Writing your law school outlines (and starting early in the semester!) is one of the most important things you can do to maximize your chances of graduating at the top of your class. Many students struggle with outlining because they do not know where to begin!
Below is a step-by-step process on how to write a law school outline. To do so, you will need to gather your materials together − including your syllabus, your class notes, your casebook, and any supplements. We also recommend you have a cup of coffee in hand since outlining can be grueling!
How to Write a Law School Outline – Five Key Principles
Before we even discuss the in-depth guide on how to write a law school outline, we want to cover these five key principles that you should not lose sight of!
- 1.Outline early on in the semester. If you haven’t started already, start now! There is no reason to put it off. The sooner you have your outline, the sooner you can start to review it.
- 2. Your class notes are your most important resource. Remember your professor writes the exam. So whatever he or she says in class is gold! That is more important than anything you find in a supplement, casebook, etc. So always use your class notes as your primary resource.
- 3. Make your own outline. The process of outlining helps you more than anything else and it will be much easier for you to learn an outline you made.
- 4. Do not type up your class notes and call it your “outline”. That is a rookie mistake! Class notes are important but they will not be nearly well-organized enough to be used as an outline.
- 5. Organize your outline in a way that makes sense (which we will tell you below!)
How to Write a Law School Outline: An In-Depth Guide
1. First, figure out the overall structure of your outline by looking at your syllabus.
For your Contracts course, for example, you may talk about contract formation first (offer, acceptance, consideration,). Then you may talk about defenses (illegality, insanity), and the statute of frauds. You may also talk about remedies (for both the UCC and Common Law).
Look at the main headings in your syllabus to see the overall organization of your class. If your professor does not have a detailed syllabus, check your casebook to see the main headings that appear above the cases you are assigned.
A birds-eye view of your outline might look something like this (this is admittedly a bit abbreviated):
2. Start with the first issue (e.g. offer, above) and find the rules to go with each issue.
The absolute best resource to find the rule is your class notes. (Your professor writes the exam so it makes sense to know the rules they want you to know!) Your professor should either state the rule or point it out in a statute, restatement section, or case during class. Take very good notes on whatever your professor says the rules are.
For example, let’s just take offer, above. Here are some of the rules that go with it.
3. Break down the rules into manageable parts.
Rather than having one long sentence, try to divide it or break it down into parts. This makes it much easier to learn when you are reviewing your outline. We also think it is a good idea to format your outline to draw attention to the rules. (We bolded the elements below, but some people like to use one specific color for the rules – do whatever you like best!)
For example, instead of writing what is above you could break it down as follows:
Wouldn’t you much rather look at an outline that is neatly separated into its logical elements rather than a few long sentences (like under (2) above)?
4. Add cases (or at least the rules from cases)!
If you take our advice and outline early, you will have plenty of time to add the important cases that you discuss in class. (If you start outlining late, it is probably a better idea to still include all the landmark cases – but for the other cases, just make sure you have the rule.)
Do not include super-long descriptions of the cases. Do not include case briefs for each case! Try to summarize a case in one or two sentences. Write the summary in your own words. It does not have to be eloquent or well-written!
You can use your class notes, case book, or a commercial briefs book to find the rules. We recommend that you use your class notes (it is your best resource) and you can use your casebook or any commercial briefs as a back-up .
We’ve added the cases in highlighted font below.
5. Use hypothetical examples or important points your professor made in class to illustrate a rule.
It is crucial to include hypothetical examples and important points that the professor makes in class in your outline because they show you how the law is applied to facts. Further, your professor is likely to test these points.
6. Identify and draw attention to the minority rules, exceptions to the rules, and the parts of law that are unsettled.
Outline the ambiguities, contradictions, and exceptions in the law. If there is a minority rule or an exception to the rule, state it. If you are assigned two cases that contradict each other, include both. We don’t have an example for this portion of the outline, but the point is to not avoid gray areas or ambiguities – rather, draw attention to them! These are commonly tested on exams!
Once you have your outline made, constantly review your outline! Go back and repeatedly review it so you can memorize it. It is best to make it a habit to repeatedly review your outline (however you learn best!). If you are auditory, cover up your outline and try to say it out loud. I use to review all of my outlines by covering them up then trying to rewrite portions of them from memory (I kept doing it until I wrote it perfectly!)
Looking for help outlining or one-on-one tutoring?
We help students every single semester with their outlining skills! Some students hire us for just one session to go over an outline together and make sure they are on the right track. Other students meet us once a week (online or in person). Our law school tutors are excellent and graduated at the top of their class. What we cover with students includes:
- outlining skills (we can even help make an outline with you in a google document!)
- comprehension (we make sure you understand all of the concepts your professor goes over! We explain it in plain terms!)
- exam-taking skills (many students will use our services by taking practice exams and then going over them with a tutor — this is invaluable and helps many “B” students turn into “A” students!)
- other things you may need (students have used us to “quiz” them, give them techniques on memorization, or just to ask us questions they have about the law!)
If you are interested in tutoring feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 248-228-5547.
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Ms. Ashley Heidemann graduated as the number 1 law student out of over 200 students in her class of 2011 at Wayne State University. She now works as a tutor for law students and the bar exam. She also offers an online Law School Preparatory Course for students interested in learning the skills necessary to achieve a high GPA in law school.