Learning how to brief a case is a necessary part of studying U.S. law. You will undoubtedly hear the term regularly during your time in law school. Quite simply, a case brief is a set of notes you take on each assigned case to ensure you are paying attention to what’s important.
Your case brief is a study aid that’s meant to help you encapsulate and analyze the mountain of material you will be expected to digest and recall as a law student. The case brief is the end result of reading a case, re-reading it, taking it apart, and putting it back together again. When done well, it’s a very useful tool for self-instruction and referencing. It also provides a valuable “cheat sheet” for your law school classroom.
With a few techniques in hand, you will be able to master the art of briefing cases to be well on your way to owning class discussions.
Create a case briefing system that works for you
Often, a case is misread because the student fails to break it down into its essential elements. A briefing system can get you in the habit of dissecting the case sufficiently for analytical purposes. There are many ways to brief a case so find the format that is most useful for you.
Here are the primary elements of an effective case brief:
- Facts: Briefly state the name of the case and its parties, what happened factually and procedurally leading to the controversy, and the judgment. This information is necessary because legal principles are defined by the situations in which they arise, and a fact is legally relevant if it had an impact on the case’s outcome. For example, in a personal injury action arising from a car accident, the color of the parties’ cars seldom would be relevant to the case’s outcome. Similarly, if the plaintiff and defendant presented different versions of the facts, you should describe those differences that are relevant to the court’s consideration of the case.
- Trial Court: State the judgment or decision in the case. Did the court decide in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant? What remedy, if any, did the court grant?
- Issue: State the issue or issues raised on appeal. This is where you will describe the opinion you are briefing. In this section of the brief, state the factual and legal questions that the court had to decide. To analyze a case properly, you want to break it down to its component parts. Be sure to stick to the relevant issue or issues because these are the ones for which the court made a final decision and which are binding.
- Rule: In a sentence or two, state the legal principle or the applied rule of law on which the court relied to reach its answer (the holding).
- Rationale: You now should describe why the court arrived at its holding. This section of the case brief may be the most important, because you must understand the court’s reasoning to be able to analyze it and apply it to other fact situations, such as those you will see on the bar exam.
- Objective Theory: Concurring and dissenting opinions can present an interesting alternative analysis or theory of the case. Therefore, you should describe the analysis in your case brief. It will help you see the case in a different light.
Keep your briefs brief
To be most effective, case briefs must be brief. Don’t attempt a detailed restatement of the entire case. Try to capture the gist of the facts and the court’s reasoning in as few words as possible, but with enough detail to discuss in class and integrate into your class notes.
When learning how to brief a case, don’t worry if it’s perfect
Most professors will promote the value of case briefing but will never actually ask to see that you have, in fact, briefed. Remember, you are the person that the brief will serve, and briefing is a skill you will develop as you become more comfortable reading cases.
If you’re an LL.M. student, download the free BARBRI LL.M. Guide to learn more about briefing cases and other law school techniques.