How to Brief a Case in Law School

If you are starting law school in the next few weeks, you will soon notice that everyone is talking about briefing cases. But many people don’t understand what effective “briefing” is. Well, we are here to help.

What’s a Case Brief?

In a nutshell, a case brief is nothing more than a set of notes you take on each assigned case, to ensure you’re paying attention to the important points (and so you’ll be ready for the class discussion).

However, reasonable people disagree about the best way to brief cases!

Written Briefs

Your professor, and your legal writing instructors, will probably tell you that you need to actually write/type out your case briefs. There’s nothing wrong with doing this (and Lee briefed most of the cases she was assigned this way), but there are other options.

Book Briefing

The most common alternative is “book briefing.” This approach, made popular by Law School Confidential, involves simply highlighting different parts of the case in different colors, right there in your textbook (hence the name). If it helps, you can also draw a little picture at the top, to remind you of the facts.

The Choice is Yours!

It’s really up to you what you want to do, but we suggest trying out both options, and weighing the pros and cons. For many law students, the extra time required to write up case briefs is time well spent, but it is time-consuming! If you’re someone who has a good recall for facts and you tend to understand the things you read on a single pass, book briefing might be a more efficient option. (Alison exclusively book briefed, so it’s definitely possible.)

Let’s Look at Some Examples

So, let’s look at two example briefs.

What Goes in a Traditional Case Brief?

It’s fine to adapt the suggested sample brief to your own learning style, but – at a minimum – you generally want to include:

  • the names of the parties
  • the court the opinion came from
  • the judge
  • the procedural history
  • the facts
  • the issues
  • the holding
  • the black-letter law (which might be different from the holding, in some cases)
  • the legal reasoning
  • why the case was included in your reading assignment (why was it important to read it)
  • any questions you have after reading the case (so you can get them answered).

Don’t worry if your first case brief isn’t perfect! Briefing is a skill you’ll develop as you become more comfortable reading cases.

How Do You Book Brief?

If you’re book briefing, you still want to identify all the items listed above. You also want to focus on making each section easy to find on the fly (as you may have to look for an answer quickly after being called on). How do you do this?

  • Use a consistent color scheme throughout your casebooks so you can identify the different sections at a glance. (Facts are always green, etc.)
  • Be diligent in your highlighting. It can be tempting to highlight the entire case, but force yourself to only highlight the most important things.
Try Both Briefs Out!

Early in the semester it is important to try out different types of briefs to see what works best for you. And remember some briefs will work better for some classes and not others.

Also, keep in mind that as you go through law school, your briefing habits may change. Lee was all about the traditional brief for the first two years of law school, but by third year she found she could book brief and still feel prepared for class (because she was a better law student at that point!).

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About Lee Burgess

Lee Burgess, Esq. is the co-founder of the Law School Toolbox, a resource for law students that demystifies the law school experience, the Bar Exam Toolbox, a resource for students getting ready for the bar exam and Trebuchet, a legal career resource. Lee is also the founder of Amicus Tutoring, LLC, a company she started to help students find success in law school and on the California bar exam. Lee has been adjunct faculty at two bay area law schools teaching classes on law school and bar exam preparation. You can find Lee on Twitter at @amicustutoring, @lawschooltools, @barexamtools & @trebuchetlegal.

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  1. [...] I’ll argue with some of the goody-two-shoes advice that’s out there about law school (no, I don’t think you have to brief every case to do well), but there are two things I consider non-negotiable: class and the reading. Going to class is a [...]

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