The Point Of "Outlining" in Law School & How to Do It

By Elana Goodwin on November 16, 2016

This article is brought to you by Kaplan, the leader in test prep for over 90 standardized tests, including the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT.

When it comes to studying for an exam in law school, outlining is a crucial tool and step in your test prep process.

If you’re not sure what an outline is, how to do it, or why it’s so important in law school, here’s your guide to outlining and why and how you should be doing it.

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What is an outline?

An outline’s purpose is to help with exam preparation by forcing you to review and synthesize your notes. An outline is your organized guide to cases, laws, and statutes, making it easier for you to study, understand, and remember material for a test.

It’s a good reference to be able to look at and more quickly read through before an exam, rather than your pages of copious notes. As such, it’s important to write your own outline, since outlining is a process and it’s not just about your final result.

Why should you outline?

By outlining, you figure out the black letter law and separate it from what your professor may have gotten sidetracked talking about in class. It’s your bare-bones review of what you’ll need to know on a test. By outlining, you’ll have to really think about the material — not just copy things down as you have it written in your notes — and actively think about all the different facets of the law you’ve learned and make some sort of sense of it and put order to it.

An outline is a well-organized, clear, easy to read study guide that includes all the important information you learned, without any of the extras. Most exams in law school will test you on your ability to apply the laws you learned to new problems -– so you need to fully understand the laws as they stand, and not just the situations in which they were established, in order to be able to correctly apply them to unseen and unknown circumstances on a test.

How long should an outline be?

Your class notes will be hundreds of pages and therefore impossible to actually study from. An outline makes you read through your notes and consolidate, only keeping the truly important cases, topics, and facts that you’ll want to include in your outline since they’ll be what you need to know for an exam.

As such, don’t make your outline too long or it’ll lose its usefulness. Try to keep your outline on the shorter side, at about half the size of your class notes or less.

How can I make a “good” outline?

Making a good outline takes time — so don’t wait until right before an exam to start working on yours. Start outlining about a month or so before your exam will be; this will give you time to review and re-familiarize yourself with the material you’ve already covered, and make it easier for you to add new cases and laws to your guide as you continue learning. You’ll have ample time to become more entrenched in the material and end up seeing the interconnectedness of the law and the coherent ways it relates to one another, rather than just seeing a mess of rulings.

You also don’t want to split up outlining duties with your study group but actually do the work yourself. After you make your outline, you can and should swap with members of your study group so you make sure that your interpretation of what your professor said matches up with theirs and your understanding of the law is correct.

A good outline will be one that makes you think critically as you go about outlining, so doing it yourself is crucial and will help with memory retention. How comprehensive and detailed your outline is doesn’t matter; a good outline is one that clearly presents and puts in order the cases and laws you need to study and makes it easier for you to study and apply them in an exam.

Can I use a commercial law school outline?

The short answer is yes — but don’t use it instead of making your own outline, but rather in addition to your outline. A commercial outline can be useful in helping you understand the black letter law and there is a time and place to use it. Using it before the semester starts or at the very beginning of the term can be helpful in giving you some background and familiarity with cases, laws, etc.

However, when it comes to using commercial outlines throughout the semester, you may want to shy away from doing so as you’ll want to pay more attention to how your professor explains and understands the law since they’ll be doing the grading on your papers and exams.

As a law school student, it’s integral to your success in law to know how to outline, so start outlining early and put in the outlining work yourself — it’ll pay off when it comes to test time.

Learn more about Kaplan’s test prep options and start building the confidence you need for Test Day.

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