Outlining for the Perplexed

image1Someone outside the world of law schools might question the importance of outlining, but anybody in an American law school knows that outlining is just one of those things you have to deal with. Every US law student will make an outline at some point.

So what exactly is an outline? An outline is not a list of case summaries. It is not just your notes, or even what the professor says in lectures. Of course these things can be a part of your outline, but an outline really results from sitting down and reflecting upon the material you’ve studied. Make a list of all the relevant rules and principles, then support them with cases as proof of those principles. It is an exercise best done as early as possible in the semester—but we all slack off, so getting it done sometime before December is what the law school gods prescribe.

Many LLMs tend not to give outlining its due importance. Some feel it is only for the 1L courses—which are, to be fair, heavy on principles and more suited to outlining. This idea is somewhat inaccurate. Outlining is an exercise that benefits anyone in any law school class. That fact does not vary with the class year, nor does it depend upon the difficulty of the course you are taking. Outlining is the process of revising one’s material by trying to distill it into smaller chunks. This filtration process is what is important; the document does not need to be embellished into a 200-page thesis as an alternative to the casebook.

NYU Law has many resources for outlines. One very commendable effort is by NYU Law Women, who provide access to old outlines created by students. These can help build one’s confidence if you are new to the idea of outlining and can get you started in the right direction. They should not, however, substitute for your own outlines.

Another useful resource is the panel on outlining, hosted by the South Asian Law Students Association (SALSA), where a group of 2Ls speak about their experiences making outlines during their 1L year. One of their most useful recommendations is to build a checklist after you are done outlining, which you can carry with you into the exam. These checklists are, of course, very useful for open-book exams; you can walk in with your outlines and then reference rules and principles with ease.

Simply put, outlining is something you will do for the majority of November and depend on heavily in the days leading up to finals. It’s an important part of the law school experience and should be tested with a practice exam from the professor’s class. Your outline can be too detailed; cut it down as much as possible so that you aren’t going through pages and pages of text during your final. An attack outline, which is five to seven pages of just the important information, can also be useful.

Start building your outlines early. One of the best and most well-organized NYU Law outline banks, on the Student Bar Association site, is open to everybody. Look for your professor’s outline over there; if you can’t find it, at least the subject might be represented. This will really help if it’s your first time. And once you’ve outlined, it can be a bit like eating Pringles: impossible to stop.

Maybe that wasn’t the best analogy, but you get the point.