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How to Write an Outline
Law School Success

Some people will tell you that there are many perfectly valid ways to write an outline—we disagree.

For most of your academic career, you’ve probably made some sort of study guide or cheat sheet to help prepare yourself for final exams. In law school, this activity is so ingrained in the customs and traditions of being a law student that it has a name: outlining.

Unlike many of the other activities in which you’ll partake in law school, outlining is actually pretty important. What is it? Put simply, it’s the practice of taking your class notes, case briefs, syllabus, hornbook—basically all relevant information for a particular class, and synthesizing all of that information into a single document formatted as a multilevel list (AKA an outline).

Some people will tell you that there are many perfectly valid ways to write an outline. We disagree. Too many students waste precious time on writing large, complicated, over-stylized outlines that are counterproductive when it comes to preparing for finals. Your outline should be created with one goal in mind: to help you get an “A” on your exam. We’ve created this guide to tell you the right way (and wrong way) to write an outline.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • when to start outlining
  • what program you should use to outline
  • step-by-step instructions on how to write your outline, including what types of information to include and what types of information to exclude
  • the proper format and length of an outline
  • how to shorten your outline into an exam-wrecking cheat sheet

When to Start Outlining

The best way to answer the question of when to start outlining is to think about when not to start outlining. There’s little or no benefit to outlining too early. Why? Of all the materials and resources you may use to create your outline, helpful though they may be, only one has the power to write and grade the exam: your professor (more specifically, the class notes you take during your professor’s lecture). Figuring out what topics and cases are being emphasized in class is the most valuable thing you can do for outlining purposes, and that’s hard to do until you have a feel for what your professor is up to. Hence, you shouldn’t start outlining the first week of classes because (1) you don’t yet know your professor’s preferences, and (2) you likely won’t have enough material to sink your teeth into.

While it’s never too late to outline, there is an optimum time to start in order to maximize your chances of being prepared. Plan to start early enough to be completely finished with your outlines by reading week, so that you can spend that time reading, going over any topics you haven’t quite mastered, and practicing your issue spotting and essay writing.

As with many things in life, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Our advice: start mid-semester. Or, in other words, for the fall semester, start outlining in mid-October; for the spring semester, start in mid-March.

Where to Write Your Outline

Before you start outlining, you’ll want to think about what program you’ll use. Here are some options:

Microsoft Word

The most popular word processor on the planet; no surprises here.

  • Pros: Robust features, nearly universal adoption
  • Cons: Expensive, the Mac version’s user interface is terrible, and while native support for outlining is there, it’s super confusing. Lots of time wasted worrying about formatting and styling

iWorks

Apple’s answer to Microsoft Word.

  • Pros: Pretty much all the same stuff you’d get in Word
  • Cons: Confusing, less attractive user interface than Word

OmniOutliner 

A Mac program built for “deliberate writing.”

  • Pros: Native support for outlining, relatively inexpensive
  • Cons: Too many features, not tailored to law students

Step-by-Step Instructions

First, you’ll want to create a skeleton or, that is, your outline’s framework.

Take all the topic headings in your course syllabus and make them the skeleton of your outline. For example, if the first topic of your torts syllabus is intentional torts, that will be the first topic in your outline, as well. At this stage, your outline will just be topic headings. Don’t worry about substance yet. (Why are we doing this? Because the same person who wrote the syllabus is going to write your exam. There’s a strong possibility that the exam will be a reflection of the syllabus.)

Next, go to the table of contents in your casebook and find the assigned readings from the syllabus. Add to your outline any topics, subtopics, or cases from the casebook’s table of contents to flesh out your skeleton even further.

Basically, your outline’s skeleton will consist primarily of your course syllabus, with still more topic headings provided by your casebook’s table of contents.

Now that you have a skeleton, it’s time to start fleshing it out with substance.

