Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

All About Outlining -- And all about Studying for Exams -- This is my story of how I prepared for my 1L exams; I feel like maybe someone out there will find it interesting and useful for me to have shared, as I watch the Mets get slaughtered by the Mariners on both sides of a doubleheader...

After reading "Law School Confidential," "Planet Law School," and a library of other pre-law books over the summer, and then after hearing things from classmates and upperclassmen and even professors, within the first couple of weeks of school, it became pretty clear that the conventional wisdom is that outlining your classes is the way to go if you want to do well. What I mean by outlining, for the uninitiated -- basically making yourself a big course summary, with all of the law, the cases, the principles, the topics you're going to need to know for the exam. Turning the class, in effect, into a packet of somewhere between 20 and 200 pages (depending on the class, your style, and how much it costs you to print). Throughout September and October I heard people asking each other about their outlines -- mostly "have you started yet," but occasionally "what are you putting in your outline," "is there a standard format," and "what about those commercial outlines they sell in the bookstore but don't let you return for fear that you'll photocopy them and start your own competing discount outline sales business." Again, the conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't wait too long to start outlining, because you'll end up with way too much to do at once -- the casebook pages and class notes build up and the task becomes insurmountably time-consuming. So, like a good little eager law student, after the first two weeks of classes, I decided that I would outline over the weekend. First, I chose a pleasing mix of fonts and determined a format -- cases get their own little text boxes, legal rules are in bold, class notes and summarized after the cases, other principles the professors threw in are in italics... I probably spent more time coming up with my template than I did actually doing anything productive. And, sure enough, I was able to go through my class notes and turn lots of pages in somewhat fewer, and add in some brief paragraphs about the cases. But had I really accomplished anything? Was this useful? No idea. Three weeks later, feeling a little guilty that I hadn't been so diligent about the outlines, I returned to my contracts outline to get it up to date. And realized, upon re-reading what I'd done after week two, that the information I had written in wasn't really that useful, and that now, three weeks later, some of the things I had thought were important weren't, and some of the things I thought were confusing were now second-nature and didn't even need to be written down. And all the formatting stuff was a pain in the neck. But, just to feel like I had accomplished something, I updated the outline.

Fast-forward to the end of fall semester, gliding past hours and hours of time spent not updating my outlines, and, as I sat down to start studying for exams, I had 5 weeks of a contracts outline (at 40 pages, a monstrosity already), 2 weeks of a civil procedure outline, and a stack of criminal law class notes that were about as organized as this weblog post (and, unfortunately for this weblog post and anyone reading it, about as funny). And I tried to think about whether trying to outline all of this stuff was worth it. And I realized I'd been going about it all wrong.

You see, the conventional wisdom (or at least as I understood it) was:

1. Making the outline is a valuable undertaking because it helps you learn the material
2. The outline is uber-useful during the exam so you don't have to go back to the casebook, class notes, etc.

But those two goals are not the same, and often can't be met with the same tool. I don't think you need to outline for the sake of outlining, and, after two semesters of law school, I don't think an outline is always the most useful thing for meeting either of those objectives. (1) Doing something to learn the material, and (2) Making something to use during the exam are two separate endeavors, I think.

And after realizing that, I came up with my own system for each. Nothing revolutionary, but different from just taking the casebook and class notes and turning it into an outline and then feeling like I'm done. Personally, I just didn't find that made so much sense. So, admittedly with only my fall semester grades to inform on the effectiveness of my approach, here's what I did:

Goal 1: Learning the material

My big worry on this dimension is always gaps. Large chunks of material that I'm forgetting, rules I didn't write down, cases I glossed over, things that could come up on an exam that I don't want to say "uh, what is that, I have no idea." That worries me more than comprehension failings -- things where I know what it is, and know I don't understand it that well, but at least I recognize that and know where the weakness exists. I worry more about surprises. My strategy, therefore, was to read lots of different materials in the hope that no gaps would remain. For each class (except for Torts, but we were heavy on theory / light on law in torts, and the exam was to reflect that (and ultimately did reflect that) so I didn't feel the need to have backup):

1. I started with the Lexis free Emanuel's summary as my baseline. Because it's a Word file and I could edit it without typing everything in. I went through and deleted anything we didn't cover, and added in topic heading for things that weren't included, just so I'd remember to make sure I knew that stuff too. Printed, read through a few times, put aside.

2. Then, for 3 of the 5 classes, I bought a commercial study guide of some sort that seemed to track well with the class in terms of material covered (Dressler for Crim, Glannon for Civ Pro, Singer for Property). Not black letter law -- the Emanuel's was for that -- but for concepts and an overall understanding. And read them cover to cover. Did a little bit of highlighting, but mostly I was reading for overall themes. And put them aside.

3. Did a google search and a lexis search for short overall subject summaries -- what's the overall story of contract law, property law, criminal law, how do all of the discrete subjects fit together into one discipline. I wanted to be able to make sure I could answer a general thematic question.

4. Read through my class notes a few times, and added stuff to the Emanuel's that filled in gaps. Printed the Emanuel's again. Read it a few more times until I knew it pretty well.

5. And at that point, I felt pretty good about content and knowing the material. It was then time to turn my attention to the second goal.

Goal 2: Having stuff for the exam

This may seem like it doesn't apply to a closed-book exam, but I think it does. Just means you can't bring the stuff in the room with you and have to memorize the important pieces.

I knew the thick Emanuel's packet wouldn't really be of great help during an exam, and the books and class notes too big and comprehensive to rely on consistently for stuff like 3-part tests, quick rule applications, etc. And yet I wasn't motivated to create my own materials from scratch because (1) I didn't know whether they'd be right, and (2) It would take a long time and a lot of work.

1. So I stole. Well, borrowed. Completely legally. We had an outline bank with old outlines that people had posted. Most people searched them for stuff from our professors' past classes, and there was some decent stuff for some of the classes. I went a step further and searched for anything in the same subject, regardless of professor -- really just looking for charts / tables / schematic diagrams / easy explanations / quick case summaries that someone else had made that I could use. So I'd pull the best Erie Choice of Law diagram from one outline, a Model Penal Code vs. Common Law chart from another, the "three sentences about every UCC rule" chart from something else -- just taking the best of what I could find, until I had a stack of application tools that I felt were useful for an exam. Read through to make sure they were accurate (important step) and then put them aside.

2. Besides the application tools from the outlines, I also made a short issue-spotting helper... basically a mini-outline of all of the possible "questions" that could come up on a test. "Was there a proper offer?" "Was it mere puff?" "Was there valid consideration?" I think it was about 2-5 pages for each class... just for issue spotters, as the last step review during the test to make sure I hadn't missed anything. For the closed book portion of my contracts exam, I turned it into a mnemonic of all of the units, that had 13 letters and was unpronounceable and that I can't recall.

3. A case chart. If I couldn't find one elsewhere, I made one myself. Just a list of every case and three or four words to remind me what it was about. To refer to on questions that wanted case names or analogies, or to back up policy arguments.

And that was pretty much it. Lots of different pieces of materials, but not really an outline. And I didn't do any of it until after classes were over, because as I looked through what I'd typed up at the beginning of the semester, I realized that I didn't at that point know what was important, what was confusing, and what I'd know so well I wouldn't need to write down. So all of the outline stuff I didn't really find that valuable. My collection of assorted materials may not work for everyone -- some people may need one comprehensive piece they create themselves that's 200 pages thick and has everything. And that's cool. This is just an explanation (and a long one!) of what I did, in case anyone finds it helpful.

We'll return to something funnier tomorrow.