The Art Of Simplifying Study Habits Through Course Outline

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Thomas Mann says in The Magic Mountain, "Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject." The essence of the LCM approach to legal study is to bring order and simplification to your study habits, and it is through the course outline that this is done.

Case briefing, note taking, and reading and digesting outside material are only preliminary steps in the law school learning process. These activities-your daily assignments-are only half the job. From them you get only disorganized, often redundant or contradictory, raw materials. It is the process of outlining and outlining alone that converts this mass of information into a streamlined, usable form.

This will tell you what the value of an outline is, what it should include, and how it should be organized. The following will tell you how to actually assemble and write your outline.

What is the power of the outline? Simply put it is one source for all your information. What specifically can an outline do for you?
  1. An outline will aid your learning skills immeasurably. We assimilate and memorize information much better when that your courses will require you to gather information from lectures, cases, and outside sources. Studying for an examination by trying to reread these disparate materials will be difficult and inefficient if you don't consolidate those materials into a single source.
  2. An outline forces you to find the essence of a subject of law in a way case briefing and reading textbooks or notes can't. Why? Because writing outlines is hard work. You want to get the thing finished and get on with your studying. To do so, you'll have to cut out the surplus. Find the kernel, the essence of the law, discard the rest, and move on.
  3. Making an outline gives you an opportunity to see what you don't know and to find out that what you thought you knew you actually don't. Your case brief seems to say the rule is X, your professor seemed to say it was Y, and the law review article you read on the matter was so confusing you were left in a complete muddle. Outlining allows you to spot these areas of garbled input in plenty of time to find out the correct answer.
  4. An outline will clarify organizational problems. Professors and textbooks are not going to give you the wrong information, but they may not present it in the order that reflects the way the law actually is. By thinking about the topics, juggling them, and rearranging them in proper order, you'll have a much better understanding of how they relate.
  5. Creating an outline is long-term exam studying. Without consciously trying to, your efforts at outlining will teach you the law.

Your Outline's Contents:

Your "master outline," the key document from which you will study for your exams, is a consolidation of material from three sources: Your case briefs, your class notes and your notes from outside reading. The outlining process requires you to copy information from these sources into your master outline. You then set aside the notebooks containing those original materials and never refer to them again. The master outline, and that alone, will contain every bit of information you will or might be responsible for on the exam.

Your outline will contain three types of information (which do not correspond to the above-mentioned three sources for that information). Your outline will be made up of; general principles, Rules of law and facts and other considerations.

The "General Principles" section includes material relevant to the course, but which you won't be tested on. For instance, one can put into the General Principles section definitions of terms, the history of the area of law, what source books dealing with this subject are available, important articles on the topic, and so on. It is for your own personal knowledge.

The Rules of Law and Facts" section contains the essence, and the bulk, of your outline will be the rules of law you have learned and short fact patterns that will help you recognize when to apply those rules. These fact patterns and rules should be written out in complete, prose sentences.

The Importance of Facts:

When you write your outline, always include a factual scenario with each legal rule. By doing so, you will be able to spot issues on your exams by comparing those fact patterns to the ones you have included in your outline.

The "Other Considerations section will be a section that concludes your outline. Into this section goes information that you will try to add to your exam answer for extra credit (you'll see how to do this in the on taking exams). Although you could answer the exam question correctly without any of this material, by adding it you will be demonstrating to your professor that you have gone to that extra effort worthy of meriting an A.

Examples of this extra credit might be something professor mentioned in class-for instance, the underlying public policy behind a rule of law, a bit of legal philosophy, or a controversy in the field of law you're being tested on. In answering an exam question try to slip in at least one or two sentences about how well-known legal scholars or judges would react to an issue.

Organization Of Your Outline:

The overall organization of the outline is what we have just discussed: (I) general principles, (2) rules of law and facts, and (3) other considerations. This is straightforward. The internal organization of the rules of law and facts section, however, presents a challenge. In general, you should add the topics and subtopics roughly in the order in which they were presented in class. The most valuable part of outlining is the process of reorganizing and consolidating the information you have learned, pulling apart the organization that professors and textbooks give you and reassembling it logically, with the rules and exceptions in their proper places.

