometimes feels like a never-ending process and there’s some truth to that. I recommend running through your outlines at least once a week. It will help solidify your knowledge and you might find mistakes and holes in your outline that you can fill in.
I hope this article helped out with learning your law school outline. The first semester is a real pain because no one really knows what they are doing and everyone wants to perform exceptionally well. It gets significantly better the second semester. Just be focused and attentive in your studying and start early and you will do just fine!