Steps to Creating a Useful Outline in Law School

Creating an outline is an essential part of the law school studying process that many new law students may become confused by. After all, the process of creating an outline can be difficult if you aren't sure where to begin or what to include. To help you get started creating useful outlines for your law school courses, we've put together a set of steps that you can follow.

Below, we will be discussing the purpose of outlining before giving you the steps necessary to create a useful outline. We'll also be leaving you with some tips on when in the semester to go about your course outlines and how to use your outline to successfully pass your law school exams.

What Is the Purpose of Outlining?

Most law school courses are rigorous and leave students with much more information than they know what to do with. Outlining can help organize all of the information you are being taught in a course and help you think systematically about it. It also provides you a way to study for your end of semester exams easily, as all the information and details that you need to know are in one outline. Plus, as you create the outline, you will be reviewing course material, which encourages better retention of the information and a higher success rate on any tests.

Many law students will make sure to save their outlines after graduation and will use them as a studying aid for the bar exam. Depending on how in-depth your outlines are, they can make for great future studying or reference aids even after you pass the bar exam and land your first law job.

Steps to Creating a Useful Outline

In order to create a useful outline, there are several steps that you will need to follow. These steps can help you gather all the information and materials you need and organize it in a way that makes it easy to study.

Keep in mind that you can create your outline either by handwriting or through word processing software, but using a word processor can make your outline easier to read and simpler to save for long-term use.

Step One — Identify Issues and Topics

For each class that you take in law school, you will likely be given a syllabus to follow along with. On the syllabus, you will be able to identify any major issues and topics for that class. You can create a list of these topics and legal issues — these will be the major overarching issues that you will then expand on later on in the outlining process.

If you need help identifying issues or topics for a specific class, you can look back through lecture notes, any available lecture slides, and outline examples from previous years to get a sense of which items are the most important in the class.

Step Two — Organize Your Topics

Once you have identified your topics, you will need to organize them. Most students choose to use roman numerals or bullet points to indicate their overarching topic and any subtopics or details below them. You can also color-code your notes with a highlighter, if handwriting the outline, or by using different colored fonts in a word processor. Below, we give you an example of what your organizational structure may look like.

  1. Overarching Topic
    1. Subtopic
      1. Issues related to the subtopic
    2. Subtopic
      1. Issues related to the subtopic
      2. Issues related to the subtopic
  2. Overarching Topic
    1. Subtopic

SubtopicWhile organizing your outline, you should make an effort to keep related legal topics and issues together. It should be easy for you to review your outline later on and see how each issue relates to the other and what you should be mentioning on an exam if you are asked a question about a specific overarching topic. You can consult any lecture notes, your syllabus, or your textbook for more clarity when it comes to choosing and organizing topics and subtopics.

Step Three — Add Legal Rules and Notes

After you have all of your topics in place on the outline, you can go back through and start adding in legal rules and notes. An important part of this step is adding in rule statements — rule statements are explanations of the laws that apply to each topic. You can pull them directly from cases or from a series of cases. Rule statements don't necessarily have to be the language of the law, you can paraphrase or synthesize how you would like as long as you understand the legal rules that apply to each issue.

You should make sure that each rule statement you add applies to the cases that you have been covering in class and the specific way that your professor is teaching the law. This will help you excel on the end of semester exams. More information on creating and finding effective rule statements can be found here. Below, we give you an example of what adding a rule statement into your outline might look like.

  1. Overarching Topic — Rule Statement
    1. Subtopic — Rule Statement
      1. Issues related to the subtopic — Rule Statement
    2. Subtopic — Rule Statement
      1. Issues related to the subtopic
      2. Issues related to the subtopic

It is important to remember that your rule statements should be kept close to the issues or subtopic to which they apply, as this will help you focus your studying. You can also color-code your notes to where rule statements stand out from the rest of the outline to make for easy studying.

