Of the many skills that contribute to success in law school, nothing is more crucial, yet for most new students more unfamiliar, than reading and making use of case law. Each year, you will read hundreds of cases, which your professors will use to define legal principles and to illustrate how those principles are applied in real-life situations. As a law student, and later as a lawyer, you in turn will be expected to grasp the meaning and relevance of each case you read, and to choose wisely from among those cases to provide support for the legal arguments you make in exams, papers, and briefs.
Case briefing is a vital tool for learning how to carefully read and effectively use case law. A case brief is a well-organized summary of the relevant information in a particular case. If you prepare a case brief for every case you read before you attend the class in which the professor discusses that case, you will be fully prepared to understand the professor’s lecture and to ask insightful, relevant questions of your own.
The most common way to prepare a case brief is to gather information from a case while you are reading it, using that information to fill in fields in a pre-formatted document. Some people prefer to read the entire case once, then to prepare the case brief while going through the case again, capturing details that are better identified with an overall understanding of the decision. While there is some flexibility in the format of a case brief, a sound case brief will include the following information:
- Case name and citation. Every case has a name (usually in the form, “Smith v. Jones,” although there are variants such as “In re: Jones”) and a citation. The citation identifies the name and volume number of the case reporter (originally, a set of bound volumes collecting published cases from courts within a certain jurisdiction or set of jurisdictions; now more frequently published electronically) in which the case was published, and the page number on which the case begins. If not obvious from the name of the reporter, the citation will also identify the court in which the case was heard.
- Facts. Most cases include a substantial factual description of the circumstances underlying the legal action. An important part of learning to read cases is learning to identify the relevant facts upon which the decision was based. While you may wish to include one or two colorful facts that may help you remember the case more easily, a well-written factual summary will focus on the facts that determined the outcome of the case. Not only will this help you better understand why the court reached its decision; it will also help you to consider whether and how similar or dissimilar facts (say, in an examination) might lead to the same or a different conclusion.
- Procedural history. The procedural history of a case is the path it has taken through the court system to get to the forum from which the current opinion was issued. For example, a case may start at trial court, pass to an appeals court, then to a supreme court, then be sent back down (“remanded”) to the trial court again for further factual findings. A clear understanding of the procedural history should be laid out in your case brief, because the identity of the current forum, and the decisions of previous fora, can have a direct effect on issues such as precedential value and the burden of proof.
- Issue(s). Court cases boil down to an issue or a finite set of issues that the court must resolve in order to make its decision. These issues are defined by the applicable statutory, regulatory, and common law. A particular rule of law may comprise several distinct elements, only a subset of which is in actual dispute. Thus, in order to understand clearly the court’s decision, you must first start with a specific statement of the issue or issues facing the court.
- Holding(s). A decision of the court that determines the winners and losers in a case with respect to a particular issue is called a holding. The holding (or, in a case with multiple issues, holdings) of a case is important, not just because it determines the outcome of this particular case; it is also a statement by the court of how it believes the law should be applied by all courts within its jurisdiction. Thus, distilling a clear statement of the court’s holdings is important, because it tells you what rules you can apply to future cases (or exam questions).
- Reasoning. The meat of any court decision is the reasoning that the court applied in order to arrive at the holding that determines the resolution of each issue. The reasoning explains what facts and factors the law and the court considered to be important, and gives important information about how to judge and weigh such elements in arriving at a particular conclusion. The soundest way to make a successful legal argument based on the outcome of prior case is to employ the reasoning of that prior case to show why your new case is similar or dissimilar. Therefore, it is crucial that your case briefs contain a succinct explanation, in your own words as much as possible, of the logic applied by the court in reaching its conclusions. Only when the logic makes sense to you can you be certain that you have understood the case properly, and apply the case appropriately in other situations.
While a completed case brief is useful for reviewing cases studied in the past, it is the act of creating the case brief that provides the most benefit to the law student. Creating a case brief forces you to read the case carefully; to thoroughly understand the facts of the case, the application of the relevant legal rules, and the outcome; and to summarize the key takeaways from the case in language that makes sense to you. Therefore, it is crucial that you prepare your own case brief for every case that you read. Do not simply rely on a fellow student’s case brief, or copy a canned case brief from a website or a commercial outline. You will never comprehend or remember the nuances of a case by reading a brief written by someone else. In addition, such briefs are notoriously unreliable; it is not uncommon for them to omit vital information or to misstate the facts or the law. Writing your own case brief for every case requires more time and effort, but is far more efficient and rewarding.
Please do not hesitate to contact the Academic Support Program to gain additional guidance and support on case briefing.