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How do I create a law school outline? (an in-depth guide)

Writing your law school outlines (and starting early in the semester!) is one of the most important things you can do to maximize your chances of graduating at the top of your class. Many students struggle with outlining because they do not know where to begin.

Below is a step-by-step process on how to write a law school outline. To do so, you will need to gather your materials together. We recommend you have the following on hand:

  • Syllabus
  • Class notes
  • Casebook
  • Any supplements you use
  • Laptop

We also recommend you have a cup of coffee in hand since outlining can be grueling! (But it can also be fun!)

 

How to write a law school outline—five  key principles

Before we even discuss the in-depth guide on how to write a law school outline, we want to cover these five key principles that you should not lose sight of!

1. Outline early on in the semester

If the class has begun and you haven’t started outlining, start now! There is no reason to put it off. The sooner you have your outline, the sooner you can start to review it.

2. Your class notes are your most important resource

Remember that your professor writes the exam. So, whatever he or she says in class is gold! That is more important than anything you find in a supplement, casebook, etc. Always use your class notes as your primary resource. Supplements can be used to fill in the gaps where your class notes are unclear or when you do not understand something.

3. Make your own outline

The process of outlining helps you more than anything else and it will be much easier for you to learn an outline you made. It will be tailored to your exact learning style.

4. Do not type up your class notes and call it your “outline”

That is a rookie mistake! Class notes are important but they will not be nearly well-organized enough to be used as an outline.

5. Organize your outline in a way that makes sense

We discuss this below!

How to write a law school outline: an in-depth guide

1. First, figure out the overall structure of your outline by looking at your syllabus

For your Contracts course, for example, you may talk about contract formation first (offer, acceptance, consideration). Then, you may talk about defenses (illegality, insanity), and the Statute of Frauds. You may also talk about remedies (for both the UCC and common law).

Look at the main headings in your syllabus to see the overall organization of your class. If your professor does not have a detailed syllabus, check your casebook to see the main headings that appear above the cases you are assigned.

A bird’s-eye view of your outline might look something like this (this is admittedly a bit abbreviated):

1. Contract formation

a. Offer
b. Acceptance
c. Consideration

2. Defenses

a. Illegality
b. Insanity

3. Statute of Frauds
4. Remedies

a. Common law
b. UCC

2. Start with the first issue (e.g., offer, above) and find the rules to go with each issue

The absolute best resource to find the rule is your class notes. (Your professor writes the exam so it makes sense to know the rules they want you to know!) Your professor should either state the rule directly or point it out in a statute, restatement section, or case during class. Take very good notes on whatever your professor says the rules are.

For example, let’s just take offer, above. Here are some of the rules that go with it:

1. Contract formation

a. Offer

i. Rule: an offer is a manifestation of intent to enter into a contract.
ii. Elements: An offer requires both (1) intent and (2) specific terms. The specific terms are price, quantity, and identity of the offeree. It also requires intent from the perspective of a reasonable person.

What if you leave class not knowing what the rule is? Sometimes professors can be very vague and you may leave class not knowing what the black letter law is! If this is the case, first start by looking at your class notes—after all, your professor likely referenced a statute or case that had the rule in it. (If so, then get your rule statement from the statute or case). You may have to start to train yourself to really start listening for this in class! If you still cannot find it, look up the rule in a supplement (like an Examples & Explanations book or the Restatement, etc., depending on your class).

law student outlining, in depth guide to outlining, jd advising

3. Break down the rules into manageable parts

Rather than having one long sentence for a rule, try to divide it or break it down into parts. This makes it much easier to learn when you are reviewing your outline. We also think it is a good idea to format your outline to draw attention to the rules. (We underlined the elements below, but some people like to use one specific color for the rules—do whatever you like best!)

