Bricks on the Brain

UM Law

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Outline Time? Read this First

Many law students (including 2L's and 3L's) assume they must create an outline to do well in a class. This is not so. Some will benefit from doing so, others are wasting valuable time.

It is always important to know who your advice is coming from. I would prefer not to reveal too much about my own exam performance, but I have booked more than 2 courses and have the GPA to take advantage of any opportunity not otherwise closed to UM Law students.

I strongly recommend the use of commercial outlines and finding free outlines off the Internet. I have never created my own outline. At most, I have cut and pasted together portions of several outlines. I do not take notes in class.

By taking this approach, I can immediately start studying for exams without wasting enormous time by composing one. I find that commercial outlines help to structure and organize the material in ways the professor usually fails to, and ensures that I will be aware of blackletter law that the professor assumed the students to know on their own. They also expose me to arguments and lines of cases the professor did not cover, but I can use those arguments nonetheless on the exam.

All of the arguments against canned outlines lack merit. I have heard many from my collegues over the years. "Errors": A nice theory, but in practice I have never experienced that problem i.e. all of the outlines I have used correctly stated the law. On the contrary, I have seen errors in the outlines my collegues composed themselves. "But prof has a unique spin": Again, a nice theory but in the end most profs end up testing the law of the topic generally, not their own interests they highlighted in lecture. "I won't remember as well": Exams are not about memorization, they are about understanding. True, you will have the benefit of the physical act of typing to help you remember what you wrote. That advantage is nullfied by the fact that in October I already have my outlines and will have read and re-read them 20 times by the time you finish your outline in late November. I also usually have time to reread the entire casebook, an invaluable excercise if time allows.

As far as exam writing goes, I strongly recommend the treatise available from The web site is cheezy, but the materials themselves are excellent. Also, practice using the Examples & Explanations series is essential.

To 1Ls: Of course there are students who do well by creating their own outlines. To the 1L's who are not quite sure what to do just yet, I would recommend they use a commercial outline to supplement any they create on their own. Next semester you can decide if going naked is the best thing for you. I know many 3L's who started getting A's after their 1L year C's and D's. They made the mistake of ignoring commercial outlines and treatises. Keep in mind, many of your 2L and 3L profs will make commercial outlines and treatises (like Examples & Explanations) required or recommended reading. While I still have mixed thoughts about Book Horizons, today is the day to march over there and ask them for help. Remember, next semester you can resell any study aids on ebay or and recoup your investment. I remember the high and mighty 1L cliques that considered canned outlines the equivalent of playing with a corked bat. C's have a way of humbling those folks.

To 2 & 3Ls: If you get stuck on a particular topic, get on Westlaw or Lexis and look for law review articles or treatises (PLI, ALI or Practice guides) that cover the topic. The easiest way is to put in the relevant cases and look at the citing references that explain the case implications. The briefing tools offered by Westlaw & Lexis are excellent for extracting the black letter law you need to know. Copy and paste into your outline, you're good to go.


  • At 4:06 PM, Anonymous Michael Froomkin said…

    Rotten advice if your goal in law school includes learning the kind of skills that will make you a competent lawyer.

    Commercial outlines can be great for many of the reasons stated, but only if used in a completely different way. Used as you suggest, as a substitute for the hard work of learning how to pull meaning out of recalcitrant legal materials (cases, statutes, regulations, treaties, law review articles), you *may* end up knowing enough stuff to answer a regurgitation style exam, but you will not have learned the lawyer skills you will need when you have to solve a problem for which there is no casebook and no outline.

    There's a lot to be said for using some backstop, commercial or otherwise, to see what you missed in your own outline, to suggest alternate ways to structure one's thinking, and especially to explain stuff that the prof failed to explain in a way you found helpful.

    But the trouble with using training wheels all the time is that you never learn to bike.

  • At 4:10 PM, Blogger Bricklayer said…

    My advice is valid for the typical 1L exam composed of hypothetical scenarios. First to respond to the professor's criticisms of my approach with regards to such exams:

    He bases his opinion on theory rather than practice. Students do very well relying on commercial outlines. There is no substance to his belief that students necessarily can at most regurgitate. Perhaps some do. But in most cases, the student is presented with a coherent format to study the law as well as a framework to attack exam questions. Often the commercial outline will be drafted in such a way to reflect commonly tested principles. Quite to the contrary of the professor's asusmptions, this puts the student in a position to give a much more thoughtful answer than he might otherwise.

    No casebook and no outline:
    Only a complete stranger to legal reasoning would believe such a situation could ever exist. All law relies in part upon precedent, including statutory interpretation.

