By Professor Herb Ramy
Director, Academic Support Program, Suffolk University Law School
Our “Tip of the Week” addresses an important part of the distillation process that is involved in creating a course outline. Simply put, less is usually more when outlining.
An outline is your attempt to reduce all the information you have on a topic – case briefs, class notes, professor hypos – down to its essence. This distillation process will force you to confront whether you actually know the rules from the cases, and will help you see how the various rules fit together. While the details from the cases can help you better understand the rules, irrelevant facts from the cases can distract you from a case’s central meaning.
A simple way to delete details is as follows:
1. Turn your case briefs on their heads – instead of beginning the outline with facts from cases, begin them with a statement of the rules for which the cases stand.
2. Next, include aspects of the cases under the rule only if they are essential to your understanding of the rule.
3. The rule acts like a strainer – use it to remove the unimportant details so that you’re left with just the essentials.
4. It is OK to exclude details from the cases altogether if you fully comprehend the rule without adding the case facts.
5. With the rules on top, it will be much easier to see how various rules are: (a) subsets of other rules; and (b) how they may be related to each other.
6. Finally, avoid the tendency of outlining chronologically. Instead, move the rules around in your outline so that the best illustrate the relationships between the principles.
If you truly understand what I am saying, then you may have noticed how this approach dovetails with what you are doing, at least in part, with your legal writing memos. Your “E” paragraphs are supposed to begin with a thesis statement, which is very similar to beginning the various sections of your outline with a rule. Then, in both your outlines and your memos, you use the essential aspects of the cases to elaborate upon and illustrate that rule.
Good luck with exams!