How to Brief a Case in Law School

Although they certainly take time and effort, case briefs are an incredibly useful tool - especially during your first year. When you're reading so many cases in several courses, keeping the details straight isn't always easy. But, if you have a brief, you have all the important details right in front of you for 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 deciphered 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 who? 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 lower court level.

Summarize the Facts

The court will often include a summary of the facts near the beginning of the opinion that can help you get started. 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?

Identify the Issues

What are the legal and factual issues 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 owns words.

State the 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 holding 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, building each link in the logical chain.

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.

Include the Disposition

Finally, identify what the court's analysis means for 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 holding 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.