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The Existing Hodgepodge of Study Aids Used in Law

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Commercial Outlines

Of the many types of study aids, the most commonly used is the commercial outline. Commercial outlines are published summaries of specific areas of the law (for example, torts, contracts, or criminal law) prepared exclusively for law students by law professors and other individuals with legal backgrounds. Their great advantage is that they give the law student the basic points of law needed to master a subject for exam-taking purposes in one highly condensed and relatively compact source. They also illustrate coherent ways to organize your own personal outlines.

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As explained in more detail in the article on studying for and taking law school exams, commercial outlines should be used not as a substitute for, but rather as a supplement to, your own personal course outlines. They are also useful for a review of the basic points of a course, both during its initial stages and immediately prior to exams- especially when you are having trouble mastering or understanding particular material. Most commercial outlines also contain sample exam questions and answers that can fruitfully be used to practice exam writing and analysis skills.

A number of companies publish commercial outlines, but in our experience the best outlines are consistently marketed under the names of Gilbert Law Summaries and Emanuel Law Outlines. While both are excellent, the differences between the two are marked. The Gilbert outlines are written, under the auspices of a board of editors comprised of dozens of top law school faculty members from across the country, in a traditional bare-bones outline form. They are relatively short and are packed with terse statements of the law with citation to its sources, but they offer less in-depth explanation of concepts at issue than do Emanuel's outlines. By contrast, Emanuel's outlines, written by 1976 Harvard Law School graduate Steven Emanuel, look and read more like novels (though admittedly ones not packed with excitement and suspense).

Another difference is in the number of different course topics covered. Gilbert outlines cover a broader spectrum of courses, including many second- and third-year courses. Emanuel outlines cover a more limited selection of courses and maintain a particularly good reputation with respect to their treatment of first-year classes.

Which brand or type of outlines you use is generally a matter of personal preference, availability, and need. However, in selecting a commercial outline, it makes sense to consider the following:
  • An outline written or edited by the professor teaching your course (or by a professor who wrote the textbook you are using) will usually be more helpful than other outlines covering your course topic.
  • An outline written by a noted expert in the field is often better than its competitors.
  • "Tried and true" outlines recommended by trusted fellow students for a particular course or professor are often superior to outlines not so recommended.
We can recommend the following outlines based on our experiences and those of our fellow law students:
  • Emanuel for contracts, criminal law, and criminal procedure and property
  • Gilbert Law Summaries for torts and real property
  • Sum & Substances civil procedure outline
Unfortunately, commercial outlines, like most law school study aids, are outrageously priced. If you are strapped for money, consider sharing commercial outlines with equally impecunious classmates, rotating on a scheduled basis. Fortunately, law libraries often carry a limited number of such outlines for student use. Used outlines may also be obtained either for free or at a fraction of their original cost from other law students who have already taken the particular class.

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Bar Outlines

Bar outlines, as their name implies, are commercial outlines designed to help law school graduates prepare for the bar exam. Students can use such outlines to study for law school classes, since they essentially impart the same black letter law as commercial outlines.

Law students can obtain bar outlines when they sign up for a bar review course, which they can do at any time. Because such courses are expensive, most students usually do not sign up for a review course until nearly the end of law school; thus they lack access to bar outlines until such time. Some bar review courses allow students to sign up for their services during the first and second years of law school for only a small down payment on the total price. (They also usually offer a small discount on the total price for an earlier sign-up.) They then provide such students with copies of their bar outlines at little or no extra cost to assist them with their law school classes.

Because they are written as refreshers for those who have already struggled with and learned the key rules and concepts, bar outlines tend to be sketchier and contain fewer helpful illustrations and hypotheticals than commercial outlines.

Fellow Law Student Outlines

Invaluable, but frequently overlooked or underutilized, sources of helpful outlines are your fellow students. The outlines of top students, especially those who have gotten As in the particular class, are often outstanding, and copies are sometimes still being circulated years after the student has graduated. Such outlines can be obtained in a variety of ways-from the authors themselves, from your friends, or on a quid pro quo basis from other students.

Likewise, if you know one of your classmates is at the top of your class and does a thorough job of outlining, see if you can study with him and obtain a copy of his outline, perhaps offering to share your own outlines, class notes, and other materials. It may be that he is behind in preparing for a class in which you are completely up-to-date; in any event, it is helpful to establish mutually beneficial relationships with top students and to obtain top-quality fellow student outlines where possible. In addition, observe rules of common courtesy and proper etiquette. If a top student shares her outline with you on condition that you not circulate it to others, respect this stipulation, even if you would not place similar restraints on sharing your own work.

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