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Even More about First-Year Law Outlines

The Upside

While there is a great deal of downside to the “outline obsession” that tends to overtake first-year (1L) law school students, outlining one’s first-year topics—property, constitutional law, civil procedure, and the lot—can be beneficial.  Potential benefits from first-year law outlines include:

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 — enhanced memorization / recall of the law:  the outline can be used to help students memorize rule statements; this possibility is, of course, the main theoretical justification for making an outline at all
— increased understanding of the law:  the outline—specifically, the process of making an outline—can facilitate a person’s delving deeper into the subject matter; this possibility represents the best opportunity of all to make outlining worthwhile
— it’s something to do:  the outline can become a sort of “lightning rod” that attracts the attention of a student who would otherwise have difficulty concentrating / studying
— anxiety reduction:  some students find that, by working on their outlines, they feel more “in control” of there first-year of law school and therefore less anxious about it

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Effective Engagement—Not the Outline Itself—Is the Real Reason to Outline

Notice that all of the above possible benefits to law outlining pertain to the effect of the outline on the student, not the value of the finished product itself.  After all, as previously discussed, law students are not in the law publishing business, so a student’s outline will probably never be used again once the final exam ends.

But achieving these desirable effects does not necessarily follow from merely doing an outline.  These effects flow from effectively engaging in the process of outlining.

This effective engagement is, in short, the key to making one’s outline efforts worthwhile. Effectively engaging in the outlining process—and the learning process generally—will be the topic of upcoming articles.

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More on First-Year Outlines

The Downside

If outlines on the major first-year topics—contracts, torts, criminal law, and so on—were dependably useful, “obsession” would not be the right word to describe the extensive efforts that many first-year (1L) law school students pour into their law school outlines.  Unfortunately, for most students, the word is appropriate.

Here are some of the reasons.  These reasons are, of course, no secret to anyone, but students often lose sight of these facts during the rush of first year.

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— you get no points and no course credit whatsoever for your outline
— you are not in the publishing business and probably won’t ever be
— you can create a 100-page outline and still have virtually no understanding of the law
— if you are not allowed to use materials such as your outline during the exam for the given subject, then you won’t even have your outline physically available to you when you need it
— those students who are allowed to use their outlines during an exam generally report that they never actually did use their outlines during the exam because outlines don’t really help one’s analysis of or writing about an issue

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Consider Your Goals

In light of the above, the amount of time and effort that goes into the production of extensive first-year outlines is often a bad investment.  Certainly, at least a few students do benefit from their outlines, but, as will be discussed in an upcoming article, there’s usually a lot more going on than mere production of an outline when the outline endeavor actually pays off.

Thus, students are advised to consider what their real goals are—learning and understanding the law, succeeding in law school, for instance—before they choose to invest a large portion of their first semester and first year of law school in outlining.

 

First-Year Outlines

Outline Obsession

First year of law school offers some significant challenges.  Many students find this year to be one of the most difficult years of their academic lives.

One common—if not near-universal—response is that of outline obsession:  first-year (1L) students tend to get lured into a never-ending attempt to create the perfect outline.  This obsession gets fueled by several different players in the first-year scene, including:

– well-meaning law professors who remember obsessing over their own outlines and reason that, since they did it, it must be the thing to do
– commercial publishers of law outlines (e.g., Gilbert’s, Emmanuel’s) who have a profit motive for fueling the frenzy
– second-year (2L) and third-year (3L) law students who, like their professors, subscribe to the it’s-right-because-I-did-it theory
– other first-year students who are daunted by the amount of material they need to know and grasp onto the notion of outline omnipotence as a way to manage the stress and anxiety of first year of law school

Benefits and Drawbacks

Not surprisingly, there are both benefits and drawbacks relating to obsessing over one’s outline.  More to come on both the good and the bad of first-year outlines. . . .

 

Grammar: It’s Not Just for 8th Grade

Good Writing Is Good

Law school research and writing courses rarely focus on the mechanics of writing.  Instead, these courses generally devote time to discussion of law-specific material, such as legal citations and legal research tools.

Unfortunately, this approach leaves some important—very important—matters to chance.

The basics of good writing, which are (hopefully!) covered before and during one’s high school years, do not simply go away on graduation day.  These basics remain fundamental to effective written communication, and, therefore, remain fundamental to law school and bar exam essays.

