Building a Comprehensive Outline

Condensing law school courses into outlines is a necessary skill needed in order to master law school, and will also be of great benefit in preparing for writing assignments, quizzes, and the bar exam itself. 

This article primarily covers comprehensive outlines, which contain the relevant statutes, case briefs, and notes for the course in question. This information should be organized logically and condensed as much as possible, while retaining all necessary details required to understand the subject matter.

When it comes time for exams, it is a common and beneficial practice to condense this comprehensive outline even further into an "attack outline", a process that will be covered in the next article of this series.

Create a Flexible Document

You can build an outline in any format you want, even with paper and pen, but utilizing a word processor will typically provide the most flexibility for adding to and editing your outline efficiently.

Most word processors typically have an "outline" function which will help create a readable document full of headings and multi-level subheadings. An additional benefit of this computerized format is that an attack outline can be quickly produced for exam purposes.

Add Major Headings

The most difficult part of building an outline for a law school course is determining how to organize the document; mainly because you haven't taken the course yet and are unfamiliar with the elements. 

Luckily, these courses will usually be accompanied by a textbook which contains a table of contents. This table of contents is an excellent place to find your headings because the major elements of a field of law are typically grouped into their own chapters.

Don't worry too much about making the outline pretty at this point; you will be editing, condensing, and reformatting it to better suit your studying needs over the course of the semester.

Add Subheadings

Once you have determined the major headings, it is time fill in the subheadings; the table of contents will typically help here as well. 

Let's say that the first major heading of your contracts outline is "Contract Formation", you will want subheadings for the different yes of contract formation, such as the general elements of formation, oral contract formation, written contract formation, and so forth.

While the table of contents is helpful in determining the proper order of these headings, don't forget that sometimes texts and/or professors will save advanced topics towards the end of the semester; when the students are more familiar with the legal field in question.

Just because you are taught this topic at the end, doesn't necessarily mean that the topic belongs at the end of the outline. Put it where it logically belongs. 

Figuring out how all the elements fit together is a part of the learning process and outlines are excellent tools with which to do this.

Brief Cases Directly Into The Outline

For each and every legal element, there will be case law setting precedents for how those elements are defined, interpreted, and for filling gaps and grey areas.

These cases will comprise a large portion of your outline, so briefing them directly into the outline will save large amounts of time later on, rather than briefing those cases in a separate document then transferring them.

While building the framework of your outline with headings and subheadings, don't forget to leave a subheading under each element for case law.

Take Notes Directly Into The Outline

As with case briefs, class notes will be taken anyway, so why not take them directly into the outline? Always include an open subheading under each heading you create just for notes.

Doing so can be another huge time saver, and can make your study resources much more efficient by allowing you to input notes where they belong logically, rather than in the chronological order taught in class.

Include Relevant Statutes In The Outline

Along with the general elements of legal fields, your professor will likely also be including any relevant federal and state statutes into your course, especially when they differ from the common law elements usually found in textbooks. 

Including these statutes into your outline will not only better prepare you for your own states bar exam, but will help you develop a bigger picture of the field of law in question.

Seeing how different states treat different scenarios under the same field of law can give you lots of point to argue when presented with an intentionally ambiguous exam question from your own professor.

Fill In The Holes

If you missed a class or didn't understand a particular case, you could consult a commercial outline or seek the help of a friend; sharing outlines and notes can be extremely beneficial and developing a network of willing friend can help you all.

The First Revision And Reorganization

Sometime during the midpoint of the semester (especially if you have midterm exams) you should take an evening to go over each of your comprehensive outlines and clean up and trim off any excess fat.

By now, you should have a decent handle on the fields of law being taught, and may be able to better make sense of the cases, laws, and notes taken earlier in the year. This increased knowledge will help you determine what items are necessary and what can be deleted or condensed.

Additionally, you may see some reorganization that needs to be done. For example, if one your Torts professor spent several days on the "Reasonable Man" standard, you may have that as a major heading. With your current and more advanced knowledge of the law, you now know that this standard should logically be placed under the main heading which deals with breach of duty and determining negligence, rather than being a heading by itself.

This midterm revision will help you become more familiar with the subject matter at hand and will save you time and effort when final exams roll around. At that point, you will be further condensing the comprehensive outline into a much smaller and efficient attack outline.