A student once told me that outlining was “overrated.” Naturally, I asked him why he thought this. His response was “if you take good notes and basically understand what is going on in class, you do not need an outline.” The problem with this logic is that outlining has nothing to do with how well you read your cases, understand the subject matter or how neat your notes are. Outlining is taking every piece of information you have learned and putting it into a Big Picture. Without seeing the Big Picture, you will NOT be able to answer an exam question well.
So what is an outline?
The number one thing you must remember is that an outline is PERSONAL. While all outlines should have some common elements, it is your own unique creation based on how you personally learn. Your outline should contain the black letter law, very short case summaries, and other important information that helps you master that particular topic or sub-topic. Other than that, it can be handwritten on a napkin or created into a powerpoint just as long as it WORKS FOR YOU.
So when do you start?
Take out your syllabus, your book and your notebook and figure out when you will be completing major “sections” in the course. While you will be reviewing and understanding all along, block out time at the end of each “section” and devote it to bringing that section together. While putting it together, you can also fill in some gaps or clarify some points with your own notes, the book, your Professor’s office hours, commercial outlines or some examples and explanations.
I found this basic outline of an outline, and thought it might be helpful to at least help you visualize what an outline may look like.
- Division of topics into major headings
- Under each heading section, divide into the various rules of law
- Under each rule of law: define your terms
- List the elements in the rules, explaining what each means
- Give examples with specific case summaries and hypos to illustrate the elements and rules
- List the exceptions and limitations to rules – add cases as illustration
- Note policy considerations
- Note the remedy.
You never go into court and present your case without asking for a remedy! For some reason, however, law students often forget to include this. Now you won’t forget!
Good luck and have fun!!