When someone asks how much homework you get in law school, you may be tempted to respond: “we don’t have any homework, just reading.” This statement is at best half true. Without quibbling as to whether reading can be considered homework, rarely if ever should you just read. You need a mechanism to render your passive reading an active exercise. There are several different methods that law students typically use to organize the information embedded in a case. Some annotate in the margins of their case books to translate the legal analysis into plain English. Others will use colored highlighters to identify the important parts of a case. Still others will use margin labels in their case books to categorize the case by its component parts.
While everyone has their own personal method of choice, the case brief is by and large the most popular, especially for 1L students. While almost never mandated, it might as well be—it’s the bread and butter of class and exam preparation. Perfecting the art of case briefing will help you finetune your legal analysis skills, excel in cold calls, and eventually write a nuanced final exam. The importance of the case brief is difficult to overemphasize. The risk of getting lost in the dense cases you read throughout the semester is simply too high if you don’t have a method for extracting the critical information. A traditional case brief categorizes important information with some combination of the following: facts, procedural history, issue, rationale, holding, rule, summary, implications, notes (and more). The exact categories in a case brief vary by individual, and you should follow the template that works best for you. But the best briefs will focus on the parts of the case that advance the law. To be more specific, such briefs will focus on some parts of the case over others:
- Procedural History. As a 1L, you may be asked about the procedural history during a cold call. It may be especially relevant for courses or units focused on procedure, such as civil and criminal procedure or cases on collateral review. But generally, you don’t want to dedicate too much of your brief on the history of a single case. Remember, the salient parts of your brief will ultimately find their way into an outline that is meant to prepare you to apply the law to a novel fact context. Knowing the ins and outs of how many times a case was remanded and appealed probably won’t help with that.
- Facts. While reciting the detailed factual narrative of a case may impress your peers during cold calls, it probably won’t impress your professor on an exam. Legally significant facts—those that inform the court’s judgment on a particular issue—are important to include. These facts illuminate the nuances of a legal rule and may make for strong analogies come exam time. It is often best to exclude other facts that merely provide context in the beginning of a judicial opinion. There will be a lot of those. An insider tip: a good way to identify legally significant facts is by looking at those facts that are applied in the court’s legal reasoning.
- Case notes. Most seminal cases in your case book will be followed by a series of case notes. These notes should not be overlooked or treated as an afterthought! They will often contain a series of blurbs on additional cases that further clarify the legal rule of the seminal case immediately preceding the notes. They may contain hypotheticals as well, outside the context of a case. Not only will these notes sharpen your understanding of the legal rule, but also, they are often a great way to verify that you picked up the right legal rule and holding. Finally, a noted case may even be important enough to the legal landscape to sneak its way into your outline and eventually into your exam. For many cases, you may spend an equal amount of time reading the case and its notes—that’s a good thing.
- Summary. Cases are often dense. Case briefs themselves often pack a lot of information. In an exam setting, you want to be able to recall the significance of a case with ease. That’s where the summary comes in! An effective summary section in a case brief will identify the parties, the legal issue, the holding of the case, and the central legal reasoning of the case. It will do so in no more than a sentence or two. Ideally, your summary should be able to answer the following two questions: 1) what was this case about? And 2) why did we read this case? Some students even find it helpful to make case flashcards based off these summaries.
Your case brief is a tool, and you want it to be a strong one. These guidelines should help you maximize the benefit of the time you invest in briefing throughout the semester.
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