To start with, it is hard to merely describe law school outlines. You need to see one for yourself. So click here [link to be inserted later] to see one of mine from years ago (I got an A in this class) and return to improve your understanding.
Law school outlines have existed since . . . well, it's not clear. Certainly they existed in 1973--the movie The Paper Chase mentions outlines repeatedly. One character works relentlessly on his lengthy and "perfect" outline, calling students he doesn't like "pimp." Like that's a bad thing.
Outlining is a rite of passage for first-year law students; it's when they enter lock-down mode, where you see many men growing grotesque "exam beards." Creating law school outlines is one of many lemming like activities that law students in engage in--everyone does it but most don't know what they're doing or why.
So, what are law school outlines good for? They are schematics or maps to the cases and laws of a subject that help guide law students through a final exam.
In law school outlines are necessary because you have to figure out the black letter law from the confusing Socratic dialogues that your professor leads in class and organize it in a way that helps you apply the law to facts you've never seen before.
Remember that law school final exams test a very specific ability: to apply the laws you have learned to new problems or facts. They almost never test pure recall of particular laws or cases. In fact, many law schools dispense with memorization and make exams open book so students can focus on legal analysis: can you look at a set of facts and make a quick assessment of what kind of legal claims could be brought and the objections or counter arguments the other side could raise in response.
So many of your more confused classmates--treating law school like college--might just be creating 100 page monstrosities stuffed with every obscure case and law that the professor discussed or didn't but was in the reading. Because Mr. Professor might ask anything and so you have to prepare for the obscure question. Is that what you should do?
No, absolutely not. The measure of quality for law school outlines is not how comprehensive it is; rather, it is how simply and clearly it presents and organizes the core cases and laws of a subject so you can most easily apply them on a law school exam. This begs the question of what sort of outline is easy to use for an exam.
Here are my rules of thumb on law school outlines, how to make them, and how to use them.
Write your own outlines. A law school outline is not just a product, it is a process. That is, it is a product that you use on a final exam, but also the process of creating it helps you study the material. You are forced to take an otherwise jumbled mass of cases, statutes, and other laws or provisions and impose some sort of order on it--by grouping cases, putting them in some order, creating easy-to-read charts and indexes, etc. It doesn't necessarily matter what kind of order so long as whatever system you adopt makes sense to you. Of course, this means that you have to make your own. Now, there are two corollaries to the principle that you should make your own outlines:
. . . there are no magical law school outlines. There may be some kid in your class who just looks smart and even smellssmart and has written an awesome outline she is willing to share. Or perhaps, from an upperclassman friend, you have inherited the Mother of All Outlines, written by a student who is clerking on the Supreme Court and got the highest GPA ever. You won't get an A just because you have the perfect outline in your hands; you still have to make your own to truly understand the material. The outline itself does not contain anything special, it just reflects the organization of the student who wrote it. But until you write your own, you won't really understand.
Use commercial law school outlines to understand the black letter law, but still make your own outlines for your courses. Commercial outlines are ones that you can buy at the store--very often they are at the law school bookstore--and are made by reputable companies such as Gilberts, Emanuel, E&E, etc. As I mention in my page on law school preparation, there is a time and place to use these products. You should review commercial outlines before law school starts to give you a head start on understanding the doctrines or concepts before you walk into the classroom. I do not advise using commercial law school outlines during the semester or to study for finals to understand the law. The professor is testing you on his own understanding of the law--not Gilberts' or Emanuel's. If you're in real trouble, a commercial outline may help you get a passing grade. But if you want the A, you should have studied commercials outlines before the semester started. By studying them during finals, you risk drowning out your professor's voice as you study, which is for better or worse exactly what he wants to hear on your exam paper.
Start outlining early but not too early: 5-6 weeks before your final exams start. Outlining is generally something you save towards the end of the semester because the process helps you review and crystallize what you have learned in class. If you simply outline too early (i.e., starting at the beginning of the semester) a subject right after you study it in class, you will simply see trees every week and miss the forest. When you outline and cover many cases or rules at once you finally begin to see a subject such as contracts and torts not as a mass of random cases and rules but as coherent networks or systems of inter-related rules. But it takes time to outline, so if you save for the week before finals, you will fail to create outlines in time to make them usable for your exams. I think as a rule of thumb, you should budget one week per outline (start while you still have class) and aim to finish two weeks before your first exam so you can take practice exams.
In outlining a case, always start with the statement of the law articulated by the case first, and then the case name or any additional information late; the case name is only important if it is well known and shorthand What do I mean? In undergrad, if you studied a case--say Brown v. Board of Education--when you actually put the case in your notes, the key fact about it would be its name, the year, then the facts, etc. In your outline, the actual rule articulated would go first, then all of these other details. Why? Because while Brown v. Board is famous, you have 100 other cases in your outline, and you can't even remember their names. That's perfectly fine, because on your exam, you will not be graded on whether you can remember case names. What you are graded on is (1) whether you recall the correct law that applies to a particular situation and (2) how well and thoroughly you analyze the facts with the law. You should get full points on a question if you apply the law correctly; the case name does not matter most of the time.
Keep your law school outlines short: generally half the size of your class notes or less. There are exceptions, but generally keep in mind that, all else equal, a short and sweet statement of the law will do.
Don't just outline: create any work product that will make your exam taking easier. I mean it: create anything that will help you on your exam: issue checklists, flow-charts (especially for civil procedure), maps, spreadsheets, note cards--anything. On my outlines, even if I used the normal outline format, I tried to create "case spectrums" that showed a range of factual scenarios and the court's decision on them. Sometimes, I created two outlines for classes: one "black letter" outline and another "policy" outline for classes like Constitutional Law or Criminal Law that were certain to include a policy question as well.
Swap outlines with members of your study group. You want to "crowd-source" your understanding of the black letter law as your professor presented it. Now, if you are the only one out of four people who thinks a professor said X was the law, and your other study group friends say Y, it is likely you misheard the professor. But I would use other outlines for that limited purpose--to check your recall and get the law absolutely right.