How to Outline for Law School: The Iterative Process

There is a proven method to outline for law school which allows you to conquer law exams… but most students don’t realize until it’s too late.

When you learned to play chess, did you read a rulebook and have an immediate grasp of how to play? When someone explains a card game to you, could you immediately enter another room and explain it to someone else? Of course not. Why approach your law exams the same way? Learning how to outline for law school is a crucial skill.

The key to outline for law school, and therefore conquering law exams, is similar to the key to conquering the LSAT. This is why LSAT scores allegedly provide the most accurate prediction of a candidate’s first-year performance in law school. This isn’t because the LSAT identifies the smartest students, it’s because the LSAT identifies the students who are the most prepared, and have beaten their brains into logic submission via constant practicing of vacuous logic problems.

What does this mean for you? It means that there is a way to outline for law school which guarantees your own success. It is possible to take total control of your law exam experience through outlining because the entire law school system is designed to reward those who prepare correctly.

There is still a bit of luck involved, but just like the LSAT, it’s possible to practice your way into exam day confidence. Whether or not you have the mental determination to do it is up to you and your motivations.

How to Outline: Iterative Outlining Process

You need to think about your exam as the end goal of every class, and ignore distractions that detract from your ability to conquer it. The best way to outline for law school is to:

  1. Identify what will be on your exam;
  2. Gather all of the information you need (your toolkit);
  3. Survey the information and plug knowledge gaps;
  4. Try a practice problem or exam of increasing difficulty;
  5. Restart the process until you are consistently completing time-limited, exam-identical practice exams.
How to Outline for Law School, Step One:
Identify What Will be on Your Exam

This step isn’t too hard, but is crucial. To figure out what will be on your exam:

  • Read your syllabus
  • Read the headers and chapter titles of your textbook
  • Look at old exams from your professor or school’s exam bank
  • Look at practices problems in supplements like Examples and Explanations
  • Ask people who have taken the class before
  • Look online

Focus too on what won’t be on your exam. Put those class notes in a place you can find them easily, but move on. One other clue: in every class, but in particular Civil Procedure and Torts, what will be on the exam should be painfully obvious (e.g., applying the elements of a tort to the facts, and maybe some policy discussion from class). There isn’t anything else. Once you’ve identified a first pass of what will be on the exam (remember, you’ll return to this step if you discover you missed something later), take a break and move on when you’re ready. Go for a walk, give your eyes a break and listen to an audiobook (here’s a free trial), or watch some TikToks.

How to Outline for Law School, Step Two:
Gather Your Outline Toolkit

So you’ve figured out what will be on your law exam in theory. Now what do you need to find that actual information and stick it into your brain in the outlining process?


set of toolkit instruments on floor
Photo by Anete Lusina on

Once you think you have everything, get ready to start the learning process. Literally, you might find that this is the first time you are truly learning the material after the busy rush of the semester. It is very common for students to find that they don’t actually learn the material until they sit down to outline. If you are terrified that you don’t understand the material, remember that this is how you actually learn it, and watch your worries fade away as you work through this process. This is the secret to outlining for law school.

Oh, and don’t worry if you think you’re missing materials. You’ll return to this step, remember?

How to Outline for Law School, Step Three:
Review the Materials and Plug Knowledge Gaps
flex seal tape being applied forcibly to plug a leak

Reviewing material does not mean read every single page you skipped, every 3L’s outline you’ve bartered or begged for, or re-type every page of class notes. It means scan the concepts. What do you understand? What don’t you understand? One way to do this is to start an outline where you make each header a topic. Do whatever makes sense to you. For instance, you could:

  • Make each topic you’ve identified in Step One a header on a piece of paper, and then write everything pertinent to that topic (e.g., Motion to Dismiss) on that piece of paper.
  • Create an numbered-outline style outline of each topic and its content.
  • Write each topic on a whiteboard and post stickies to it representing everything you need to know.

Don’t get married to your list of concepts. It is extremely unlikely that you’ll have settled on the perfect list in your first session. Instead, you’ll likely find that you went too narrow or too broad. But throughout the process, it helps to continually conceptualize everything you need to know for your exam into a series of structured buckets you are constantly renaming and re-evaluating .

