When I went to law school, lap tops in the classroom were not as prevalent as they are now (I can see myself telling my grandkids stories about the days I had to lug a SEVEN POUND lap top to class with me….). So, for the most part, outlining consisted of gathering pages and pages of handwritten notes and condensing them into a usable outline for studying. That process of condensing was the most valuable part of outlining – more so than having a document from which to study at the end of it all. The process of making the outline is what made me understand what I had been learning in class – it made me see the “forest beyond the trees” and figure out how each class and each case fit into the “big picture.”  It also gave me an opportunity to figure out what I didn’t know at a point in the semester when I could actually do something about it, and not the night before final exams.

For me, a typical outline would be the result of hours and hours (days, really) of painstakingly sifting through notes and text books, summarizing and paraphrasing until everything I needed to know was in one concise document, of no more than 30 pages. It was a long process, but it was completely worth it because it led to a greater understanding of the material that I would not have otherwise achieved.

I’ve been talking to many 1Ls this year, and the thing that is surprising me the most is how many of them tell me they don’t need a lot of time to finish their outlines, because “it only takes a few hours.” Or how many students are glad that they finished their entire outline for a course in one evening. After seeing many of these outlines, which are frequently already too many pages with a month of material still left to include,  it has become clear to me that the term “outline” is not carrying the same meaning as it once did. Now, in the age of computers where everyone is taking notes on their laptops, the process of outlining has been reduced to nothing more than cutting and pasting a semester’s worth of notes into one document.

This, of course, is a huge mistake.  First of all, it is resutling in outlines that are way to long to be useful – an 80 page outline will take an hour just to flip through, forget about actually reading the material!  But most importantly, when merely cutting and pasting, the process is lost. 

Too often, students focus on the finished product – the outline itself – as the main goal. That’s why you always hear about the student who got all their outlines from a 2L, or students who are paying to download anonymous outlines on not-so-credible websites.  But, remember – the finished product, while important, is not the most important thing you will get out of the outlining process. The PROCESS itself is the most important.

If you don’t go through the work of synthesizing your notes, condensing the material and figuring out where it all fits in, you are not going to give yourself the benefit of really learning the material. Knowing the facts of a case will not help you on your final exam if you don’t know where that case fits in, and how it will relate to your exam question. You need the process of outlining to teach you that.

So, if you are currently working on your outlines (and you should be working on them!!), I implore you to step away from your control button!!  The process of outlining works – use it, and your grades will reflect that.