It’s no secret that in law school, you’ll be reading a lot. Students must read several judicial opinions to prepare for class, averaging between 40-50 pages per night. On top of this, most professors in law school teach using the Case Method, which means students should be ready to get called to participate in (and often lead!) the classroom discussion. So, how do law students effectively prepare for this experience? They write case briefs.
A case brief is a summary of the most significant portions of a court’s legal decision. It captures and condenses relevant information and places it in a format that makes it easy to understand and simple to recall. Most importantly, a good case brief identifies the operative legal rule that a court applies (or even creates) and analyzes how that court applied the law to the facts in the case.
Why should I write case briefs for class?
You need to write a case brief because you’re not a lawyer; you’re a law student
Courts write opinions for consumption by experienced lawyers, not law students. For the lawyers who argued before the issuing court, the judicial opinion explains why that court ruled for the winning party. More importantly, all judicial opinions serve as “precedent” to explain to lawyers how the court may rule on a future case with similar facts.
Law professors assign judicial opinions as teaching tools to illustrate to inexperienced law students how a particular subject’s law (e.g., Contracts, Torts, etc.) has evolved. As such, for many law students, assigned cases often seem like reading a foreign language without having first had the opportunity to become fluent in the first place; briefing their assigned readings aid law students’ translation by dissecting dense and confusing court opinions into a short synopsis that is easier to understand.
Case briefs serve as great study-aids
Good case briefs also serve as study aids when preparing for final exams. Instead of returning to your casebooks and reading entire cases, students often refer to their case briefs instead.
Case briefs prepare you for cold-calling
Most students’ biggest fear in law school is cold calling, where professors call on students at random to analyze specific parts of the assigned case. By writing case briefs, smart students mitigate their stress by having a “cheat-sheet” to refer to when they find themselves in the “hot seat.”
What are the elements of case briefs?
Typically, case briefs are no more than one page in length, and they usually follow a formulaic but personal template. In law school, everyone develops a unique case briefing style that facilitates the quickest recall of important information. Although case briefs often differ in style, the information contained within a complete brief should not vary from student to student.
Generally, the only person who will be reading your briefs is you. Law students never submit briefs to their professors for grading; instead, briefs exist solely to aid students’ understanding of the assigned material. With this in mind, when you enter law school, know different professors might suggest different elements to include in your briefs.
The four most widely accepted elements are facts, issues, holdings (decisions), and reasoning (rationale). However, briefs might also include a title, rule, and separate opinions.
Title and Citation
The title will be the parties in the case (John v. Smith). As well as including a title, it’s helpful to cite the case and include the page of the casebook so you can reference it if needed.
Facts of the Case
The facts tell you what happened. You should make sure you include the parties involved, a brief story of what occurred that brought the parties to court in the first place, what happened procedurally in the lower courts, and the trial court’s judgment.
What is the question of law the appellate court is being asked to decide.? It is often helpful to word your “issue” as a question that can be answered with “yes” or “no.”
What legal rule did the judge use to determine what is controlling this case? Students will often copy the court’s rule statement directly from the casebook into their brief. The rule is what drives the opinion towards its outcome.
The holding is the court’s decision after applying the rule. Did they decide to uphold the lower court’s decision? Did they reverse and remand the case?
Sometimes called “legal analysis,” this section describes why the court ruled the way it did. You’ll want to make sure you’re outlining the parties’ arguments and explaining the steps the court took when reaching its decision.
If the case involves a panel of judges, this is where you’ll summarize if other judges had concurring or dissenting opinions. A concurring opinion means a judge agrees with the holding but has a different rationale behind it. A dissenting opinion is when a judge disagrees with the holding.
Where can I learn how to brief cases?
Students can learn how to effectively write case briefs by taking our law school prep course. By taking Law Preview, you’ll walk into law school knowing exactly how to decipher legal material, brief cases, and ace exams. Knowing how to do this before day one will help get you to the top of your class and set you up for the best job opportunities and highest academic honors.