Law School Outlining

Chances are, by the time you begin law school, you’ve already heard the term “outlines” being mentioned by people who’ve already been there.  To a new law student, this term can be intimidating or even confusing – it’s something you are supposed to create, that will help you on your finals, but how? Why? Law school outlines are most likely unlike anything you’ve ever created before.  But they are a vital tool in your law school toolbox and can help you on road to being a successful law student.

What are Law School Course Outlines?

Law outlines are a way to help you condense your material for the entire semester into one, easily digestible document.  They help you to see the “forest beyond the trees” and figure out how each class and each case fits into the “big picture” of the semester.  Law school outlines can take many forms – there is no one right way to do it. If you are condensing your materials, you can do that in whatever way speaks best to your learning style.  Most students choose to create law outlines in a “traditional” outline format, using roman numerals and a hierarchy of concepts, rules, and examples.  However, you can take a less traditional approach and use something like flashcards, or flow charts, or giant post-its on the walls in your rooms – literally any method that makes sense to you will work!

How to Create a Law School Outline

That process of condensing a semester’s worth of material is the most valuable part of law school outlining – more so than having a document from which to study at the end of it all. The process of making the law course outline is what helps you clarify what you have been learning in class.  It also gives you an opportunity to figure out what you don’t know at a point in the semester when you can actually do something about it, and not the night before final exams.

A good law school outline should be the result of hours and hours (days, really) of sifting through notes, case briefs, text books, and supplements, summarizing and paraphrasing until everything you need to know is in one concise document.  If you are creating a traditional law outline, it should ideally be no more than 30 pages. It is a long process, but one that is completely worth it because it will lead to a greater understanding of the material that you would not have otherwise achieved. When you start, give yourself a large chunk of time – around 4 hours is best. Then, once you are caught up, you can just add the weeks’ material to your law school course outlines on the weekends, and it will take much less time. It’s best to start a few weeks into the semester.  Ideally, you’d start to outline once you finish a unit in each class.  It’s important to stay on top of your law school outlines during the semester so that you can save enough time to work on practice exams as finals get near.

The Importance of the Outlining Process

Oftentimes, students make the mistake of merely copying and pasting their class notes into one document and calling it an outline.  This is a huge mistake for a few reasons! First of all, it results in law course outlines that are way too long to be useful – an 80 page outline will take an hour just to flip through, forget about actually reading the material!  But most importantly, when merely cutting and pasting, the process is lost.

Too often, students focus on the finished product – the law course outline itself – as the main goal. That’s why you will likely hear about the student who got all their law school outlines from a 2L, or students who are paying to download anonymous outlines on not-so-credible websites.  But remember – the finished product, while important, is not the most important thing you will get out of the outlining process. The PROCESS itself is the most important.

If you don’t go through the work of synthesizing your notes, condensing the material and figuring out where it all fits in, you are not going to give yourself the benefit of really learning the material. Knowing the facts of a case will not help you on your final exam if you don’t know where that case fits in, and how it will relate to your exam question. You need the process of outlining to teach you that.

If done correctly, a law school course outline will enable you to understand a semester’s worth of material, create an easy-to-reference guide for reviewing the law, prepare you for the next stage of studying (practice exams!), and ultimately help you perform your best on your finals.





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