Step Four — Add Examples and Details

Examples and details are essential in any outline to help back up the class information, provide context, and expand on any legal issues. This is also a great place to include any notes that your professor has given about a specific topic and to add in case details that you have been asked to read or study for class. Even if you are using a classmate's outline or an older outline the professor has distributed to get you started, you should still make an effort to tailor your personal outline to things that have been discussed in class, as this is what will help you succeed on exams. Once examples and details have been added, your outline may look like this:

  1. Overarching Topic — Rule Statement
    1. Case examples, class notes, professor's comments
      1. Subtopic — Rule Statement
        1. Case example on subtopic
          1. Legal issues in the case
        2. Issues related to the subtopic
          1. Rule statement
          2. Case examples
            1. Legal issues in the case
      2. Subtopic — Rule Statement
        1. Professor and class notes on subtopic
          1. Case example and details
        2. Issues related to the subtopic
          1. Rule statement
          2. Professor's notes
          3. Case examples
            1. Legal issues in the case
          4. Issues related to the subtopic

When you add multiple examples and details, your outline can become quite confusing. This is when color-coding or bolding words can come into play to help you differentiate between subjects and the notes you list about them.

Step Six — Make Legal Connections

As you look over your outline, it is important to make legal connections between overarching topics, their subtopics, and your case examples. Some students will take breaks in between bullet points their notes to add in charts, graphs, or tables that help expand on the connections between subjects.

You can also add in any graphics that your professor has given as part of your notes or legal relation tables that you may find in your case book. You can choose to put whatever graphic works for you in your outline or can skip this step altogether as long as you are able to study the legal connections between issues in some way — legal connections are commonly tested on course exams.

Step Seven — Understand the Material

While making your outline, you may feel slightly confused about the topics or issues that you are writing down in it. It is important that you understand the material that you are outlining, as this will help you create better notes and feel more confident in the flow of information.

If you reach a point where you don't understand what you are outlining, it is better to stop and read up on the issue at hand before moving on. More preparation ahead of time will save you from trying to cram information last minute when finishing your outline or studying for an exam.

When Should You Start Outlining?

There are many mixed pieces of advice out there that recommend starting your outline at different points in the semester. However, outlining is very subjective and techniques can vary on how each person studies or learns. In general, you will want to start outlining after the first topic is covered in each class; this is typically 3 to 4 weeks after the start of the semester. If you outline as you move along in your courses, you can usually stay up to date with the information as it comes.

Other students choose to wait until almost the end of their courses before beginning their outline. This can be helpful if you are the type of person that wants all the information possible before you begin organizing and outlining it.

No matter when you start outlining, it is essential that you do not wait until the week before exams to begin. Your outline is something that should be worked on gradually throughout the semester and is not something that you can put together in the time before exams; the outline should be done a week or two before your exams so you can use it to study.

What Should You Leave Out of an Outline?

When creating your outline, you may be tempted to put every single class note and lecture topic in it in order to be as complete as possible. However, this is not the recommended approach. Putting too much information into your outline may end up with it containing word for word case law, legal text, and class notes — this will usually not help you study effectively.

Your outline should only contain brief notes of legal topics or subjects and the cases or examples that support those subjects. From there, you should be able to consult your notes or textbook for more lengthy information if you need a review. Your outline needs to be full of important information, but the information should be kept short and simple so as not to overwhelm you or confuse you as you study for exams.

Using Your Outline to Study for Exams

Once your outline is complete, you will be able to use it to study for exams. Our tips below can help you use your outline successfully.

Constantly Review the Outline

Constantly reviewing your outline during your classes will help you add any specific notes from your professor or identify issues that you may have missed. Plus, constantly reviewing the legal topics covered in your class will better prepare you to take the exam at the end of the semester.

Compare Your Outline

It can be helpful to compare your outline to those of your peers or those that have come from classes before you. A lot of the time, upper-class law students will allow professors to use their outlines as an example or will upload their outlines in the law school's database. This allows new students to download them and use them as a reference when making their own outlines.

Keep in mind that even if you can compare and reference other outlines, you should not be copying them. You need to create your own outline specifically tailored to your classes and professor's notes, as this will best prepare you to succeed in the course.

Consider a Brief Pre-Exam Outline

Before your exam, you may want to consider creating a one-page brief outline that covers the most important topics in your class. This can help you narrow the focus of your studying; if you need to review any topics, you can consult your longer outline during your study sessions.

Outlining for Law School Success

Outlining is a major part of law school and essential to success in your law school courses. Many new law students may be confused about how to go about outlining, but the process can be very simple once you know how to start. Make sure to consult our steps for creating a useful outline and to tailor each class's outline to your professor's specific notes and teaching points, and you will be sure to find success throughout your studying.