    Where he is right:
    He is right if you expect to be graded on a paper that requires indepth analysis of cases pertaining to a specific topic. Because most professors are lazy (busy writing law review articles that no one will read or use), they rely upon the hypo exam rather than essay exams. At UM, aside from the writing requirement, it is entirely possible to never take an essay/paper exam. In fact, many exams are scantron multiple choice.

    Comptent lawyer:
    He projects his own narrow view of the legal profession. Many competent lawyers do not read cases themselves, but instead rely upon the scholarly work of others' interpretation of those cases. They also rely on summaries, briefs, and practice guides. Many respected judges take this approach. I strongly suspect that on average, there is an inverse relationship between a lawyer's income and the number of cases he reads per year.

    But even if we assume, arguendo, that the only way to become a "competent lawyer" (whatever that is) is to read and interpret the cases oneself, it does not necessarily follow that such an approach is the best for getting high marks on law exams. The student may do with his time as he chooses until reading period. But to the extent that grades influence one's short term future after graduation, it is wise to put academic purity aside and go with the method that produces the best results.

  • At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I though the outlines were pretty helpful. Studying is a series of choices on how to spend your time. I read the outlines first, then the cases, writing notes in the margins of the text. At the very very very bottom was writing the Irwin- Style 5-page case briefs. Could you imagine doing this for every case in every class like he recommends? When would you sleep?

    With all due respect, if you really followed all the advice professors gave, I think you'd fail.

  • At 4:41 PM, Blogger some guy said…

    Brick, You ignore the fact that everyone learns differently. If I tried to read the entire casebook again during the reading period, I would literally go insane.

    I do my own outlines but by no means do I scoff at commercial ones. Outlining for me helps me understand the material for a bird's eye view of what fits where. It makes me realize how everything fits together. This is an important skill, obviously, at exam time.

    At times it's difficult to organize an outline becuase some profs refuse to provide a syllabus, but the casebook's table of contents usually works for that.

    After I make my own outlines I outline my outlines and put in stuff from the commercial outlines, study group sessions or other peoples' outlines.

  • At 5:34 PM, Blogger Bricklayer said…

    some guy-

    I didn't mean to imply that there was only one way to skin a cat. Even the profs old-school way will work for some.

    I just want to help some 1L's avoid the trap of locking themselves away to outline, only to be disappointed with their poor results on exams.

  • At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Michael Froomkin said…

    My point was not directed at 'how to get good grades in law school', which I'm sure can with some (but not total) frequency be done just by careful reading of the better outlines. My point was about 'how to be a good lawyer' -- how to do well in practice and serve clients with quality. It's quite amusing to be told that some lawyers are so lazy they have other people do their research. (Which is true.) But those are almost always senior people in big firms; they got that way by demonstrating competence as junior people -- which frequently includes research.

    And then, of course, there's always the danger of actually having to do something interesting and cutting edge where there isn't any existing, quality "summaries, briefs, and practice guides." If you are lucky you get to do work like that which isn't cookie-cutter stuff. If, on the other hand, you are happy to resign yourself to a life of following in other people's footsteps, then by all means avoid this opportunity to hone your thinking skills.

  • At 12:23 AM, Blogger Bricklayer said…

    Implicitly you've conceded that exams probably do not test "pure" legal thinking ability. And although you continue to be vague about exactly what this means, perhaps I can help to define it. Legal thinking, as it would relate to innovative or "cutting edge" legal issues, involves the ability to be aware of and apply abstract legal reasoning rather than simply fitting round pegs into round holes via blackletter law. This requires to one to delve deep into the history and foundations of legal principles, as well as moral philosophy, economics, and human nature.

    But how is the student to know if he is doing well at this approach, when professors almost never test it, and never test it during the 1L boot camp? Why don't more of your collegues require thoughtful written work from students, rather than so many scantron exams?

    The sad part is I saw many students begin law school with the mentality you would prefer them to have. They abandoned it after getting pounded by 1L exams and not making it onto law review.

    I take nothing away from any of the law reviews at UM, they are filled with bright students and deep thinkers. But all that glitters is not gold, and there are many students who are more deserving of being on the law reviews and would be but for their 1L grades. While writing on is always an option, few students have the time. And while I don't approve of defeatism, most assume that mediocre 1L grades indicates they just don't have the "right stuff" so they don't bother.

    Perhaps you and your collegues should considera new rule at UM Law: While a professor may offer whatever exam style he chooses, he MUST offer a written paper as an alternative form of grading for students that choose it.

