#DearFindLaw: Outlining Tips; Damn You Socrates!

By William Peacock, Esq. on September 05, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

#DearFindLaw - Advice for New Lawyers and Law Students from @FindLawLP

Another week, more 1L questions. We feel for y'all -- these first few months are downright terrifying, aren't they?

Our first question is about outlining: how, when, why? And another reader, fresh off his first Socratic smackdown, complete with a warning that he'd be "on call" next class, wants to know why -- why do they do this to students?

Outlining: It's Merely a Tool

Whoa! Ten books? I'm reminded of advice from the the chubby, nerdy guy (well, one of the chubby, nerdy guys) in "The Paper Chase" (if you haven't seen it, add it to the list). During 1L study groups, he constantly reminds his compatriots that outlines and everything else in law school are but a mere tool, a means to an end -- final exams.

That being said, outlines are arguably the most important tool. Here are a few posts we've written in the past about outlining:

For you, if you've already read ten books on the subject, it's probably time to get started and stop worrying about doing it "right" -- the only ways to really screw up an outline is to write down everything (too much), not outline at all (too little), or to outline before school even starts (gunner!). My method (during 1L) was to take notes on important cases and things professors got hot and bothered about, then I'd outline on Saturdays.

Also, if you're the flow chart type (visual learners), I'd recommend using OneNote. It's free, you can do a traditional outline with little diagrams and pictures stuck in where necessary, and it syncs to the magical "cloud" in case your laptop goes kaput.


Socrates Philosophies and Hypothesis

Our next question comes from an anonymous man who lacks a Twitter account. (You're missing out on @FeministTSwift man, c'mon!) He just got grilled for the first time and wonders: What's the freaking point?

My gut reaction: It teaches you to think under intense pressure, and it develops your ability to analyze ever-changing facts on the fly -- a good Socratic inquiry doesn't just ask what the case says, but asks what happens if you tweak a fact or two.

Then again, I'm well aware of my ignorance. Let's see what the University of Chicago has to say about it:

"The law will change over the course of our lifetimes, and the problems we confront will vary tremendously. Law professors cannot provide students with certain answers, but we can help develop reasoning skills that lawyers can apply, regardless of the legal question.


No student is certain before class whether she will be called on to discuss difficult issues or to respond to answers provided by one of her colleagues. She must therefore pay close attention to my discussions with other students so she will be ready to play a meaningful role. Furthermore, the Socratic Method places some responsibility on students to think about the questions silently and participate actively on their own; the element of surprise provides a powerful incentive for them to meet that responsibility.


Any professor who uses the Socratic Method has had the experience of getting a 'right' answer too early in the class and then facing the challenge of working backward to clarify for other students the process of reaching a solution. We are teaching reasoning skills, and the process of discovering a right answer is often more important than the answer itself."

Those are a few passages from an essay defending the torturous method of teaching, one that, to be honest, I'm quite fond of. I used to teach LSAT classes, and the best way to make sure everyone was awake (reading comp is boring) and to test that their reasoning skills were getting there (logic games on test day y'all!) was to grill, change a fact, grill, and unlike Prof. Kingsfield (watch "The Paper Chase"!), to complement them when they get it right -- confidence is nearly as important as actual skill.

Seriously, there is not a better way to learn to "think like a lawyer" than the Socratic Method. Sure, it sucks now, as a 1L, but we promise: it will help you in the long run.

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