In U.S. law school, you’ll learn primarily by reviewing and discussing legal cases and opinions
Reviewing and analyzing a compilation of actual past legal cases and judicial opinions, or case law, is the primary manner of studying and learning law in U.S. law schools. This method of studying actual judicial opinions to learn legal rules and develop the ability to think like a lawyer is called the Case Method.
The actual compilation of past legal cases and opinions that you will use for a law school class is called a casebook. For many courses in law school, your casebook will be your only textbook. A case brief is simply a set of notes comprised of important points on each assigned case that you’ll use for class discussions.
The case brief is the end result of reading a case, re-reading it, taking it apart and putting it back together again. In addition to being a useful tool for self-instruction and referencing, the case brief also provides a valuable “cheat sheet” for class participation. 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.
You’ll also pull some information from your case briefs into outlines you’ll use to ultimately prepare for mid-terms and finals.
Useful beyond law school class prep
Learning to create a good case brief is extremely helpful well beyond participating in class. When you begin outlining and prepping for finals, you’ll find it easier and faster to reference your more concise case briefs vs. re-reading cases for a refresher.
In the future, when a client’s case requires legal research, you’ll be able to quickly examine dozens of cases to locate and document what you need in an organized and efficient manner. Case briefing is a skill worth honing.
Techniques for briefing a case
There are many ways to brief a case. You should find the format that is most useful for your class and exam preparation. Often, a case is misread because the student fails to break it down into its essential elements. Here are the main elements that are helpful to include:
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.
State the trial court’s 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?
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.
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).
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 situations — such as those you will see on the bar exam and in real life scenarios when you are a practicing attorney.
Concurring and dissenting opinions can present an interesting alternative analysis or theory of the case. Therefore, you should describe the analysis in your case briefs. It will help you see the case in a different light.
The do's of case briefing
Use a roadmap for reading assignments
Before you start reading assigned cases, look at the chapter headings and the table of contents in the casebook. These will tell you the topic to which the assigned cases relate, and where this topic fits in the overall course.
Keep a good law dictionary close
Legal terminology is a technical language with technical meanings. When a word is used that you don’t understand, or when a word is used in some unusual sense, stop and look it up. Try to use that word in your case brief so you’ll better recall the context and its meaning later.
Create your own briefing system
Briefing cases is core to learning to “think like a lawyer”. Once mastered, you’ll be able to efficiently distill facts and reasoning of a case. Try a format of breaking down the essential elements: Facts, Trial Court, Issue, Rule, Rationale and Objective Theory.
Keep your briefs brief
Your case briefs are there to help you quickly recall the case in sufficient detail during class discussion and to integrate into your class notes and outlines later. Regurgitating the entire case is not helpful. Avoid copying citations. Simply try to capture the gist of the facts and the court’s reasoning in just a few words.
Come to class prepared
You will be expected to come to class prepared to discuss assigned cases. That means learning how to read and brief those cases as efficiently as possible. You may not brief every case in every class throughout law school. Definitely brief cases until you’re good at it, which for most students means throughout 1L year.
Build case briefing time into your study routine
Time is a hot commodity in law school, and efficiency is key. Establishing a study routine that incorporates time to write case briefs will ensure that you prepare well for class and exams, from the very beginning. Briefing your cases throughout the year will ensure you are not only working hard but also smarter.
The don'ts of case briefing
Skip out on reading the actual case
Some law students attempt to save time by reading only a third-party case brief or another student’s hand-me-down outlines. While these can be helpful supplements, reading and analyzing the case is key to truly understanding and applying the information you are learning to other situations. This is what it means to think like a lawyer. Your professor also knows this is occurring and will change the question to things he or she knows are not in the case briefs.
Rely solely on book briefing
Book briefing, or simply highlighting information in different colors in your casebook, will not hardwire the material into your mind. Case briefs will. When you are just starting out, it will be difficult to understand and remember what you previously read without taking notes in some organized fashion — the final step of writing out a brief.
Copy holdings verbatim from the case
It’s important to state the holding (judgement in a case) in your own words as you brief. By doing so, you are more apt to fully understand the legal principles better and memorize them more easily.
Worry if your case briefs aren’t perfect
Most professors will promote the value of 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.