If It’s Not Covered, Do It Yourself

For students who do not get a basic review of good writing in their legal research and writing classes—and that means most law students—, self-help is mandatory.  Self-help approaches include:

–  undertake a serious review of basic English mechanics and style on one’s own
–  hire a writing tutor
–  take a class on good writing, either through the university associated with one’s law school or through a third-party provider

But skipping the basics is not the right choice—even if law schools often choose that approach.

Occlumency for LSAT, Law School, and the Bar Exam

Test-Taking Distractions Don’t Always Come from the Outside

In recent articles, the external distractions that can from from a testing center facility or a proctor have been discussed.  But these distractions can be relatively easy to handle compared to the distractions that come from within one’s own mind.

Clearing and Closing Your Mind:  Occlumency for LSAT, Law School, and the Bar Exam

Internal sources of distractions include several different types of worry, such as:

loose ends: the test-taker can’t concentrate during a part of the test because anxieties about not having paid the rent, not watered the plants, or not made travel or lodging arrangments
underpreparation remorse: as the test begins, the test-taker is overcome with regret about not having practiced and studied more
personal baggage:  the test-taker has under-performed on some previous test and believes that there’s something inherently “wrong” with him or her that will doom him or her to failure on the present test
habitual self-denigration: some test-takers have a more generalized form of baggage in which they have become perpetual—and vicious—critics of themselves, telling themselves they are dumb, a failure, a loser almost constantly; these antagonistic voices and messages can reach a debilitating pitch when a difficult task requiring a lot of concentration—such as the LSAT, a law school essay, or the MBE—is at hand

One part of the solution to all of the above distractions is essentially a real-world version of  “occlumency,” a form of magic resistance from the Harry Potter fantasy book and movie series.  Wizards in the Harry Potter world are taught to block others out of their minds rather than let their thoughts be meddles with.  Test-takers need to do the same, i.e., to treat all of the above distracting thoughts as though they were just little “curses” or “spells” that are being cast against you in order to take you away from your work.  Dispense with them accordingly.

Not Easy, But Worth It

Building up this mental resistance to distraction is easier said than done.  But the first step is recognizing that each of the above mental distractions is counter-productive.

Each one of these thoughts takes points out of final score by burning up your time and diluting your focus.  These thoughts are not friends, not teaching you valuable lessons, not helping you to develop a stronger character or to be responsible.  They’re just undermining your abilities and hurting your scores.  They are, in short, point stealers.

As such, they are not worth one moment of your time or one heartbeat’s worth of emotional energy on test day.

Testing Centers: Some Warnings

Things Go Wrong that Are Not within a Student’s Control

As discussed in a recent article about LSAT time warnings and bar exam time warnings, test preparation companies have a commercial incentive to ensure that things go smoothly for students.  But this admirable work by test prep companies can be misleading for LSAT students, bar exam students, and other people preparing for standardized tests. Many things can and do go wrong on test day that have nothing to do with the test-takers themselves, and shielding students from these difficulties may give students a false sense of security.

Test Centers

Just as proctors can have issues, the physical testing facilities and the providers of these facilities can also give rise to extra-test problems.  Such difficulties include:

– test center is too hot, too cold
– test center has bad desks or chairs (e.g., unstable, too small)
– test center has to change rooms and relocate students at last minute
– test center is very close to an external noise source (e.g., nearby construction, a noisy convention event)
– test center causes other ambient distractions and discomforts (e.g., mildewy)

The Answer:  Practice Being Unflappable

Taking the bar exam, LSAT, MPRE, or a law school exam is tough enough without the addition of such external obstacles.  Such obstacles are particularly disturbing when they are unique to one test-taker or a small group of test-takers rather than presented to everyone.

But getting upset doesn’t do any good.  No one gets extra credit for having had to endure unfortunate testing conditions.

Part of effective preparation is, therefore, developing an unflappable mindset.  Resolve that, no matter what surprises come your way on test day, you will waste no mental cycles on or offer any emotional resistance to these difficulties.  Treat all such distractions as part of the test itself.

 

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Test-Taking Mandatory “Tip”: Do Not Count on Time Warnings

The Dangers of Time Warnings

Many test preparation companies—whether for the LSAT, bar exam, or other standardized test—provide proctors who call out or write on the board how much time is left in a given section of the test.  These proctors are a pretty standard part of the landscape for diagnostic tests and timed practice exams. Unfortunately, students tend to learn to rely on these warnings, and that’s dangerous, because there might be no such warning on test day.

Thus, while professionalism may argue in favor of test prep companies providing this service, students must heed the following advice.

On the actual day of the test—LSAT, bar exam, MPRE, SAT, or whatever—, you cannot, cannot, cannot, cannot rely upon the test proctors to keep track of time for you.