The Finer Points Of Outlining:

Should you include case names in your outline? (And, by implication, should you memorize them for the test?) In some courses, case names are synonymous with major doctrines and rules of law. Learning them and using them on the exam will be a good shorthand way to let your professor know you recognize a parallel situation. You can save much space and time in writing your exam answer by using such case names.

In other courses, case names are less valuable. In contracts, for instance, there are a few landmark decisions standing for propositions so clearly that they are synonymous with the rule applied in them. Most cases in contracts, torts, and real property are merely illustrations of the rule. So, just because the case you read for class on the subject of manifestation of an offer was In re Dolt's Zucchini, this does not mean that lawyers throughout the country uniformly refer to the proposition as the Dolt's Zucchini rule. In your outline, then, put only those case names that are widely identified with the legal rule.

How Long Should Your Outline Be: The answer is; long enough to include every bit of information that you might be tested on in your exam. Not a word more or a word less. Be sure to ask your professor exactly what's fair game for the exam. Your outline should include:
  • All the rules of law the professor might test you on.
  • Factual scenarios corresponding to each of those rules.
  • Important case names and their holdings.
  • Digests of relevant statutory provisions.
  • The "general principles" and "other considerations" material you consider important.

Your outlines should average about 35 to 40 pages of handwritten, legal-size paper. To keep it to this size, you must be very concise-boil all the rules of law, factual scenarios, and other considerations down to their essence. A ten-page case that has been turned by you into a two-page brief must be further distilled into a 30-word rule of law.

The Course Outline: Putting It All Together:

About three or four weeks after classes start, you should begin the outlining process. It is essential to start early. If you wait until the week prior to an exam, you won't have enough time to create a useful outline. The first step is to write a one- or two-page "source outline." This document is an outline of the topic and subtopic headings that will appear in your master outline. Under each heading you'll jot down where you can find the rule of law about that topic (the name of the case that dealt with that topic, the pages in your class notebook, the date of the lecture your professor discussed it, and the pages of any outside reading you did on the topic). The source outline does not include any rules of law; it simply contains brief notations as to where in your sources you can find those rules and any other information you want to include.

The source outline serves two purposes. First, it helps you organize the topics and subtopics before you start writing.

Second, it serves as a guide to writing your master outline. To make this source outline, you need several pieces of legal-size paper, a pencil or erasable pen, and a list of the major topics covered in class to date. A syllabus is the handiest, but you might also use the table of contents of your casebook or even a commercial outline. Using this list, write the major headings, leaving plenty of space between each.

Once you have added all the topics in an order you feel comfortable with, assemble your sources. If your notebooks are not paginated, number the pages at this point. Then, under each topic, write a short citation to the page in each source where that topic is discussed.

Some Final Thoughts Of Outlining:

Write your outline on legal-size lined paper. The longer size is preferable because it reduces ultimate page length. Don't use a spiral notebook; you'll have to insert material from time to time. To keep the pages together, use rubber bands or a large clamp.

It may be helpful to write a one- or two-page table of contents for your outline. This not only gives you a helpful guide as to what your outline contains, but-if you fill it in every time you write a portion of the outline-it is valuable as an indicator of what you have outlined so far and what remains to be done.

Don't miss anything once you have transferred the information from your note books and case briefs into the master outline, place a check mark next to or draw a line through that material where it appears in the notebooks and briefs. The purpose of doing this is so that you will be able to thumb through the original sources quickly and see if there is anything you have neglected to put in your outline.

For security's sake, always make a copy of the outline when you have finished a section. Keep this copy in a location separate from the original. The amount of time and effort you put into your outline (and the fact that it will be the sole document used for exam studying) makes keeping an extra copy very important.

If you are ambitious you may wish for completeness's sake to key the rule in your outline to the source material in your notebooks and briefs. This involves making simple notations in the margins of the outline next to each rule, indicating from which source you have extracted the information that appears in your master outline. For instance, you would write merely "N4, T29, Jones" just as you did for your source outline, to indicate that the information appearing in that spot in the outline came from page 4 of your notes, page 29 of a textbook on the subject, and your brief of the Jones v. Black case.

The purpose of doing this is to verify the accuracy of the material if you run into a conflict later with, say, a fellow student's conception of the rule.

You should update your master outline every three weeks or so. If you wait much longer than a month, the task becomes overly burdensome. I would also recommend that you stagger your outlining efforts so that you don't have to outline four or five courses on the same weekend.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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