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Why You Need an Outline
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Law school classes have titles such as Contracts, Torts and Property. Rather comprehensive topics, no? Oh, they are.
You'll read hundreds of cases that inspire and examine every rule (and every exception to that rule) that has developed over the past 400 years. With classes that all-encompassing, you'll need a reliable method for synthesizing all the information. And that's where the outline comes in.
Creating Your Outline
Possibly the most important activity you will perform in preparation for your exam is creating a course outline, which helps you structure the large amount of information you must master to pass your final exams.
An outline is a collection of all of the work you have done during the semester condensed into a study guide. You can begin the process by using the Table of Contents from your casebook (or your professor's syllabus) as a "skeletal" outline that you then fill in with: (1) black-letter rules contained in the cases you read/briefed (or often from secondary sources you have referenced), (2) your class notes, (3) hypotheticals that your professor covered in class, (4) your professor's own ideas or thoughts on topics she explains in class, and (5) general legal themes and principles that run through the substantive legal arena.
As you would expect, creating your own outline from scratch is a time-consuming process, but it is a worthwhile endeavor so make sure you budget enough time. It is this process of creating your own outline that reinforces and organizes the voluminous amount of information that you will cover during the semester. The final product—the outline itself—is simply a study aid that will reinforce your understanding.
Relying on Someone Else's Outline
If you haven't managed your time effectively during the semester and don't have the time to outline each of your classes, you may want to consider working with an outline that was handed down from an upperclassman. The trick here is twofold: finding the right outline and knowing how to work with it.
The right outline has the following characteristics: (1) the student who created the outline had your same professor; (2) the student who created the outline was using the same edition of the casebook you are using; and (3) the student who created the outline received at least an A in the class. If you are able to find an outline that satisfies these three criteria, then you will have the option of adopting it as your own.
Be forewarned, however: There is no benefit to be received from simply sitting down and reading or copying an upperclassman's "A" outline. Instead, you must be willing to use that outline as a starting point—a draft that you will rework and revise to make sure that the all the things you would have included in your own outline make their way into what essentially turns out to be an improved "second edition" of the "A" outline. By the end of this process, most students will spend just as much time checking and revising the already proven outline as someone who sat down and wrote their own from scratch. The one advantage to this approach, however, is that you can spend a lot more time thinking about the law and refining your thoughts by avoiding most of the menial tasks (i.e., data input, organization, etc.) that go along with creating your own outline.