One other thing. This step is grueling. It should be difficult. You should feel like you are confused. It will take days. The important part is that you push yourself to keep working. The first hours of outlining for law school should feel like the start of climbing up a large hill. You should be buried in paper. You should not have a perfect grasp of the concept on this iteration. You just need a very rough pass. But plugging knowledge gaps means you have to figure out what you don’t know, which is difficult.

person mowing grass in iterative circles with difficulty as the grass re-grows

For each topic, look at your class notes and then whichever of the best supplements that work for you. What is confusing? What could you explain easily to someone else? After years of studying, you likely have strong intuition about what you “get” and what you don’t yet get. A strong entry point is to compare an Examples and Explanations to your notes and understanding, and then when you are confused, reach for a more in-depth resource like the Understanding Series.

You may find that looking at old outlines from other students is helpful for structuring and content. But don’t give them much credit or time. The perfect outline is what works for you, so it shouldn’t necessarily be helpful for someone else. And most outlines pack way too much information in them, so you don’t want to get bogged down in someone else’s gravy.

driver stuck in the mud saying "I don't know what I'm doing here"

Take this step in as many or few bites as you are comfortable with for this particular study session. Moreover, what your “topics and concepts are” may look different as your studying goes. A productive session might start out with one list of concepts you think you’ll need to know for the exam, and end with another. The iterative law school outline process means that you will be refining your list of what you need to know to ace the exam over and over until you’ve whittled down the perfect knowledge set and are ready to apply it like a spear.

How to Outline for Law School, Step Four:
Start Applying Knowledge

Next up (after a nice break) is to apply your very rough draft to some practice problems. Think of this like you’ve built the minimum raft you’re comfortable sailing, and need to test the waters. It’s going to sink, but that will let you find those leaks.

Using one of the supplements that allows you to test your knowledge, start working through some problems. If you don’t have any problems at all to work with, try recreating the material from your head on blank paper, explaining how a legal concept might apply to facts you make up. Take it slow and learn. As you work through problems and concepts, revise your notes and topic sheets (which will become your outline). Read and re-read those notes and supplements.

If you can avoid it, save practice exams you acquire for later, once your outline is more developed.

This difficult step allows you to start learning by doing and is the core of this process. It is important to tailor this step by considering how you’ll need to reproduce this material on an exam (multiple choice, essay, etc.). For essays, work on writing out answers. You may find that you can pre-write entire exam sections (the standard for motion to dismiss), and bring this canned answer with you. For multiple choice, flashcards might be better.

Your end goal should be both (1) knowledge of what’s going on and (2) a whittled down outline that you can begin to rely on to quickly and efficiently apply these concepts to an exam. This type of outline is different than simply a compendium of concepts. It’s an attack plan. A systematic outline reference system that is tailored to exactly what you need for your law school exam. It might even be a skeleton outline of an actual exam answer.

But as you repeat this process, you should be less and less dependent on your outline. Make your outline work for you by learning the concepts as you create it, and then turning into a skeletal reminder of what you need to know to demonstrate a full grasp of the concepts.

How to Outline for Law School, Step Five:
Rinse and Repeat to Optimize Your Outline and Understanding

Take another break. Then start over. By now, the benefits of this process should be clear – you’ve exposed what you didn’t know, worked your way through it, and moved on. You’ve created the framework of an outline that is tailored to your own style based off of the actual content you’ll need to succeed on the exam. As you tackle more and more concept areas, your confidence will increase. At some point, you will be ready to take a full practice exam. Re-create the conditions you’ll be tested under as exactly as you can. Use the same time limit. Do it again and again. Fix your outline, and do it again. If you do this, you’ll walk into exam day ready to rock. You might even think it’s fun as you pick off points while others sweat, flipping through their 100 page outlines for answers you learned weeks ago.

With this process for how to outline for law school, the only thing between you and the score you want is the determination to put in the work. But you know you can do that. It’s how you got here. Good luck!

Thoughts on this process? Other ideas on the best methods to outline for law school? Get in touch!

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