Recalling our prior discussion that the name-of-the-law-school-game is the final exam you’ll take for each class, even early in your first law school semester, you’re likely already thinking, what should I be doing to prepare for exams?  Below are some thoughts on how you should be thinking about exam prep during the early days of the semester.  (A subsequent post will get down to the nitty-gritty business of actually creating an outline and studying for exams.)

What is an Outline?

So, first things first.  What is an outline?  Basically, it’s the key content of a class, distilled by you in a level of detail, phrasing and style that makes sense to you, in a single document.  The inputs are (in descending order of utility):  (i) your syllabus, (ii) your class notes, (iii) the text book, (iv) a borrowed outline from a prior student if they had the same professor and (v) a hornbook (far more useful if your prof wrote it; almost useless if not).

Outlining is a very personal thing.  (In a later post, I will tell you what I did, but I’ll caveat up front that I was a longer-form outliner than many and my process was quite time-consuming.  However, that process ensured I was fully prepared for my exams because of how closely it forced me to engage with the material.)  No matter your process, the key to successful outlining is to engage with the content in the class.  It should be an active process of synthesizing the class material, not a copy/paste job.

(You will recall from a previous post on note-taking that a good use of your time may be to process your class notes, cleaning them up, identifying questions, etc.  If that fits into your weekly schedule while keeping up with your reading, go for it.  But it’s not a substitute for preparing an outline.  Rather, it’s a way to prepare your notes for a more efficient outlining process later on.)

The Open Book/Open Note Exam Fallacy

Do not fall into this all-too-common trap:  taking your raw class notes, some borrowed outlines and your textbook into an open book/open note exam thinking, hey—I’m good—all the answers are just a control-f away.  Sorry!  It doesn’t work that way.  Most law school exams are virtual typing contests.  In a 3- or 4-hour session, for example, you might have to write several long essays, each with multiple sub-parts.  Trust me—there won’t be time to browse through a litany of materials looking for answers.  You need to know the answers already.  You should be able to read the prompt, quickly spot the issues and start writing.  Sure—you can reference your outline for smaller details, such as a case name, the four specific elements of a crime or other discrete points, but if you think that you can successfully navigate a law school exam by referencing hundreds of pages of raw class notes or, even worse, an outline you didn’t create (and therefore don’t know like the back of your hand—more on this important point below), you’re fooling yourself.  The way to set yourself up to issue spot, quickly figure out what you’re going to write and get going is to prepare and study a great outline.

When To Start Your Outline

You may be wondering when is the right time to begin an outline.  There will be people who claim they are starting their outline during the first few weeks of the semester.  Ignore these people.  You are not ready to outline.  Focus on your reading, do a few study groups, try to get some sleep and avoid having an anxiety attack.

My experience is that you need at least half the semester under your belt to be familiar enough with what is being taught in a class to even think about creating a worthwhile outline.  I absolutely forbid you to start your outline this early on.

People talking about outlining during the first weeks are (i) wasting their time and (ii) causing other people to feel even more insecurity and anxiety than they were already having.  Please believe me when I say, whatever they are doing is not productive, and you are not falling behind.

Law has the potential to be a never-ending exercise in comparing yourself to others, and that rarely leads to good personal decision-making.

(Pro tip: As a more general point about life and law, learn to tune out other people’s commentary on what they’re doing to prepare for exams, to apply for summer jobs, clerkships, who pulled an all-nighter at the firm, partnership prospects, etc.  Law has the potential to be a never-ending exercise in comparing yourself to others, and that rarely leads to good personal decision-making.  Trusting the voice inside yourself that says, “Self, we are not going to start outlining because we have only been to Contracts class twice, and that just seems pointless and silly,” is the beginning of developing judgment that will serve you well in your legal practice and beyond.)

My rule of thumb is to start outlining two-thirds of the way into the semester.  Some may say this is too late, but I would at least wait until the second half of the semester.  You need a substantial amount of time to work on the outline, so it’s a balancing act between starting that process early enough to finish it while also being able to stay on top of your reading assignments for the rest of the semester.  One of the hardest times is during the last few weeks of class when you need to seriously focus on outlining but are still getting new reading and material.  This is why you don’t want to go too hard right out of the gate.  The semester is a grind, and you need to be ready for the sprint to the finish during those final weeks.  Use the early weeks (especially first semester 1L year) to settle in, make sure you understand what is being taught and keep up with your reading.

OPOs—Other People’s Outlines

As people start to think about exams, you will hear about certain legendary outlines authored by prior, super-smart students.  In my time at UVA Law, for example, there was a former law review guy who went on to clerk for the Supreme Court, and his Fed Courts outline was lauded as the authoritative source for all things Fed Courts.

Here’s what OPOs are good for:  if you have a gap in your understanding, or perhaps you missed something in a lecture, checking how someone else phrased or framed a topic in their outline can be hugely useful in helping you resolve questions and identify problem areas in your outline.  If someone shares a high-quality outline, it’s nice to have that as a reference.  In the hierarchy of sources of information other than your class notes, I would rank a high-quality outline from another student who had the same professor above a hornbook (unless your prof wrote said hornbook).

(You may be wondering why the emphasis on using outlines only from students who had the same professor as you.  Recall in Part 3 where we talked about the importance of your class notes because they reflect the views of your professor—the arbiter of your grade for that course—regarding the course material?  Relying on an outline based on notes from another professor runs the risk of reflecting somewhat different interpretations of the material.  Better to rely on an outline based on the same material you were taught.)

Here’s what OPOs are not good for:  replacing the process of creating and studying your own outline.

This is really important so I’m going to bold it:  creating the outline is how you learn the material.  Though the end-product has some incremental value when you sit for your exam (we will discuss exam taking in a future post), the real value comes from putting in the work to create an awesome outline.  That process burns the material into your brain in a way that you can deploy the knowledge during a timed exam.  There is something inherently necessary about putting your fingers on the keyboard and generating the outline—grappling with the material, realizing that maybe you don’t understand something you thought you did—to set yourself up for success on a school exam.

Think of it this way—lots of people in my Fed Courts class had a copy of Supreme Court clerk guy’s old outline.  Did we all get As?  Of course not!  If OPOs were the secret to acing a law school exam, everyone would be writing A-level exams.  (For the record, I didn’t get an A either, I barely eked out an A-minus, but that class was full of nerds, so give me a break.)

Next post, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of my outlining methodology.

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