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After you read a case, think about briefing it. Like any writing, when deciding how to brief an assigned case, first consider the audience. For case briefs, the audience is you. No law professor I have ever encountered will ask to see your case brief. Briefing should be a results-oriented enterprise. This post will help you develop a briefing strategy that will help you master your assigned cases.
Briefs should help you to think about the key aspects of a case, distinguish between related cases, review material more efficiently, and jog your memory in class during the terror of a cold call. Keeping these end goals in mind will make a difference. How neatly formatted or amazingly detailed your case brief, it is irrelevant if it doesn’t help you achieve the ends mentioned above. Engaging the case and synthesizing the material makes briefing a useful study and class preparation tool. When you are exhausted and running on Starbucks, it is easy to “read” 10 pages before realizing you haven’t absorbed anything. A briefing system acts as a failsafe to keep you from reading for the sake of reading and will make you (relatively) more comfortable with your preparedness for class. In addition, it will improve your overall comprehension of the material in the long run. Reading and understanding cases is a tough business that takes time and effort. Let briefing help you effectively read and absorb assigned case reading.
Case briefs can come in an unlimited number of shapes and sizes. Even within a particular briefing method, they will fall on a spectrum from insufficiently barebones to overly extensive. Developing an approach that works for you may take some experimenting, but you will come to learn what approach helps you to discuss the case in class and transition the case content to your course outline. The two most popular briefing methods are traditional (or written) briefs and book (or case) briefs.
(i). Traditional Brief
A traditional brief is usually a written or typed document that breaks down a case into key component parts of the case. Categories will vary, but a traditional brief will include some summary of case facts, some summary of the law at issue, and some summary of the court’s holding. One Law School Toolbox briefing model includes the following information:
- 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
- the legal reasoning
- why the case was included in your reading assignment
- any questions you have after reading the case
Generally, 1Ls who are unfamiliar with reading cases will begin with a written brief of this type. Writing out a brief helps you to focus on key information and begin to discipline your thinking as you move through an opinion. Be flexible at first. As your confidence builds, you can determine how you like to format your brief.
To save time and energy, make a template brief document in your word processor with your headings already formatted and ready. When that next case comes, just pull up the template and get to work. If you will have your laptop in class, it might be a good idea to save all the briefs for a reading assignment in a single document so that it will be easy to work with in class. Printing out your case briefs to take notes by hand in class can also be a great approach – especially if your laptop tends to be more distracting than it’s worth.
(ii). Book Brief
The book brief seeks to serve the same end and identifies the same information as the traditional brief. It just does it without developing a separate document. Between margin notes, case text annotations, and highlighting, the idea is to efficiently recognize the information that you will need to help you to understand and breakdown the case. Usually, out of a mixture of laziness, busy-ness, and experience, most 2Ls and 3Ls will turn to book briefing at some point. Once your brain is sufficiently disciplined to recognize key propositions in a case, book briefing does have its benefits. It keeps you from straying too far from the case language, it keeps all of your notes in one location, and it speeds up the briefing process.
(For examples of a traditional brief and a book brief, see this past Law School Toolbox post – How to Brief a Case in Law School).
When To Brief
Ideally, brief after you read. As Law School Toolbox co-founder Lee Burgess describes it, “[b]riefing while reading is like deciding you know the most important chapter in a book before you get to the end and see how everything turns out.” (Briefing while reading was Lee’s #4 mistake students make in preparing for class – see the others in her post Top 5 Mistakes Students Make Preparing for Class.) This applies to both traditional and book briefing. A primary danger, especially of book briefing, is the instinct to get too efficient. If you get overconfident, and merge the reading and briefing steps, you will lose key briefing benefits. If you are reading and book briefing simultaneously, you are really just reading and taking some notes, and your comprehension will likely suffer. Beginning to brief once you have gone through the full reading process, forces you to review and reinforce the material shortly after working through, which is always a great study practice.
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