  1. Go to your class notes and add them to the corresponding topic headings in your skeleton. For example, if you have extensive class notes about personal jurisdiction, then add those notes to the personal jurisdiction section of your outline. Star any “magic words” that your professor emphasized.
  2. Go to any case briefs you’ve prepared and add the salient details (typically just the facts and rule of law) to the corresponding case headings in your outline. For example, if you have a section of your outline on the Palsgraf case, then add the relevant parts of your Palsgraf case brief to that section.
  3. Go to any hornbooks that you have and further flesh out any topic headings that are looking slim. It’s very important, though, that you limit yourself to fleshing out only the skeleton that you started with from your course syllabus. Don’t go hog wild and start dumping massive parts of your hornbook into your outline.

By now, your outline should be looking much beefier. You don’t need to take any additional steps beyond this. That said, if you want bonus points, there are a few more peer-reviewing sort of things that you could do.

  • Go to an outline bank, and see if you can find outlines from previous years for your class. An outline bank is a repository of outlines, typically maintained by law journals. Unfortunately, you often need to be a member of the journal to access the outline bank. But there are also some websites or blogs out there with outline banks for free. If you manage to find an outline from a previous year covering the same professor for the same course, then skim through and see how it compares to your outline. It’s possible that these former students picked up on things that you missed. A word of caution: student outlines can be super helpful, but they’re not guaranteed to be accurate. Please make sure you scrutinize student-created outlines carefully
  • Join a study group, and compare outlines with others in your class. Like the outline bank idea, the goal here is to find gaps in your outline by seeing what others have done.

The Format

Formatting is where many law students will waste precious time.

The trick to staying sane is choosing a format and sticking with it for all your outlines. We suggest that you follow the MLA standard for outline formatting, which looks like this:

Try to keep your outline to a maximum depth of 5 or 6 levels.

In addition, each node of your outline should consist of a topic and a description.

Example:

  1. Personal Jurisdiction

The power of a court to exercise control over a particular person or item of property. There are three types: in personam, in rem, and quasi in rem.

Note that the topic is “Personal Jurisdiction” and sitting just below the topic is the description. Together, the topic and description form what we call a node. Each node of your outline should look like this. A topic should always have a description, and vice versa.

The Length

There are only two truths here: (1) too long is bad, and (2) efficiency is everything.

While it might make you feel better that you’ve typed up a 50 or 100 page outline with color-coded tabs, that fact alone is highly unlikely to make you better prepared for the exam. In fact, a super-long outline often indicates a less discriminating author.

If your first draft is too long, don’t worry. You can always edit and cut out extraneous material. Here’s a good place to start: go through the cases, eliminating any information you don’t need to understand the legal principle for which the case stands. Outside of a few landmark cases (cases of the sort that have whole doctrines or tests named after them), you don’t need to know the facts. Next, look to subjects you know well. It’s easy when outlining to spend too much time regurgitating everything you know about a topic you’re comfortable with while skimping on the topic areas you haven’t mastered. Cut out any extra details. Still too long? Let’s go back to the format. How many levels of depth do you have? Look at the deepest level and decide whether you really need that degree of specificity. You probably don’t.

Here’s the question you should ask yourself: is my outline the most efficient way for me to learn the material on which I’ll be tested? That last part is key: your outline should contain only testable material, not every blessed little detail about legal doctrines, frameworks, or cases that won’t be tested on the exam.

Remember: your exam will be a few hours, not a few days, meaning there’s a limit to how much stuff your professor can test you on.

We recommend that your outline not exceed 25 pages (assuming size 12 font, Times New Roman, double-spaced).

The Cheat Sheet

Let’s say you’ve got a 20-25 page outline. It adheres to everything in this guide, meaning that you’ve based the structure of your outline on your class syllabus and integrated your class notes, case briefs, and hornbooks. All done, right? Not exactly.

There’s still one more thing you can do: transform your outline into a 1-2 page cheat sheet. Why do this? One reason is that some exams will be open book. This will make rote memorization less useful, because you’ll have the ability to pull up information on the spot. However, even though your exam will be open book, having a cheat sheet at the ready will mean less time fumbling through your books to find the information. And when it comes to taking law school exams, time management is crucial. Plus, even if your exam is closed book, cheat sheets make great on-the-go and last-minute study aids. Standing in line at the post office or waiting around at the DMV? Make that time productive by pulling out your cheat sheet. Another reason making a cheat sheet is useful is that it forces you to think about what’s really important. The longer your outline, the more important it is that you create a cheat sheet.

