How do you outline in U.S. law school?

Multi-ethnic students sitting at college library. Students using making notes, using laptop and mobile phones while studying together.

[ Juliana Del Pesco, BARBRI International Legal Manager, Americas ]

Outlining simply is synthesizing and meshing course material so you can access details quickly and digest concepts broadly. This process helps you master complex course material by organizing it into something meaningful and understandable for you … and, ultimately, to study for final exams.

A law school outline should consist of things like:

  • the rules from the cases you study
  • your summarized class notes
  • the professor’s hypotheticals
  • any other material that the professor has brought into discussions or alluded to in lectures

Almost every professor will tell you to start outlining early in the semester. Creating your own outline, rather than borrowing, is highly recommended. It may be time consuming but expressing the relevant principles of the law in your own words will help your comprehension and understanding.

Here are our recommended steps:

#1 – Gather the facts

It’s difficult to build out a meaningful outline without some substance. First, gather all of your foundational information in one place — including your case briefs, class notes, casebook, and maybe a study aid like your BARBRI outline or a handed-down outline.

#2 – Create a framework

The table of contents in your casebook already has the makings of an outline so you can easily use it as the foundation for yours. It clearly lays out the major area of law, the related subtopics, and where all the cases fit into the discussion. If your professor teaches to a course syllabus rather than following a table of contents, lay out your outline using the syllabus in a similar manner.

#3 – State the rule, thoroughly

Add a clear and complete statement defining the rule of law (e.g., “Battery is ….”). Do this for each rule based on what has been laid out by your professor, a case you read, information you gathered from a commercial outline or hornbook, or some other source. It’s critical that you understand and can clearly state the rule.

#4 – Break down the rule into its elements

Next, break down the rule itself into its component parts, or elements. Each element then needs to be defined (e.g., List out all four elements of battery and what they entail). The order should follow the way in which the elements were laid out in class by your professor, or how they track in your casebook. It will serve you well on your final exam to take the time to dissect each rule in this way. You’ll likely be asked to write about an element or elements of battery on the essay exam rather than the rule itself.

#5 – Follow each element with some hypotheticals

Law school exams are based around hypothetical situations. The more practice you have, the more comfortable you’ll be in applying law from cases to new hypotheticals when you encounter them on your exams. You’ll have to grapple with unusual fact patterns and be able to determine which rule should be used to solve the problem created by those facts. I personally found the practice of illustrating how the rule works to be very helpful as a way to truly understand and learn the rules of law.

For additional note-taking and law school outlining tips, click here. 

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