Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Outlining 101

This was originally posted at Thanks, But No Thanks. Nobody, the author, alternates with the Legal Underground and writes the weekly law school roundup. Reposted with permission.

Recently, one of the test prep companies on campus made the (grievous) mistake of inviting me to come in and speak to the 1Ls on "Survival Tips for Your 1L Year."

Hey. Quell your laughing, guys. They were serious, though I sort of suspect I was their backup choice. I love this sort of event, for the same reason I like blogging: giving out unsolicited advice is one of my favorite hobbies.

Anyway, I spoke on a panel of 4 upperclassmen from varying backgrounds and of varying academic interests. We had to answer all the token questions: Do you have any smart survival tips? (Obviously. Some more useful than others.) Is there anything you wished you knew? (Yes. Enough to write a book on it), Do you have any Socratic method horror stories? (I gave them the gory details of my first day of school)

We also got this one: What do I do about outlining?

This is what I said:

1. Just Do What Works for You: Mwhahahahah. Kidding. Sorry. Everyone says this in law school. What "just do what works for you" actually means is "I'm not that confident about my own system, and frankly, I've stumbled through so many that I can't remember how I got here anyway." The Just Do What Works For You approach isn't all that helpful if you have no idea what works for you.
The approach I recommend is the Don't Freak Out If Someone Else Does It Different approach. Someone is going to have a longer, more color-coded, outline than you do. Someone else will have an index. It will all be ok: you are good enough, smart enough, and you've spent enough damn hours on this outline that you're going to have to live with it.

2. Remember, Outlining is About Access: You do not need to know what Justice Storey said on page 49 of that opinion. I promise. Your outline should not contain this material. What your outline should do is provide a roadmap to the class. This means that major themes are featured, recurrent questions are addressed, and materials are synthesized (more on that later) in a way that makes them easy to access in your mid-exam flurry.

3. Class counts: If a topic is highlighted in class, you should have it in your outline. Your book notes will be helpful filler, but in 2.5 years of law school, I have yet to encounter an exam that favored topics exclusively covered in the book over lecture notes. Think about it. Your professor has several hours a week to hear himself talk about whatever he'd like. If he wanted you to ignore what he was saying, he would have made this a paper class.
My rule is this: if it is mentioned more than two days in class, the topic gets its own heading in my outline. Less than 10 minutes, and it doesn't make it in.

4. On the role of the book: One of the biggest mistakes I made 1L year was trying to synthesize the enter textbook into my outline. I ended up with a torts outline that was 109 pages long. This made people look at me like I was a crazy person (accurate) and was pretty much impossible to use during the exam, because it was so long and bulky (see #2).
I think this is a common 1L problem. Laying too heavily into the book not only ties up the time that would be better spent outlining or studying, but it can cause you to neglect the information that was focused on in lecture.

5. Easy there, turbo: Step slowly away from the squib cases. It is hard, when you're outlining, to resist the urge to put everything in there. To avoid this temptation and assuage my neurosis, I bring (a) class notes, (b) reading notes and (c) a copy of the assigned texts into my finals, when it is allowed. Here's the beauty of that approach: you don't have to put everything in your outline. If your professor throws you a curveball question, you will have your class notes, reading notes, and your book (which you've been taking notes in the margins in all along) to help you out. If none of those things help you, take a deep breath: everyone else is screwed too.

6. The Best Outline Prep is Reading: Seriously. Stay up on your reading. You're going to be almost $100k in debt for this- you might as well make your class time worth it by being prepared. That said, if you get behind (and you will)- it is ok to focus on the "big" cases and let the shorter ones slide when you start outlining. If it comes down to really understanding International Shoe or not, you're going to need to damage control. Get the big 'uns, and resist the urge to "catch up" on all of your reading when do you your outline- you do not need to have assiduous notes on every case, so long as you can find a case if you need it.

