June 19, 2004

Those horrible law school outlines.

Recently I noticed that there is a collection of student-written, downloadable course outlines on my law school's website. It is a section of the website used by the Student Bar Association, but it is clearly a subsection of the law school's website, with the law school's banner at the top, just like the official pages that contain faculty bios, course descriptions, information about admissions, and so forth. I was quite surprised to find this as part of our website and really irked to see my own name as a hot link that led to some unknown student's effort at summarizing my class. No one has ever asked me if I accepted that use of my name or what I thought of outlines purporting to represent my classes appearing on the law school's website. Reading over some of these outlines, I can see how misleading they are. In fact, I can see material in these outlines that is the source of some of the most puzzlingly incoherent things I've read in some of the worst exams (a good reason to give closed-book exams).

I do understand the one good reason for making the outlines available: to prevent students from feeling bad that other students have access to outlines that they are unable to see. Here's a story one of my colleagues tells:
In my heart I hate the idea [of outlines on the website], but I recall when I was in Law School, the Law Review kept a library of past outlines from law review staff and editors. They were given ONLY to other law review folks and tightly guarded. There was an internal penalty from the Editor-in-Chief if there was any thought that you even allowed, say your roommate, to even glance at one. These outlines were much lusted after by other student because they were LAW REVIEW outlines.

I always believed in my own outlines and never used anyone else's, but I was aware that other students really thought they would benefit from them.

The Journal of [Not Law Review], of which I was an Articles Editor, shared an internal office door with the Law Review. We had a key because we shared certain equipment with them. One night a rascally friend and I went into their offices late at night, took the entire library, carried it down to an all-night copying store and copied every one of them. The next morning we opened a stand in the student atrium selling copies for the price of duplication.

All the usual drama ensued, but in the end, Law Review sneakingly felt a little dirty for behaving in such an elitist way (this was [name of Law School], remember) and grouchingly backed off. The Editor-in-Chief never spoke a word to me again until we graduated.

It's interesting, I never felt the slightest moral qualm about doing it; in fact, we were so elated we had to keep quieting each other's giggles in case we should be detected at 3 am. Today, I feel a little more dubious about it, but I guess that's why it is good most of us go to school, where foolish boldness is sometimes important, when we are young and not middle-aged.

The elitism issue is interesting, but access to some student-donated outlines on the website is no assurance that there are not better outlines hoarded by elite sub-groups. Isn't there a temptation to donate inferior outlines to waste the time of or deliberately mislead other students, who are your competitors on an exam and whose poor grades will improve your position on the curve? I'm not saying I think any of our fine students would give in to that temptation, but shouldn't you worry an awful lot about the quality of the outlines that are made generally available? Even when the outlines are good, they aren't anywhere nearly as good as your own genuine preparation would be, they are likely to be out-of-date, and you will have to waste time working on checking their accuracy.

Law students: the formula for preparing for a law school exam is simple. Read the cases carefully. Write a short summary in your own words after you've read the case. If you can't do that, reread the case until you can. Go to class, and use the class to reinforce your confidence that you are summarizing the cases well on your own and to deepen your understanding of how courts decide cases and what arguments count as good legal arguments. After class, reread your case notes and your class notes and write a summary, as short as possible, combining the two. When the exam nears, reread those after-class summaries and compress them into the shortest form you can: this will be an outline that is very meaningful to you, but not to someone who has not gone through those steps. Right before the exam, reread your outline until you know that you know everything in it. That's it! Don't retrace these steps. Don't waste time with anyone else's outline or study guide. Don't waste time being envious of study material someone else has developed. There is never anything better than the material you develop yourself.

The key line in my colleague's story is: "I always believed in my own outlines." If you don't already believe in your own outlines, you are hurting yourself by not preparing in a way that will build up your confidence in your own capabilities. You're going to need that confidence later.

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