How do you create a cheat sheet? As with writing your larger outline, there are many ways to do this, but here’s what we recommend:

  1. Review your notes and your complete outline. Go back over any concepts you haven’t mastered. The key to writing a great cheat sheet is understanding the topics well enough to boil them down to their absolute essence. Thus, writing your cheat sheet should be the final phase of the outlining process.
  2. Format your cheat sheet. Open your chosen word processing program. Set the margins as small as your printer will allow. Try starting at 0.5” all the way around the document and shrinking the margins from there; do a few test runs and stop when any text gets cut off. Choose a legible font with a naturally small footprint (something like Garamond is ideal), and drop the font size down. We recommend a size 8 font, but whatever you choose, make sure that it prints clearly and you can read it easily (meaning you won’t need any specialized equipment other than, for example, the glasses you normally wear, and you won’t have to waste precious time trying to make out the words).
  3. You’re ready to type! What should you include? Start by going through your larger outline and including every topic, at all levels of the outline (if your cheat sheet is too long, you can always prune out the less important topics later). Bold each topic.
  4. Now, forget everything you know about grammar and sentence structure. Do not write in complete sentences. Focus on including only as much information as you need to remember and understand the particular topic. Aim for dedicating no more than one line to each topic. Semicolons and numbers are your friends. Don’t bother including information you know by heart. A topic might look something like this:

Adverse Possession: continuous, hostile, open & notorious, actual, exclusive, 7 years; sometimes claim of right; sue to quiet title

Battery: harmful/offensive contact, person or connected to, intent, causation; offensive to reasonable person, no apprehension needed; intent transfers; nominal damages OK

  1. If you can’t figure out how to summarize a topic and include all the relevant factors and/or tests in one line, you might need to spend more time reviewing the topic. This could be an indication that you haven’t mastered the material.
  2. Go through this process for each and every topic included in your larger outline. Does it fit on 1-2 pages? Sweet! You’re all done.
  3. If your sheet is substantially less that one page, you should double-check your syllabus, casebook, and outline to make sure you’ve included every relevant topic. If so, see if there are any that need to be fleshed out.
  4. If your cheat sheet is more than two pages, it’s time to edit. Look critically at each item and decide if it’s helpful. First, go through items that were on the 5th or 6th level of your larger outline and decide if you need that level of specificity on your cheat sheet. Remember, you probably don’t.
  5. After you’ve culled all you can from the deepest levels of your outline, go back through and look for ways to condense the topics you are most familiar with; make use of any mnemonic devices or abbreviations you’re sure you’ll remember. For example, take a look back at our example of how the topic of adverse possession might look on your cheat sheet. You might have learned a mnemonic to help you remember the elements: choate (continuous, hostile, open, actual, time required, exclusive). If you feel comfortable with the topic, you might rewrite it as follows, and maybe even combine it with a related topic:

Adverse Possession: CHOAT(7yrs)E; quiet title; claim/right; Easement by Prescription: same elements; use only

  1. Remember always that the point is to include only that information that is most useful to you. Know what words will help trigger your memory, and work from there.

Conclusion

An outline is a synthesis of your class notes, case briefs, syllabus, and hornbook, documented and formatted as a multi-level list in a word-processing program of your choice.

The best time to start outlining is mid-semester. By then, you’ll have a good feel for your class materials and professor, as well as plenty of time before reading week and the final exam to get your outline into fighting shape.

Selecting a word processor to write your outline is a matter of personal preference. Microsoft Word is the most popular.

To ensure that your outline contains the proper information, follow our step-by-step instructions listed above. Use the MLA standard (I., A., 1., a., i.) for the numbering and lettering scheme of your outline. The length of your outline should not exceed 25 pages (assuming size 12 font, Times New Roman, double-spaced).

Once you’re done writing your outline, go back through your outline and boil everything down into a 1-2 page cheat sheet.

Happy outlining!