  • At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Professor Froomkin's argument has the simple flaw that 1st year professors don't test for unique, innovative legal thought. Their exams only center on basic mastery of the concepts which is more than adequately provided for in commercial outlines. Take admin law for instance. The exam entailed fact patterns with simple subjects such as articulating the levels of deference owed. This isn't cutting-edge; rather it's regurgitation.

    Brick: Professors won't offer paper subsitutes for their scantron exams b/c if they are too lazy to grade essays, they sure as hell won't grade a 30 pg footnoted paper.

  • At 6:46 PM, Blogger Bricklayer said…

    Yeah, he's uncharacteristically silent on that last point.

    I have heard Professor Jones is big on having students write papers in lieu of essay exams. Seems to me it ought to be easier to read and grade a 30 page paper than the bluebook chicken scratch that most of us produce.

  • At 12:14 AM, Anonymous Michael Froomkin said…

    I'm not going to try to define 'legal thinking' in a comment to a blog post; we spend three years trying to explain and illustrate its different facets, and even then I think it takes the average person not just law school but also a couple years of apprenticeship in addition to really 'get it'.

    Rather, I want to respond to other issues raised: exam types and 1L vs. 2/3 L courses.

    I think it's certainly true that my comments were primarily directed to 2/3 L courses because that is what I've been teaching for some time. I think I last taught 1Ls more than five, maybe eight or nine, years ago. That said, I think my comments do apply with almost as great force to the 1L courses: no doubt you can get good 1L grades sometimes, maybe often, just by relying on canned briefs and/or outlines, but that is the training wheels approach to learning lawyering.

    First year is about learning how to decode legal materials, and how to fit together (and anticipate!) lines of cases. To the extent there is a justification for the Socratic method it is this: the really good student, like the really good practitioner, conducts an internal Socratic dialog with her/himself when reading a case.

    So while I agree that first year by its nature isn't about "innovative legal thought" I think that it IS about learning to decode and manipulate legal texts. Take them in predigested form and regurgitate them, and you may well be able to simulate the command of those skills. But the odds are that you don't have them.

    On the subject of exam types: I give essay exams (often open book, and often long take-homes). I think they are the best exam for anything other than a code course. There, uniquely, I think there's a good case to be made for a mix. It's very hard to write essay exams that cover more than a small fraction of a code (evidence, commercial law, trademark [in effect, although not technically a code]), and thus it may actually be fairer to include some short answer or even multiple choice questions as a fraction of an exam in those situations.

    While most professors would prefer to read something carefully researched like, say, a 30 page paper with footnotes, to the stuff we get from rushed and stressed students in blue books (not to mention that the papers will vary while the exam scrips have dull and repetitious quality), we are all aware that it would be unfair to expect that kind of writing in every course. Can you write four or five 30 page law papers a semester? I don't think I could have done that in law school. I'd be hard pressed to do it now.

    I've taught seminars, where 18 or so students write papers (after outlines and rough drafts) and it's infinitely more fun to grade than an exam course. It's also not that much more time consuming since I don't waste nearly as much time daydreaming since the papers tend to be interesting and original in a way that answers to a problem I set are unlikely to be after about the fifteenth (much less 50th) one. Grading is easy: what takes forever is marking up the rough drafts....

    The fact remains, however, that most people need the sort of basic legal skills we try to inculcate in first year -- how to read slowly, for example -- before they can do that.

  • At 4:55 PM, Blogger Bricklayer said…

    Your comments ring true, but don't address the reality of 1L life. These first grades make or break the chance for walk-on invitations to the law reviews, and the GPA race gets harder as law school advances.

    Should legal scholarship, in your sense of the word, wait until after the first year?

    I think such a strategy is unavoidable based on my observations of late bloomers who got C's as 1L's and now get A's and book classes. They were admirable thinkers as 1L's, often speaking up in class. One we genialy nicknamed "the last true renaissance man." These students missed out on walk-on law review invitations and are out of the elite GPA race. Why? Because as 1L's they got blindsided by the true nature of law school exams.

    I really had no personal notion of what to expect from exams, I simply put my faith in advice from students who had performed well and hoped for the best.

    Professors don't really test what they teach, and in the short run students like me take advantage of that fact. Why shouldn't everyone?

  • At 2:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Happened to stumble upon this site and agree with you completely.

    Not only did I never make my own outlines to study off of, but most of the time I didn't even read for class and relied 100% on commercial outlines I had to get me trough discussions.

    I say I worked about 10% as much as other people in my class and graduated in the top third.

    I guess everyone has their own system, though.


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