How to Write Case Briefs
So much to do, so little time to do it.
That’s certainly every law student’s lament. It’s hard enough to find information, let alone understand and remember it. With the volume of work required, it pays to create a system, to quickly identify what’s important and why.
To do that, students create their own case briefs. In A Short and Happy Guide to Being a Law Student, Paula Franzese, a Seton Hall law professor, describes a brief as “a summary, organized into headings according to the facts of the case, the issue presented to the court, the holding or rule of law announced by the court, and your analysis of the court’s decision.”
Sounds simple enough… until you attempt to condense these thick decisions into a consistent and succinct format, with one case possibly consuming an entire evening. So what are some strategies for creating case briefs that help you prepare for the final exam?
In a recent piece in U.S. News and World Report, Shawn O’Connor, a Harvard Law grad and founder of the consulting firm Stratus Prep, offers his own approach.
First, case briefs help students prepare for class, where they could potentially be called upon. As a result, they should be formatted so information is easy to find. O’Connor recommends an arrangement that breaks down “the core components of a case, such as the facts, procedural history, issue, rule, legal rationale, application of the rule, and holding and dicta.” He also suggests that students make good use of highlighters. “You can reap nearly all the rewards of writing briefs by highlighting the key elements of each case according to a simple color-coded scheme. For example, you can use green for the issues, blue for the rule, yellow for the holding and orange for the rationale.”
On her blog Law School Academic Success, Susan Landrum, the Director of the Office of Academic Achievement at the Savannah Law School, provides her own approach to writing briefs. Her case briefs include the following components: The parties, court, citation, date, procedural history, issues, facts, holding, reasoning, and judgment.
According to Landrum, the issues can be particularly vexing to new students, as the court may not always be specific. In those situations, she suggests that students “use the casebook’s Table of Contents, Chapter and Section headings, case introductions, and case notes (located after the case) to help identify the issues.”
Facts are another area where students can get tripped up. That’s why knowing the difference “necessary” facts and “context” facts is so important. “Necessary facts are facts that are legally relevant—in other words, facts that the court relied upon in resolving the case’s legal issues,” Landrum writes. “In contrast, context facts are facts that aid our understanding of the necessary facts—they’re not essential to the court’s decision but give a more complete picture of what’s going on in the case. Not every fact mentioned in a case is necessary or provides context. Most cases also contain extra facts that can distract you from what’s really important in the case.”
Reasoning, where the court applies the law (i.e. statutes, regulations, and case precedent), is another key. Landrum advises students to put the legal reasoning in their own words, since it will help them “understand and remember it better in the future.” In addition, she encourages students to see how law was applied to the facts. “Were there particular facts that the court viewed as important to its analysis? Were there other facts that the court said were not important?”
One more nugget: Bring talking points and questions to class, writes Franzese. “Jotting down talking points in advance of class prompted me to read more critically and more actively,” she says. “I had to pay extra attention to the materials, to the extent that my professor asked follow-up questions.”