Briefing Cases

Students sometimes ignore their professors' advice to brief all the cases in the assigned reading. Preparing case briefs is time-consuming, but it is time well spent. Briefing trains you to read cases closely, to thoroughly analyze the legal issues, and to distill cases down to their essence. Your case briefs are an essential guide when you are called on in class and they can form the skeleton for your course outline.

Why Should I Brief?

  • Briefing helps you extract what is important from the cases
  • Briefing hones your analytic skills
  • Briefing prepares you for class and serves as an excellent tool to help you survive when your professor calls on you
  • Your case briefs, along with you class notes, form the basis from which you create the study tools (outlines, flow charts) that prepare you to take exams

What Should Go In A Brief?

  • Caption: Case name, date and citation indicating the court that issued the opinion. Note the page on which the case appears in your text so that you can refer to the full case later.
  • Important Facts: Include all facts relevant to the outcome of the case and helpful background facts that put the dispute between the parties in context. Keep the fact section short and capture the facts in your own words.
  • Procedural History: Explain how did the case progress through the lower courts.
  • Issue: This is the question the court must decide to resolve the matter before it. Usually, the issue is stated after the facts section and is signaled by “the issue presented is,” or “the question before the court is.” A case may raise more than one issue.
  • Holding: The holding is the answer to the issue presented. If there is more than one issue, there may be more than one holding. The holding may be signaled by “we therefore hold that,” or “the opinion of the court is.” When framing the holding and rule, be careful not to frame them too broadly or too narrowly.
  • Rule: The court applies one or more rule(s) of law to the facts to reach its holding. Sometimes it applies an existing rule. Other times the court articulates a new rule. Sometimes the court tells you explicitly, “in this case we apply the following rule.” Other times you need to figure out what the rule is using logic: what rule must the court be applying to reach the holding? Watch out for dicta—statements made by the court that do not relate to the question actually before the court.
  • Rationale: The rationale explains why the court reached its decision. The rationale applied in one case can be used in analogous cases. The rationale may include both legal and policy arguments and it may be explicit or implicit. Take note of the justice issuing the opinion.
  • Concurring or Dissenting Opinions: Sum up opinions briefly and take note of the justice who issued them. Whose opinion do you find most persuasive, and why?
  • Disposition. Note the final resolution of the case. Was the lower court decision affirmed, reversed and remanded, overruled?

When to Brief

Don’t try to prepare the brief during your initial reading of the case: you won’t know what’s significant until you have a general understanding of what’s going on. Read the case first. Then go back, working through the case step by step in order to prepare your brief.

Why "Canned" Briefs Don't Cut It

Many students will use canned briefs in lieu of preparing their own brief or, worse yet, in lieu of actually reading the case. This is a huge mistake. Canned briefs are notorious for getting the facts, holding or other key parts of a case wrong. Professors will often ask questions that cannot be answered from a canned brief. Unless you have read and analyzed the court’s opinion yourself, you will not have the depth of understanding you’ll need to answer questions. No one said law school would be easy.

Adapt Your Brief To The Class: One Size Does Not Fit All

The contents of your brief should be tailored to what your professor thinks is important. Carefully listen to your professor’s questions to see the types of questions the professor asks about each case. Customize the contents of your brief based on the types of questions you anticipate your professor will ask. For example:

  • A civil procedure professor may ask detailed questions regarding the procedural history. In this case, make sure you have the history clearly mapped out in your brief. However, other professors may gloss over procedural history, so summing up the history in a sentence or two will suffice.
  • If your professor often asks students to argue the case on behalf of the defendant or plaintiff, include viable arguments and counterarguments in your brief that could be asserted by each party.

Using The Case Brief As A Study Tool

  • Edit your brief after class to include and highlight important points discussed in class. Fix any errors.
  • Review your case briefs along with your class notes on a regular basis, at least every week.
  • As a memory tool, assign each case a tag line, for example, “defective wheel” for MacPherson v. Buick.
  • Consider compiling your case brief information into a cases chart organized by subject matter. For example, in a torts class, group all the Affirmative Duties cases together. Doing this helps you see how the case law in a certain area evolves and how differing facts can affect the outcome. Knowing these nuances will help you on the exam because you will be able to use the cases to make arguments as you analyze the novel fact patterns that appear in the exam.
  • In addition to making charts to help in mastering case names, consider making a 3x5 flash card for each case containing a condensed version of your brief. Quiz yourself on the cases on a regular basis. These techniques are especially helpful when you have a professor who finds familiarity with cases and judges important.

Questions?

Please email Kiyana Kiel, call (619) 260-6876 or stop by Warren Hall, Room 206.

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