The Black Letter Law – Get It From Commercial Outlines

Study the black letter law directly from commercial outlines if you want to get ahead in law school.

This tip will help you immediately reduce your study time, while retaining just as much important information.

Watch the video and then read the rest of my explanation below.

What is the black letter law?

You now know (from here and other sources) that the socratic method or the case method is a long, indirect path to learning the black letter law you need to do well on issue-spotting exams.

So judo-flip that shit.

Study the law directly: memorize the black letter law.  

By which I mean:  you can generally boil down a 2 to 3-page case on murder to a legal definition of murder (“the black letter law”).  Here is an example:

Intent-to-kill murder:  the (1) unlawful (i.e., without a legal excuse) (2) killing (3) of a human being; (4) committed with malice aforethought, which includes (a) intent to kill (b) intent to inflict severe injury or (c) reckless indifference to an unjustifiably high risk to human life.

Other cases can be different. They may not identify a legal definition, but rather apply it to a specific situation.  

You can boil down such a case like so into a single line of black letter law in an outline (I don’t go over every element here):

Intent to Kill Murder [definition]

. . . Malice aforethought . . . (a) intent to kill

Yes, guilty:  sudden impulse to kill, w/ no pre-planning, is enough intent for intent to kill (Commonwealth v. Carrol)

Now, this is a single sentence summary of Commonwealth v. Carrol, a case about a guy who saw his wife beat their children, argued with her later and, consumed with anger later, shot her; he made no plans, before grabbing his gun, to kill her.  (Jeez.)

For your purposes on an exam, the quick 1-sentence summary of Carrol (“sudden impulse to kill = intent”) is all you need. It helps you make arguments on behalf of one party and resolve claims.

Other cases create more specific principles that apply the general legal definition.  

You just need a quick line that sets out those facts.

You won’t find these in your case book.  

F’ing Chris Langdell made sure of that.

How to find the black letter law: Commercial outlines

The black letter law is set out in commercial outlines (like Emanuel’s or Gilbert’s), the modern day treatise for students.  

Commercial outlines will save your life.

Buy them new or used for $40 each.  

Get a BarBRI Conviser Mini Review (available on Amazon or eBay), which is what people use on the bar exam and contain all 1L subjects.

Print out free outlines you find on the web.

It doesn’t matter that much.

You can even buy old outlines (they are cheaper).  Don’t spend a fortune on them.  Borrow them from a friend.  

Read these outlines.  Memorize the “legal definitions” (the elements or factors of each claim, like murder, or defenses, like self-defense.).  Commit to memory the case blurbs that apply the definitions.

You can do this before law school starts.  You can do this during law school, studying the black letter law before reading cases.  Emanuel and Gilbert outlines are keyed to the most common casebooks you read.

Yet other tips

  • You don’t have to master the black letter law completely.  Read to understand so that (1) you can start atking practice exams (see Shortcut 3 below) and (2) so the key legal concepts are familiar when your professor discusses them or you come across them in your case book reading.
  • Don’t over do it.  That is,do not buy or read more than one outline per law school subject.  This will become repetitious or just make you confused.
  • Read short commercial outlines.  I prefer Gilbert’s or Emanuel’s because they are brief.  Just study the summary outline at the front. It is 50-70 pages.  If you study from a free outline, only do so if the outline is short, less than 50 pages.  You may be tempted to buy a big hornbook or treatise.  These are very comprehensive and might confuse you.  (Such books are really meant for practicing attorneys.)

But: your professor’s black letter law trumps the outline  

Just use commercial outlines to prepare for class and to learn enough law to take practice exams.  

However, if your professor says something different about a law or a case than your outline, the prof’s words win.  

Your job in law school is to understand your professor’s view of the law and apply that to an exam if you want a good grade.

That’s it.

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