7. On Timing: I started outlining in mid-October, realized that nothing I'd done was useful, and started over again in November. This was later than I would have preferred, but not the end of the world. On a 4 unit class, I spent approximately 20-30 hours on my outline, over the course of the semester. I suspect this skews to the heavier side, but I could be wrong. I say this to warn you: it is easy to underestimate how long this process takes, especially first semester 1L year. I recommend starting in early to mid-October.
I don't recommend starting earlier- its hard to figure out the big picture of your courses when you're still trying to figure out what the hell is going on. As a 2L, I outlined in the last 2 weeks of the semester. That was about perfect for my purposes.

Here's What Works for Me: Candidly, this is how I outline. No one would give me a straight answer when I was a 1L, so I've done my best to explain my system. If it doesn't make sense, feel free to ask for clarification. There will be 2L and 3L readers that think I am full of crap- they may be on to something, but this is the system I have worked out:

  1. First, I grab the professor's syllabus*: He writes the test, so I figure he probably knows whats important. I use the syllabus as the framework for my outline. So, if Section I on the syllabus is "Personal Jurisdiction"- guess what is Section I in my outline?

  2. Then, I grab my book: I take the assigned reading, and I go through section by section, incorporating it into my baby outline. If it is bolded in the book, it goes into the outline. I add each case as well, noting the casebook page for each case.

  3. Then, I grab my class notes: I go through my class notes and fill out the "meat" of my outline. I like doing things in this order because, once I've incorporated my class notes, I can really see where the gaps in my learning are. This is also a great way to check (a) that you have all the class notes, and (b) see graphically what the prof has focused on.

  4. Then, I incorporate my reading notes: My reading notes fill in the gaps where my lecture notes are missing stuff. For cases, I include a bullet point or two summarizing the reasoning or significance of the case, and a quick byline that reminds me what the case is about. When I am feeling particularly anal-retentive, I make sure that each case is labeled with the page number of the reading material it is on (disclaimer: I have never used this feature).
    For example: Hawkins v. McGee (hairy hands case), CB 321
    - Damages should be difference between what was bargained for and what was recieved.
    - Pain and suffering are not compensable here because pain and suffering are part of the deal for surgery.
    - It is way too easy to make a masturbation joke here.

  5. Finally, I "synthesize": Every prof will tell you to do this. I am not entirely clear on what it means, but here's what I do: I go through my outline, and I read it, top to bottom. I go section by section, and I re-write. During this stage, I do a lot of condensing- this is helpful because (a) it helps me to recognize recurrent themes in the course, and (b) it makes my outline less unwieldy. Often, this is where I discover that there are some unanswered questions in my notes- I start to realize what I don't understand, and what I have a good handle on.
    More generally at this point in the game, I try to figure out what each case stands for, and the major themes of each section. Looking at the notes, I ask: what was the point of including this case? (note: this is differnet than "what was the point of this case?") I edit my outlines frequently, and re-read them frequently- outlines are all about the process of outlining, so this is basically review, channeling my OCD tendencies into something productive.

  6. Last but not least, I share: This is not a required step, but it is often very helpful. Once I have a solid outline (or at least a solid outline section), I go through it with someone else. Often, in talking about the material, we each tease out new questions. Two heads are better than one, in many cases, but be careful: just copying someone else's outline is often more confusing than helpful.
That's what I do. Tables of contents, color codings, and Advanced Outlining will be covered in Outlining 102: Oh My God How Is It Thanksgiving?! ....But you should do what works for you.

Happy outlining!

*Why does that sound so dirty?

Monday, September 07, 2009


From my mailbox: A writer described an awkward situation with gunners and people who argue with gunners and tension mounting in a 1L section and ended with a general question about appropriate classroom participation level.

If you have to ask, you may be over-participating.

Keep your "head down" in class for a week or so... only answer if called on. Listen to your peers for that week -- I mean really listen, don't think of counter-arguments or clever retorts. In your head, categorize the comments they make as follows: helpful/responsive; helpful/tangential; unhelpful/tangential. In future, make sure your own comments fall mostly into the first category and occasionally into the second.

I am a fan of class participation; I do not think it makes you a gunner just because you contribute to the class discussion. But make sure you actually contribute something.

Remember, you can't make your reputation in law school by any single comment in class, but you can sure as hell break it. If you really want the rep as the smartest guy in the room, shut the heck up and ace the exams.