1L Guide: How Do I Get Started on Outlining?

When I was a 1L, my Civ Pro TA told us that Halloween was the absolute latest day to get started on outlining. What she must not have understood at the time was that I didn’t really feel like it.

I instead started outlining a few days into November instead, rebel that I am, and it worked out fine. Still, everyone runs this race at their own pace, and it’s getting to be that time – December isn’t as far away as we might like to think. For 1Ls especially, outlining can be a lengthy process when you’ve never done it before. I didn’t even know what “outlining” meant when I showed up as a 1L, let alone how to get started.

It turns out that outlining is just *checks notes* checking your notes. Essentially, it refers to the process of reviewing and reorganizing class material into a convenient document to study and use as a reference during the exam. It’s writing yourself a comprehensive study guide/cheat-sheet, synthesizing all your course content into a handy one-stop shop. At this point, that content is probably scattered across assigned readings, class recordings, presentation slides, course handouts, and your own notes. Outlining is about bringing all that stuff together, and putting it into a format that is useful for answering exam questions.

Now that I’m a 3L, endowed with the awesome wisdom a passing grade in Torts bestows, my solemn duty is to impose unsolicited and marginally-helpful-at-best advice upon you, 1L reader. Here are some outlining tips and tricks:

Tip 1: Pump Up That Page Length

The basic calculus on how long your outline should turn out is a simple one. Your outline should include all the information necessary for scoring as many points as possible on an exam. So, more pages = more information = more points. Are you getting the idea? You are ideally going to want your outline to hit triple, if not quadruple, digits.

Consider that students start the semester with $15 worth of credit on their student accounts in order to pay for printing, and it’s only a few pennies per page. If you don’t routinely run out the semester’s printing allowance on outlines, that’s tuition money you wasted when you could have been using it to print out hundreds of pages of notes about the Erie Doctrine. Just as it is my solemn duty to regale you with this nonsense outlining advice, it is your solemn duty as a 1L to take advantage of every perk BC Law provides: eat every free pizza, get every free water bottle and t-shirt, and get those Lexis points. But most importantly, run those library printers out of paper like you’ve never even heard of a global deforestation crisis.

Tip 2: Cope Through Color-Coding

Outlining isn’t fun. It’s a studying technique.

You know what is fun? COLORING! Ask anyone below the age of 8 and they’ll confirm this, trust me. After you’ve printed your 300 page outline, grab some highlighters and light that sucker up. It doesn’t matter how, just make it pretty.

Tip 3: Knock It Off, Dan

Two mediocre jokes about outlining is enough, I think, so I’ll now turn to some actual advice…

Actual Outlining Advice Now That I’ve Remembered I’m Not An Especially Clever Person:

Outlining is basically just studying with extra steps. It’s giving yourself a chore, because grinding out the work of outlining is a better way of reviewing material than monotonously reading your notes over and over.

It’s also about taking your professor’s organization of course content, and reorganizing it to be useful to you as an exam-taker. Take, for example, the doctrine of personal jurisdiction. When I learned it in Civ Pro, we went through the Supreme Court case precedent chronologically from 1878 to 2016. Obviously there’s pedagogical value in doing so; drilling in on one particular example of the law progressing over time is a valuable exercise. The thing is, having all the cases in order isn’t especially useful when someone asks you to figure out where to find jurisdiction over an actual defendant in a real-world situation, or a hypothetical defendant in an issue spotter. Still, we read the cases chronologically and covered them in class chronologically, so my notes were formatted chronologically. When it came to outlining personal jurisdiction, I reorganized my notes out of chronological order and instead around this question: “How can I get jurisdiction over each type of defendant (in-state resident, in-state non-resident, or out-of-state resident)?” So, whereas my casebook reading notes may have initially looked something like the following…

  • Case, 1878
    • Facts
    • Holding
    • Legal Rule: 1+1=3 and 2+2=4
  • Case, 2016
    • Facts
    • Holding: Actually, 1+1=2
    • Legal Rule: 1+1=2

… after outlining, they might looked something more like:

  • Personal Jurisdiction
    • Legal rule:
      • 1+1=2 (for example, in Case, 2016… [facts][holding])
      • Also, 2+2= 4 (for example, in Case, 1878… [facts][holding])

That’s outlining in a nutshell, and my apologies to any lawyers or law students who weren’t warned there’d be math.

Outlining isn’t going to be complicated for some doctrinal areas – really any kind of legal area that involves checking off legal element boxes should be straightforward to outline (battery in torts or adverse possession in property, for example.) Sometimes it will be complicated, but forcing yourself to outline a topic will force you to understand it enough to put it in writing.

When it comes to the mechanics of outlining, the actual legwork, the best thing to do is to rewrite your notes, rather than copy and paste from your notes – doing so will take way longer, but rewriting is a good way of brute-forcing things into your memory without noticing you are doing it.

Obviously, don’t really sweat the page length like I suggested above. Your outline will be as long as it needs to be, probably anywhere from 50-100 pages. Some people will also write a shorter “attack” outline that only includes the black letter law and required analytical steps or legal elements for a given area – a sort of formalistic hopper you can run a fact pattern through to reach a legal conclusion.

Since my first semester, I have taken to splitting the difference on rewriting a full outline and writing an attack outline – I just copy, paste, and do basic reformatting in my notes to prepare my full outline, and then I handwrite my attack outline. Handwriting the attack outline allows a bit more freedom and creativity compared to Word or Google docs, drawing arrows and flowcharts and such. Also, we’ve all read those studies that professors like to put on their syllabi about how much better it is to handwrite notes instead of typing them out. Allow me a moment of arrogance, reader: I’ve done very well at BC Law so far, academically speaking. To the extent that it hasn’t all been dumb luck, I think handwriting my attack outlines has been a silver bullet for beating the curve. Take that as you will.

In conclusion, my Civ Pro TA was probably right about trying to start before Halloween. But, don’t panic if you haven’t. To set a more forgiving and realistic goal, I would advise that you just try not to rely on Thanksgiving as the time to catch up on all your outlining. First of all, you probably won’t be able to pull it off. Second, that’s going to ruin the holiday. If you instead wind up using Thanksgiving to finish your last outline, however, you are in good shape. If you use it to study your finished outlines and do practice exams, you’re killing it.

Best of luck heading into exam preparation season, 1Ls. Take a deep breath – it’s going to be fine, or at least funny in hindsight.


Dan Riley is a third-year student at BC Law. Contact him at rileydh@bc.edu.

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