Outlining and Flash Cards in Law School

For many law students, the new semester starts Tuesday, if it hasn’t already. That means if you’re like me, you are probably spending the weekend knocking out the first week reading assignments. I notice that each semester I make some minor tweaks to my studying routine.

Some I soon shed (trying to keep notes in OneNote). While others prove so effective that I make them part of my permanent routine.

Two things I changed last semester that I intend to make part of my routine going forward are how I outline and the use of flash cards. These two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they work hand-in-hand.

First, the purpose of law school is not to memorize the law, but rather learn how to apply it. It’s imperative to keep this in mind as you study and work throughout the semester. I don’t know any attorney who trusts their memory enough to rely on it when dealing with statutes, laws, or case law. Instead, they rely on the skills they learned in legal research to look up these elements and then use the skills they learned in other law school courses to apply them.

With that said, the purpose of a law school outline is to compress a large volume of often dense material into something you can hopefully remember and apply come exam time. My 1L year, I used outlines provided by Barbri and Themis to form the skeleton of my outlines. I then supplemented these outlines with my notes from lectures and reading. In the end, my outlines felt very clunky and I found it difficult to really use the outline effectively for anything other than a simple list of elements. Knowing the elements is only part of the battle. A good outline should also help you remember how to apply these elements.

How do you accomplish this?

First, do the work. While you might be tempted to use a third-party outline, like I did my 1L year, I recommend that you do not, and instead build your outline from scratch. Open your textbook, look at the table of contents (law school and the practice of law might be the only two places where table of contents matter), use the chapter/section headings as your starting point. Then fill it in as you read.

Here is where my suggestions may veer from traditional law school blogs and books. You don’t have to brief all your cases, but instead figure out how each case fits into the section the editor has assigned it. Include a brief case summary in your outline and why that case fits in that particular section of the book.

At this point, you do not need to worry too much about applying the elements correctly. In fact, learning to correct your mistakes is one of the best ways to learn. Just get your thoughts down on the outline. Then use your outline to apply what you have learned to problems, either by using Q&A books or consulting supplemental materials. Personally, I am a big fan of the Glannon Guides, which provide a broad overview of legal topic and then test you with multiple choice questions. There are Glannon Guides for almost every 1L and 2L course.

If you find that your outline helps you answer the questions, then you probably have a pretty good start and just need to beef it up.

If you’re relying on your outline and missing questions, you probably need to do some more serious work. Again, we learn from our mistakes.

As the semester progresses, you can use your outline to help put together your flash cards. Again, third-parties, always eager to make a buck off law students, offer a wide range of flashcards for law students, priced anywhere from $10-150. Save your money! You can make your own flashcards with index cards.

A sample of the flash cards I created for my Crim Law class last semester.

If you look above at the cards I created for my Crim Law course last semester, you will see that I create my index cards with the application of various elements in mind. Specifically, I want to be able to IRAC each of these elements. For example, I have an index card that reads “Larceny.” On the back it reads:

In order to convict for larceny, the prosecution must establish five elements. There must be the (1) intentional taking and carrying away (2) of personal property (3) in the possession or presence of another (4) without consent (5) with intent to permanently deprive another of their property.

I then made similar cards for “Intentionally Took and Carried Away;” “Personal Property;” “In possession of another person;” “Without consent;” and “Intent to permanently deprive of property,” where I IRAC each of these subelements.

This proved extremely efficient for my Crim Law class, as I was able to quickly recall and apply all of the elements for crimes and defenses. As a result, I finished a 3 hour final in about an hour.

I cannot guarantee that these strategies will work for you, but they certainly helped me have a great Fall semester and I look forward to using them in my classes this spring and I begin my preparations for the bar exam.

Leave a Reply