Your case briefs will be one of the building blocks for your course outline, one of your most important study tools
To give yourself some breathing room you might be tempted to skip case briefing early in the semester. But, that would be a mistake. Just like the Socratic Method serves its purpose in helping students learn to think like lawyers, case briefing helps you prepare more effectively for class, recall the facts, and understand the key elements of what makes each case important. Additionally, your case briefs will be one of the building blocks for your course outline, one of your most important study tools.
Words to the Wise Before Getting Started
As the word “brief” implies, length counts; a good rule of thumb is a one-page summary.
Read the case through all the way before digging in to avoid falling into the trap of including more material than you will eventually need. As you read, see if you can determine the essence of the decision, what elements of the case led to the decision, and why the case is considered important enough to be included. Beware and remember some cases are included as textbook examples of wrong decision-making. Once you are ready to begin, assign a highlight color to each aspect of the case: facts, issues, decisions, reasoning, opinions, and analysis.
Include the Essential Elements
Title and Citation
Remember that a case’s title will list the names of the parties opposing each other. The initiator of the legal action always appears first; if appealing to a higher court, the first name will be that of the loser from an earlier, lower court decision. The citation provides the information needed to find the judge and the court issuing the opinion. Note: If you are a Casebook Connect user, this information will automatically appear when you use the Case Briefing Tool.
Start with an introductory sentence describing the nature of the case or controversy. Include any rules within the law that are relevant to the case, making sure to note any areas in dispute. Summarize the complaint or indictment including pertinent evidence. Don’t forget to add the case’s procedural history, or summary of actions taken by lower courts.
At their very heart, issues are questions raised by facts unique to the case and their bearing under black letter law. Look for the gray areas that will impact the final ruling. When stating issues, try to frame them as a series of questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”
Also known as the holding, the decision is the court’s ruling on the case. Broader, more substantive decisions typically deal with interpretation of such thorny issues as the Constitution, statutes, or judicial doctrines and may need more detail.
This section of the brief should follow a logical series of arguments by the bench that outlines how the ruling was determined. Ideally, you should demonstrate the chain of argument in a sequential point-by-point fashion.
Begin with concurring arguments to show why the winning ruling prevailed. Be sure to include any dissenting opinions, making note of counterarguments.
Your analysis should detail what makes the case significant. Among the questions that should be asked and answered are:
- How does the case relate to other cases?
- How has it affected future rulings?
- How has it impacted the court’s decision-making process?