Monday, November 26, 2007

Crash on Outlining

As some of you might have noticed, it has been a while since I have written a Civil Procedure post.  I don’t have a particularly compelling excuse to offer, except to say that I am a one L—a first semester law student whose finals are drawing quite near.

I am currently sitting in my room surrounded by my casebook, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and, of course, Example and Explanations. I need a break. I suppose I will take this opportunity to write about the thing that is constantly on my mind: the elusive outline.  I’m not sure exactly when it started, but a couple of weeks ago a few of my classmates began casually asking each other, “How is the outline coming?”  Since then, it has been a constant topic of conversation and a constant source of stress for me.

The first time I sat down to make my Civil Procedure outline I was armed only with the voluminous (and sometimes incoherent) notes I have taken this semester and my casebook.  I worked for an hour or so before I realized I was really doing nothing more than copying my notes and adding in facts from the cases.  Though I am still not entirely sure I understand how to outline well, I realized pretty quickly that what I was doing was not right.

On my second attempt, I tried to start very broadly. I thought about the class a whole and created headings that represented what I thought of as the major topics. Then I thought about each topic and tried to create subheadings from there.  I attempted to do this primarily from memory, using the book and my notes as references rather than templates from which to copy. At first, I found this to be a useful exercise; it helped me begin to think about how the ideas we had discussed relate to each other.  However, as I tried to move down another level of specificity, I found myself copying straight from the book and constantly rearranging my original categories. I realized I was not yet ready to synthesize the ideas on my own; I still had some learning left to do.  This method may prove to be a useful way to test my understanding after I have completed an in-depth outline. However, it did not turn out to be a very useful way to produce an outline that will aid me during the exam.

Finally, I asked an upperclassman for advice.  I was promptly presented with 4 outlines from “A” students who had taken Civil Procedure with my professor in the past.  My first reaction upon opening these outlines was despair: most were over 100 pages and all seemed meticulously organized and utterly complete.  I felt fortunate to have them, but terrified that somewhere my classmates were creating similar masterpieces from scratch.  It produced one of those temporary but increasingly frequent moments of doubt when I am sure that I am missing some secret of law school that all my classmates know.  Fortunately, I have, for the most part, been able to put this doubt aside as use these outlines as tools as I develop my own.

I have heard mixed opinions on whether it is a good idea to use other peoples’ outlines as templates, or whether it is always better to start from scratch.  The jury is still out for me, but my opinion from halfway through the process is that, while having four outlines seems useful, I would rather use zero outlines than just one.  I think that using just one outline would make it too easy to copy and paste without thinking about the material.  On the other hand, working from 4 outlines, my notes, my casebook and E and E is truly forcing me to think about what is important and how things fit together. 

Because I am mid-process I have no grand conclusions about outlining. Instead, I have a few questions about the process.  First, I am not sure how much information about particular cases to put in my outline.  I know I will not be asked to describe the facts of any particular case, but never having taken a law exam, I am not sure how helpful it will be to have key facts at hand so I can distinguish hypotheticals from cases we have discussed. Second, I do not know how I can make my outline more helpful in answering the theory and policy questions that, based on the way class has been structured, I assume will comprise a large part of my exam.  I have been tempted to spend some time thinking and writing my thoughts about each issue as I outline it. My hope is that, if I have at least a few ideas jotted down, I will be less likely to freeze on the exam.  However, I wonder if doing that wastes space and time.

Ultimately, I realize these questions may not matter. I’ve been told the exam period goes by so quickly that I will likely not have much time to look at my outline, but I try to block that thought out of my mind.  I do this not so much because I am afraid to take an exam without an outline, but rather because I see how much trying to produce the perfect outline is benefiting me.  I believe that whether or not I give it a single glance, the process of trying to produce an exam worthy outline is the best preparation for exams. So, I suppose I should get back to it.  --Crash

Click here to find Crash's last post and links to all his previous posts.

| Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Crash on Outlining :


My view has always been that making the outline is more important than having it. I cringe at the thought of the 100-page outline, because it's nearly useless to study from, but the process of making that outline was likely helpful.

Posted by: Jason | Nov 26, 2007 8:35:42 AM

A suggestion:

Use the Table of Contents from your casebook as the template.

Posted by: PSP | Nov 28, 2007 10:44:09 AM

Post a comment