Ed. note: I'm very pleased (thrilled, even) to introduce our newest blogger, Dennis Jansen. Dennis hails from the University of Minnesota, where he is a 2L. You can read more of Dennis's writing at his site, No634. I think you'll find him to be quite hilarious.
Last year, during my 1L orientation, Professor Doe came up to the podium of the lecture hall and said: “You should have already started your outlines. If you have not done so, start immediately.”
There was a visible wave of shock in the room, and I suspect that everyone was too busy panicking to listen to the rest of the speech.
After the speech, our orientation leaders herded us back to our home room and immediately did damage control. “Doe is a great professor but don’t listen to him,” they said, “that was bad advice.”
For the rest of the day, student presenters would come in and say, “I heard you guys got crazy advice from Professor Doe! Did he actually tell you to start outlining already?! Isn’t that crazy-talk?”
Professor Doe’s advice did seem like crazy-talk until about two weeks before fall finals when I realized that I had barely started outlining.
I still think outlining on the first day of school is unworkable for most law students. Most 1Ls cannot produce any meaningful outlines (or even class notes) during the first few weeks of school, but I don’t recommend waiting until the last minute either. It’s not good for your heart. Trust me.
I also do not recommend stalking upperclassmen for their old outlines.
The purpose of outlining is the process, not the product. When you make your own outline you have to synthesize the material and figure out if there are any gaps in your notes. Some people call this process “studying.”
If you are completely lost in a course, remember to use the syllabus as your basic outline structure. You can supplement any gaps in your notes with a nutshell or the course outlines available on LexisNexis.
Be careful not to rely too heavily on outlines made for other professor's classes, because what Professor Doe will probably emphasize different things than Professor Smith.
For those 1Ls want some ideas on how and when to outline, here are some of the outlining schedules that I have noticed:
- The Sprinter – Don’t worry about outlining until the end of the semester when a small sense of panic sets in. This is the law school equivalent of cramming. Be careful, because the amount of cramming time that was okay for undergrad is probably inadequate for law school. This is what I did first semester, and I only recommend this method for the people who work well on adrenaline and caffeine, and those who suspect that they are, in fact, Chuck Norris.
- The Backtracker – Begin outlining during the last month of the semester. Spend a week on each class, and outline for your finals in reverse order (the first outline is for your last final). The theory is that outlining in reverse order will make the finals period easier because the information for your first final will be fresh in your mind and you will only have to review information for your subsequent finals because those outlines will already be done. This has worked for several of my classmates and works well for students who feel more comfortable with the extra review.
- The Rotator – Begin outlining about one month into the semester. Set aside a day each week to synthesize and outline the material for a single class. Focus on a different class each week and by the end of the semester your outlines will be mostly finished. This method also allows you to review material as the semester progresses, so you won’t completely forget the first month’s concepts by the end of the semester.
- By Chapter – Most professors will break down the reading assignments into units or chapters. An easy way to make progress with your outlines is to synthesize your notes for each of the course sections as you finish them. This is similar to the Rotator method, but a little less structured and more tailored to the natural stops and pauses in the semester. This is also a nice way to make sure there is no lingering confusion before you move on to the next portion of your class.
There are also plenty of students who don’t outline at all and use things like note cards and supplements. Because, as with most academic advice, you have to figure out what works best for you.