If these employees of the given test-maker make a mistake and forget to warn you that there are “five minutes remaining” or “thirty seconds remaining,” you will get no sympathy from the test-makers themselves.  In other words, you will not be able to get additional points on the test for this oversight.

The Bottom Line

If you lose points that you could have gotten if you’d been apprised of the time remaining, those points are lost for good.  Don’t take that risk.  ALWAYS keep track of the time yourself, and be sure to get in the habit of doing so by practicing accordingly.

LSAT and Bar Prep | Constructing and Destroying Arguments

One key skill tested in the logical reasoning section category of the LSAT is that of building—and tearing down—arguments.  This skill can appear on the test in many ways, including:
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  1. Making a statement of facts into an argument, either by drawing an inference or by providing support to an unsupported assertion
  2. Finding an additional premise
  3. Presenting a “counter-premise”, i.e., a statement that would serve as a premise in a counter-argument

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This skill also plays a significant role in bar exam essay, performance test, and MBE sections.

Check this blog periodically for discussion of the argument-construction/destruction skill, how to develop it, how to spot questions that test it, and how to separate good from bad answer choices.

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More Things that Make Law School Cool

Idea Wars

Philosophizing can be fun.  As undergrads, perhaps through a philosophy class or maybe just during a night out, we often entertain far-fetched ideas and discuss them at length just for the fun of it (“What if our whole universe is just a single atom in another universe?” seemed to be a favorite with some of my friends).  Such talks not only provide entertaining social exchanges but also mind-expanding exercise, enhancing both the flavor and substance of a good liberal arts education.

In law school, those discussions still happen.  But there are major differences.  Because law is like philosophy that matters.

That line always gets the biggest laugh at the “Introduction to Law School” talks that LEX hosts, but it does so because it’s true.

Let’s discuss why.  Arguing about Thomas More’s Utopia or Plato’s Republic can be challenging and interesting, but it won’t get anyone out of prison or regain custody of a child.  Law does.  And when a medical malpractice victim has suffered a traumatic injury at the hands of an incompetent hospital staff member, she doesn’t call a philosopher.  She calls a lawyer.

Law is where a society embodies its highest philosophical notions regarding truth, justice, freedom, choice and human dignity into tools that have hard-core, real-world consequences.  Law calls upon all the intellectual powers that go into a philosophical discussion, but it doesn’t end there.  It matters.

Accordingly, during law school, students are confronted with issues that require each individual to stake out some sort of philosophical basis for his or her point of view.  Issues like abortion, capital punishment, same-sex marriage, drug use.  Both in and out of the classroom, the idea wars get hotly debated.  And that debate is all the hotter this time around,  because—unlike that night out with the college friends—this time the full significance of those ideas is being brought to bear on the lives of actual human beings.  A real person with a real name and a real face will live or die; a couple will marry or not; a child will or will not be born—all these human lives will be forever and fundamentally altered  on the basis of which idea carries the day.

And that’s another reason why law school is cool.

Things that Make Law School Cool

Invisible Strings

Experiencing a great novel (I’d recommend Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) for the first time can be very exciting.  Each plot twist fuels a need to turn the page and find out what happens next.

But once a person has had that first-time experience, he or she may have hard time recapturing that thrill by re-reading the same book.  All those invisible strings that tied the plot together have now been revealed.  The mystery, the illusion, and the naïvete have been stripped away.

One reason why law school is cool is its inherent process of similarly stripping away illusions and revealing how things really work.  The invisible strings that attach to each and every person are made plain, never to be re-concealed to those who have been initiated.

Constitutional rights are a good example.  Before law school, one’s next-door neighbor appears to be just a person who likes to grow tomatoes and to play with her three cats.  But after law school, her appearance has changed:  she wears  plates of armor and carries a sword and a shield wherever she goes.  The law student asks himself or herself, “How did I never notice all that stuff before?”

That formerly invisible armor includes a right to free speech that was designed by some of the brightest thinkers of the last millennium; was embodied in a document that describes one of the longest-running, still-active governmental structures on the planet; has been defended by millions of soldiers, guns, tanks and planes; and is excercised every day of the latest political campaign, protest, demonstration, or debate.

Other such armor includes a right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure by police; to trial by jury; and so on.  These mechanisms—just abstract and theoretical to the student entering law school—have become palpable, real, and unmistakable to the student exiting law school.  He or she can never go back to the way things were, back to viewing his neighbor in the same way, any more than he or she can re-read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for the first time.

And that’s one thing that makes law school cool.