One of the first things that new law school students learn about is the importance of outlining. If you don’t already know, outlining is the process of distilling everything that you’ve learned over the course of the semester into a short document. Your outline is (or should be) personal to you – the value in outlining comes not just from the finished product, but the work you did in creating it.
While I can’t tell you what the “right” way is for you to create an outline, here are a few tips that worked well for me.
Organization is the name of the game
Formatting outlines for use on a law school exam is all about organization. Since you’re on a time crunch, the goal is to be able to find the information you need, quickly. Your outline cannot simply be a regurgitation of your notes from class: coming up with a system of organizing your outline is crucial to it being a useful tool on exam day.
Bullet points distilling key points of law, page headings, a table of contents, and a new page for each major topic all helped me keep things organized. My biggest struggle on exam day was not with issue spotting, but was with doing a deep enough analysis. Consequently, my outlines reflected a checkbox format of analysis points to think about and discuss when writing an answer.
Templates help keep your focus on the content
One of the easiest ways to waste time while creating outlines is to spend hours tweaking the formatting. To avoid this, I spent about 30 minutes mid-way through the semester and created a master template for all of my outlines.
In my template, I set up:
- Title heading styles for each major topic
- Sub heading styles for sub-topics
- Boxes around all critical definitions
- Checkmark bullets next to “steps” used in analyzing
- Red “x” bullets next to things that would negate something
- Caution bullets next to a critical step, issue, or difference that could impact an analysis.
Here’s a quick example of what that looked like in practice:
Setting up your template in Pages
I used Pages to create my outline, but Word works just as well. I like Pages as it’s doesn’t have the clutter or complication of Word, which lets you focus on the content rather than the tool you’re creating it in.
Styles allow you to set formatting once, and then automatically re-apply the exact same formatting wherever you need.
To set up a style, first format the element (like a heading or definition) the way that you want it to look. Then, click on the Style drop-down menu in the formatting pane. Click on the + button the top right corner of the drop down to create a new style.
Boxes around definitions help you find a black-letter law definition quickly, which is a great help if you’re writing a rule statement.
I’ve frequently been asked how I got the boxes around my definitions. Click on the Layout tab, and then at the bottom of the window, under Borders & Rules, you can set a border to appear around a paragraph of text.
Bullet Point Styles can similarly be customized. Under the Bullets & Lists section, create a new style for each type of list item. You can search Google Images for icons to use in your outline if the ones Pages has aren’t suitable to your liking.
As I mentioned earlier, the value in an outline isn’t from the document itself. Don’t expect to walk into an exam with a copy of an outline from a student who previously did well in a class, thinking that you too will ace the class. It won’t happen, especially in a 1L class. Even if everything you need to know is written down and well organized, there just isn’t enough time for you to flip through everything and try and learn the law on the spot.
The real value of an outline comes from the process you go through in making it – rereading, synthesizing, and understanding the different elements of law. That said, walking into an exam with a beautifully crafted outline won’t get you an A on the final either. It’s just one tool of many (like practice exams) in helping you understand the material and apply knowledge to facts.