For many law students, their first time reading a court opinion can feel like they are trying to understand a foreign language. But never fear — there are tried and true study aids to get you up to speed and prepared for class.
Although they certainly take time and effort, case briefs are an incredibly useful tool for law students, especially during your first year. When you're reading cases in several courses, keeping the details straight isn't always easy. By briefing cases, you will have all the important details right in front of you when the instructor calls your name.
A case brief is a structured set of notes for each case you read, written in your own words. Although case notes are available online that are tempting time-savers, it is essential to write them yourself. Law school is not the time for shortcuts. Writing your own brief not only helps you remember the details of each case but also ensures you're comprehending the legal analysis used by the courts and gaining the skills you'll need as an attorney.
To create a helpful case brief for law school, follow these steps:
Read the Case Through
Before you begin writing your brief, read through the entire opinion. This will help you determine which facts are important. Jot down notes as you go if you find it helpful, but wait to complete the rest of these steps until you've read the whole case.
Copy the Case Name and Court
This is a good time to make sure you have the parties straight. Who filed suit against whom? Who appealed? The party initiating the action appears first, which means on appeal, the name of the case may be the reverse of what it was at the trial court level.
Summarize the Facts of the Case
The court will often include a summary of the case near the beginning of the opinion that can help you get started with picking out the relevant facts. However, keep in mind that the judge writing the opinion will often emphasize the facts they deem most important. Other important details throughout the opinion may help when comparing cases that are factually similar but have different outcomes. Bullet points are often helpful for your facts section.
Decipher the Procedural Posture
Your facts section is the story up to the point where someone filed suit. Next, determine the case's path so far through the courts. If it's reached an appellate court, what did the lower court decide? It may not seem like the most important part of the case, but professors will often ask students to outline a case's procedural history during cold call sessions in class.
The procedural posture will also tell you what type of analysis (the "standard of review") the court is using. A motion for summary judgment will be analyzed differently than a judgment on the merits.
Identify the Legal Issues
What is the legal question the court needed to address? If at the appellate or Supreme Court level, what was the basis for the appeal? Break down these questions in your own words.
In most casebooks, the court's opinion will be edited to focus on the legal issue relevant to the course you're in. But it's not uncommon for a civil procedure issue to sneak in along with the tort issues you're studying in a particular case.
State the Court's Holding
Answer each of the questions from your issues section, starting with "yes" or "no" and including the legal principle used by the court to reach that answer. In some opinions, the court will call out the rule of law in bold print or at the end of the opening paragraph.
Understand the Court's Rationale
State the court's reasoning in your own words as best you can. This will help ensure you understand what the court is saying. Break down the reasoning for each holding, including each link in the logical chain. Remember: We're not rewriting the entire opinion. Case briefs should be brief.
If there is a prominent dissenting opinion, include that holding/reasoning as well. It could help you in another case, or if you think the dissent had it right, it can make for a lively class discussion.
And don't skip the concurring opinions! A judge's concurrence can help flesh out the analysis of the majority opinion or provide an alternative basis for the court's decision.
Include the Disposition of the Case
Finally, identify what the court's analysis means for the outcome of the case. Was the defendant convicted? Did the plaintiff prevail? Was a lower court's decision reversed? Was the case remanded for additional proceedings?
Once you've finished your brief, take a moment to think about what the final decision means for other cases in that area of law. Consider whether the court is aiming to uphold a public policy with its decision. If a gem of a thought comes to mind, put it in your brief. You never know when you'll be called on to offer input in class.
Now you're ready to crack open that casebook and get to briefing! And for more help surviving your first year of law school, explore the resources on FindLaw for Law Students.