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Dean's Fellow Digest

February 18, 2020

Dean's Fellow Digest Issue #2 - Staying Organized with Notes and More

Issue: 2020-02

Dean's Fellows consistently strive to support students in realizing their full academic potential, leading ultimately to success on the bar exam and in the workplace. To support all Southwestern students in this goal, the Dean's Fellows created this Digest as a way to check-in at critical times throughout the semester with helpful tips, strategies, and encouragement. 


  • Staying Organized with Notes
  • Outlining 101 

Staying Organized with Notes
By: Emily Hart*

Image - Note Taking

How many documents do you have for each class? I have four. As we learned in Foundations, the more you review something, the easier it is to recall later on (known as retrieval practice).

My first document contains all of my reading notes. This is where I keep my case briefs, any notes that follow the cases, assigned practice problems, etc. When I am in class, I pull up this document on half of my computer screen, while on the other half of my screen I have my second document: class notes. I organize class notes based on the “big picture” or overarching legal topics we are learning that day. A great resource to use when structuring your class notes is your syllabus. Find the topics you are discussing in your syllabus and incorporate the legal topic headings into your class notes. It makes it a lot easier when outlining later on.

Image - Note takingMy third document is my “big” outline. I am a linear learner, which is why my unabridged outline tends to be lengthy. I’m talking 30-50 pages, depending on the subject. My outline will include rule statements, exceptions to the rules, examples of the rules, examples of what the rules are not, and anything else that seems important for the purposes of learning the law (like policy arguments). I generally work on my outline weekly. This way, I’m only incorporating a few classes at a time and it doesn’t get too overwhelming. However, our schedules do get very busy with midterms, clubs, organizations, etc. Because of this, sometimes I will outline at the end of a big legal topic covered instead of once a week. Nonetheless, outlining throughout the semester helps me find the gaps in my knowledge early on. This way, I gather my questions and take them to office hours BEFORE they get crowded during reading period.

My fourth document is what I call a “condensed outline.” Once we only have a few sessions of class left, I condense my big outline (my third document) into a smaller, more digestible document. By this point, I have a good grasp on the main concepts because I have been reviewing them throughout the semester when making my big outline. Thus, my condensed outline only contains main rule statements and elements. If I need clarification on something, I always have my big outline for assistance. Having a condensed (e.g. 8-10 pages) outline is much easier to review daily during reading period and finals week.

Lastly, it may be helpful to create an even more condensed checklist as you get closer to finals. This should be no more than a page and only include key terms that will jog your memory about legal issues and rule statements. The more you practice with this checklist, the easier the information will be to recall on the day of the exam.

Outlining 101
By: Emily Hart*

Image - Outlining 101

When should you outline?

Regularly. Ideally, every 1-2 weeks, or after completing a legal topic. That way, the material from class is still fresh in your head when you are organizing your rule statements, factors, elements, etc. Trust me, the longer you wait, the harder it will be to decipher your notes. I block out one day in my week (typically a Thursday because by then, I will have finished most of my classes for the week) and designate it solely for outlining.

How should you outline?

Whatever way is easiest for YOU to digest the information. Everyone learns differently. Naturally, everyone outlines differently. Don’t be afraid to try out different formats until one feels comfortable.

The one thing I do suggest is to not mix legal subjects in the same outline. You should have one outline solely designated to Contracts, one designated to Civil Procedure, etc. This will assist you with not mixing up terms from different legal subjects. For example, Criminal Law and Torts have many similar terms, but these terms have different meanings in their respective fields. Thus, having separate outlines ensures you will not confuse concepts.

What should you outline?

Your outline will be your study guide for your midterms, finals, and ultimately the bar exam (yes, what you learn your 1L year comes back after graduation). Your outline should include all relevant rules of a specific field of law. You then want to break down these rules into their elements or factors. It is also helpful to have examples and policy arguments your professor emphasizes in class. NOTE: You do not have to get all of your examples from cases. Class examples (hypos) are just as useful and tend to be straight forward in terms of learning how an element or factor applies. If you do use a case example, you do not need to insert your entire case brief into your outline. Just include the relevant facts and reasoning that indicate what you are trying to prove.

What should you do after outlining?

  1.  Identify the gaps in your understanding early on and take your questions to office hours before reading period.
  2. Take a practice essay and/or multiple-choice questions on the parts of your outline you have completed.
  3. Continue to test your knowledge using your outlines throughout the semester. The more you do so, the faster you will be able to recall the information during reading period, final exams, and even the bar exam. Don’t wait until reading period to learn the legal concepts. Save those precious days for practice essays and multiple-choice.
Image - Outlining 101

*About the Author:


Image - Emily Hart

Emily is a 2L Traditional Day student from the San Fernando Valley. Emily received her bachelor's degree from UC Riverside, where she majored in Political Science with a concentration in Law and Society. Emily is pursuing a career in Criminal Law, and she hopes to incorporate her interests in Children's Rights and Mental Health, as well.​

​In addition to being a Dean's Fellow, Emily is the Co-Special Events Coordinator for Southwestern's Teen Court. She is also a TA for Criminal Law with Professor VanLandingham.



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