For example, instead of writing what is above you could break it down as follows:

1. Contract formation

a. Offer

i. Rule: an offer is a manifestation of intent to enter into a contract.

ii. Elements: An offer requires both

(1) intent and

1. Look at this from the position of a reasonable person.

(2) specific terms. The specific terms are

1. price,

2. quantity, and

3. identity of the offeree.

Wouldn’t you much rather look at an outline that is neatly separated into its logical elements rather than a few long sentences (like under note 2 above)?

4. Add cases (or at least the rules from cases)!

If you take our advice and outline early, you will have plenty of time to add the important cases that you discuss in class. (If you start outlining late, it is probably a better idea to still include all the landmark cases—but for the other cases, just make sure you have the rule.)

Do not include long descriptions of the cases. Do not include case briefs for each case! Try to summarize a case in one or two sentences. Write the summary in your own words. It does not have to be eloquent or well-written!

You can use your class notes, casebook, or a commercial briefs book to find the rules. We recommend that you use your class notes (it is your best resource) and you can use your casebook or any commercial briefs as a backup.

We’ve added in the cases, in orange below.

1. Contract formation

a. Offer

i. Rule: an offer is a manifestation of intent to enter into a contract.

ii. Elements: An offer requires both

(1) intent and

1. Look at this from the position of a reasonable person.

2. Fairmount Glass Works v. Crunden: Even if one or more terms (below) are left open, a contract does not fail for indefiniteness if the parties intended to make a contract.

(2) specific terms. The specific terms are

1. price,

a. Harvey v. Facey: Saying “lowest price you’ll accept” is not an offer. Need the price.

2. quantity, and

3. identity of the offeree.

a. Owen v. Tunison: if offeree is not identified (in this case, a land sale contract), there is no offer.

b. Lefkowitz: Coat case. This was an offer because all terms were identified (first person in store gets coat for $1).

jd advising campus representative5. Use hypothetical examples or important points your professor made in class to illustrate a rule

It is crucial to include hypothetical examples and important points that the professor makes in class in your outline because they show you how the law is applied to facts. Further, your professor is likely to test these points. You can see hypothetical examples and points added in red font below.

1. Contract formation

a. Offer

i. Rule: an offer is a manifestation of intent to enter into a contract.

ii. Elements: An offer requires both

(1) intent and

1. Look at this from the position of a reasonable person.

2. Fairmount Glass Works v. Crunden: Even if one or more terms (below) are left open, a contract does not fail for indefiniteness if the parties intended to make a contract.

(2) specific terms. The specific terms are

1. price,

a. Harvey v. Facey: Saying “lowest price you’ll accept” is not an offer. Need the price.

i. Hypo: “Will you sell us the property?” Is that an offer? No, a question cannot be an offer. No price term either!

2. quantity, and

a. “We are authorized to offer you all of the fine salt you order.” Is that an offer? No. Because no quantity. Just saying “offer” doesn’t make it one.

3. identity of the offeree.

a. Owen v. Tunison: if offeree is not identified (in this case, a land sale contract), there is no offer.

b. Lefkowitz: Coat case. This was an offer because all terms were identified (first person in store gets coat for $1).

i. What makes an ad an offer? When there is nothing left to negotiate!

6. Identify and draw attention to the minority rules, exceptions to the rules, and the parts of law that are unsettled

Outline the ambiguities, contradictions, and exceptions in the law. If there is a minority rule or an exception to the rule, state it. If you are assigned two cases that contradict each other, include both. We don’t have an example for this portion of the outline, but the point is DO NOT avoid gray areas or ambiguities—rather, draw attention to them! These are commonly tested on exams!

Once you have your outline made, constantly review your outline! Go back and repeatedly review it so you can memorize it. It is best to make it a habit to repeatedly review your outline (however you learn best!). If you are an auditory learner, cover up your outline and try to say it out loud. If you are more visual—which most students are—then it may be more helpful to cover up portions of your outline and see if you can rewrite the elements. We have more tips for learning your law school outline later in this guide!

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