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Welcome to Law School: How to Take Notes, Brief Cases

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

So it begins. Another school year starts, another cadre of new law students sit down to learn about the law -- only to quickly realize they have no idea what they're doing. If you're a new 1L, it's easy to get overwhelmed by all the new things you're just supposed to know how to do.

You've probably heard everyone talk about briefing (or outlining) cases. Good outlining and note taking are definitely skills that take some time to perfect, but they're ones that are indispensable. A strong case brief will help you survive the worst cold call grilling. Solid notes can carry you through your exams.

Getting Started: A Guide to Briefing

You're a new law student. You've got a case (or five) to get through before tomorrow. Where do you start? By briefing the case. The goal with a case brief is to outline as much of the essential info about the case down in as little space as you can. Generally a brief includes most of the following:

  • Procedural History: the case history, usually who is appealing and why.
  • Legal Issue / Question Presented: the legal question or questions the court is answering. Try phrasing this as a general legally question, such as "Whether necessity is a defense to a charge of murder" rather than "can shipwrecked sailors eat each other?"
  • Facts: provide a brief summary of the facts of the case. You'll notice that many cases you read are fact-heavy. You can include a longer narrative if that makes you more comfortable, but aim for a few sentences, max. The fact patterns can be helpful when you're cold called, but they won't do much good when it comes time to prep for exams.
  • Holding and Rule: this is the point that matters. What rule did the court enunciate, clarify, establish? Sometimes these are simple, as in the cannibal sailor cases. Sometimes they are not (see, e.g., Pennoyer v. Neff).
  • Reasoning: the holding is what the court decided, the reasoning is why.
  • Extras: you can include sections for dissents and concurrences (which usually don't matter), important quotations, dicta, info about the judges -- whatever extra goodies you decide are worth noting.

During Class: Note Taking

Case briefs are to get you ready for class. When you're actually in a lecture, you'll be taking notes to fill in anything you might have missed. Here are two simple tips to help you get strong notes. (Westlaw, FindLaw's sister company, has a great infographic on what to do in class if you want something more in depth.)

First, don't clutter your case brief. You don't need to write down every detail that was brought up in class. You especially don't need to transcribe your professor's words. Second, focus on hypotheticals. These show you how the case can be applied to other circumstances, which is exactly what you'll be expected to know come exam time.

Now get to work.

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