How to Outline for Law School Exams

In Academic on March 15, 2011 by NLLSA Attorney General Tagged: , , ,

The key to success in the traditional law school class is to focus on the exam.  The pressures of the Socratic method often lead law students to dwell on their performance in class instead of on the only graded exercise in the course.  Instead, spend your time creating a strong outline for the exam.

Here, I will walk you through my first year Contracts Outline (attached in it’s entirety, below) as I describe my process of creating a solid law school outline. MORE…

The curve - where do you fall?

Why do law students outline? It’s not because, ten years from now, you want to remember the fact pattern in Hawkins vs. McGee or because you want to force your yellowed outlines on your children as mementos of an age when we still used paper.

You outline because you want to pass the exam.

This means you should not try to record every detail or write the next treatise on torts. Instead, keep the information in your outline concise, and organize your outline in a way that is useful to you when answering a law school issue-spotter.

{ Keep it Simple }

Preparing for class and preparing for the exam are two very different things.  When you are worried about being cold-called in contracts, you tend to focus on the minutiae of each case.  In an exam, you will not have the time to re-read your paragraph description and most of the facts will be irrelevant to your answer anyway.

Here’s an example from my first year class notes for Contracts:

Lucy v. Zehmer, 196 V.A. 493 (1954)
FACTS: Both Lucy & Zehmer are drinking in a tavern Christmas Eve.  They draft a contract on the back of a receipt allowing Lucy an option to buy Zehmer’s land, re-write it (b/c it was in singular) get the wife to sign it.  Lucy takes the contract, Zehmer says it was just a joke.  Lucy comes up w/ the money, does a title search, gets a lawyer, and tries to buy the land.

Cumbersome, and not very useful.  I went on to describe the procedural posture, issue, holding, and analysis for half a page.  A better option is to do this:

Jokes that meet the Restatement definition of promise (above) are binding.  See Lucy v. Zehmer (contact signed in a tavern on the back of a receipt are binding) [p. 32]

This is how it breaks down:

[concise and generalized statement of the rule]. Case Name (relevant facts) [page number]

As you can see, the focus is on the generalized rule of law with the case name supplemental, just as you would use it on an exam.  Then I include a short summary of the facts in a sentence I could drop directly, word for word, into an issue-spotter, and finally the page number for that one unlikely occasion that I will actually need to know the specifics of the case in order to answer a question.

Now that we have this simple two line case summary, where do we put it?

{ Organize }

There are two different types of information contained in an outline: area of law information and rule information.

Area of Law information is the backbone of your outline.  Getting a handle on overall organization is essential to navigating your outline and ensuring you don’t miss any large issues on the exam.  You can organize the areas of law in any way that is intuitive to you, but this is how I do it.

For example, in Contracts I broke the course down into six questions that track the natural progression of a contract:

  1. Is there a Contract?
  2. Is it Enforceable?
  3. What are the Contract’s terms?
  4. Is there a defense against Enforcement or excuse for Breach?
  5. Was the Contract breached?
  6. What are the Remedies?

Within these six categories I can situate every legal area and issue we have discussed in contracts.  This outline is easy to reference because I can quickly go down the list, asking myself each question, and identify which areas I need to cover in the issue-spotter.

On the day of the exam, I print out multiple copies of this meta-outline.  For each issue-spotter I go down this list and mark which of the questions are relevant to the facts given.  Then, when answering, I make sure to cover every issue I’ve identified.

Rule information fleshes out the organizational skeleton you created above.  Rules describe the manner in which courts evaluate issues before them.

For example, in addressing 2. Is it Enforceable? in my outline above, applying the Statute of Frauds breaks down into three steps:

  1. Is it within the statute?
  2. Is there sufficient memorandum?
  3. Is there an exception that will allow us to enforce it?

Step 2 has three requirements in order for the memorandum to be sufficient, so I outline it like so:

2. Is there sufficient memorandum? It must :

  • [1] Be Written
  • [2] Contain Essential terms: statement of quantity sufficient
  • [2] Be Signed: by the party against whom contract is being enforced
    • Multiple Documents can be combined. See Crabtree (unsigned memo + payroll cards sufficient to establish employment contract) [306]
      • [a] one is signed
      • [b] clearly relate to the same transaction

Note how the Crabtree case is embedded in the outline, referencing the generalized rule the case establishes and including a succinct and specific description of the facts that could be dropped directly into your answer.

{ Copy your Outline onto the Exam }

An answer would look something like this:

In order for the memorandum to be sufficient, it must be written, contain certain essential terms, and be signed by the party against whom the contract is being enforced.  Here, the contract was written by A on toilet paper.  The writing notes that B is purchasing four pieces of breach-front property in Idaho from A for $50, and is signed by B.  Even though the pieces of toilet paper are separate, and only one is signed by B, Crabtree tells us that multiple documents such as a memo and payroll cards are sufficient to establish a contract so long as one is signed and they clearly relate to the same transaction.  Here, the first piece of toilet paper is signed and the rest all reference various beach-front properties in Idaho.  Therefore memorandum is sufficient in this case.

Notice how my outline did the heavy lifting for me, all I did was restate what I already had, plug in the specific facts, and determine whether those facts fell within the rule.

At the end, I review all of my meta-outlines to ensure I have talked about every major issue in the course.  Although not all professors will include all issues on their exams, I always spend my last twenty minutes figuring out ways to stuff unaddressed issues into my responses.  It won’t count against you, and can only get you extra points.

{ Get an A }

Easy, huh?  It’s as simple as that, now go make me proud.

(Here is my Contract’s Outline, as promised, for your enjoyment)


Alex Uballez is a third-year student at  Columbia University School of Law and Attorney General of the National Latina/o Law Student Association.


6 Responses to “How to Outline for Law School Exams”

  1. Great tips! This process is completely mystified in law school (as simple as it sounds). Thanks for taking the time to post this!

  2. Hey, as a 2L now I could’ve really used this post about a year ago. This is very useful, I’ll pass it along. Great post

  3. This is very helpful. “Make an outline” and “work on your outline” is something we all love telling 1Ls, but neither to the 1Ls nor the people advising it know what this means or how to properly do it. Thanks for providing context and examples.

  4. […] admin posted about this interesting story. Here is a small section of the postHere, I will walk you through my first year Contracts Outline (attached in it’s entirety, below) as I describe the process of creating a solid law school outline that will prepare you to win the law school game. … […]

  5. […] renetta70ren posted about this interesting story. Here is a small section of the postInstead, spend your time creating a strong outline for the exam. Here, I will walk you through my first year Contracts Outline (attached in it’s entirety, below) as I describe my process of creating a solid law school outline. MORE… … […]

  6. One of the keys is certainly reading through the applicable study aids-

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