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Law School Tips: Week 9

Outlining Like a Champ, Part 1

The Function of Outlining

The challenge in outlining lies in organizing your class notes into a hierarchical structure that will help you on your exams. If you’ve taken your notes, the process of outlining will be relatively easy—simply a matter of condensing and organizing those notes, along with any information from secondary sources, into a structure of headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings, each followed by a short note or summary. If you outline successfully, you will improve your exam results enormously.

There are two principal benefits to outlining:
1.    Cementing information in your mind and helping you see the overall structure of the course, and
2.    Providing the “external storage” function, by which you create a reference document that’s convenient to use later.

The first benefit is the most important one; to derive this benefit, it’s essential that you prepare the outline yourself. What you include will reflect your organization of the course materials in a way that is meaningful to you. Every word in the outline should act as a cue for its source—your class notes, a case, or a secondary source. Your outline will be unique to you. Someone else’s outline will never be quite as useful, although it may help to clarify any points you don’t understand.

The following example illustrates how outlining can fit into your overall approach to study. Assume you’re assigned the case of Fisher v. Carrousel Motor Hotel, 424 S.W..2d 627 (Tex. 1967) for your Torts class.  In this case, Defendant “makes contact” with Plaintiff by snatching a plate from his hands; he never actually touches the Plaintiff. You’d begin by reading (carefully) and briefing the case, including sufficient detail about the facts, holding, and rationale to allow you to understand the case and to talk about it in class. If you were outlining, you would limit the level of detail. You’d condense the case down to the basic rule and then incorporate that rule into your outline. (Most computer word-processing programs can do the formatting for you). It is a classic mistake for first-year law students to simply recopy their notes or list one case after another. If you do your outline that way, it will be useless to you.

You might create the basic heading “Battery”. Under the subheading, “Contact Required for Battery,” you’d write, “definition satisfied by contact with anything attached to plaintiff’s body and practically identified with it". When you begin preparing for you exam, you’d study this rule as part of your study of battery (“contact is one of the elements of battery").

Often, it helps to create and memorize a mnemonic—a memory aid—to help your recall of rules that have several components. The specific holding of Fisher v. Carrousel would not form an explicit mnemonic by itself. Instead, you’d place it into a more inclusive mnemonic of all the elements of battery. This would help you to recall that the “contact” element of battery doesn’t require that the plaintiff himself be “touched”.

Extracted from Strategies & Tactics for the First Year Law Student (Maximize Your Grades) by Lazar Emanuel and Kimm Alayne Walton.

Coming next week: Outlining Like a Champ, Part 2