As a first-year law student, you hear a lot about the importance of briefing cases. It is an essential step in the development of critical thinking. If done appropriately, the process of briefing cases will teach you, among other things, how to:
- read legal opinions effectively;
- recognize recurrent patterns in legal opinions;
- categorize legal information;
- identify relevant facts;
- formulate legal issues;
- dissect the court’s reasoning;
- translate legalese into plain English to enhance your own understanding of the material (also useful when you need to explain a legal concept to your client);
- be able to talk and write persuasively about law;
- recognize fallacies in reasoning;
- exercise your own judgment about the outcomes of the cases;
- see a big picture of how facts, issues, law, policy come together to produce a certain outcome;
- evaluate the impact of the courts’ decisions.
Here are a few things to consider and resources to consult when you learn how to brief a case:
- Understand the goals and benefits of briefing. If you only summarize a legal opinion to prepare for a class so that you can answer your professor's questions, you are just scratching the surface. Set your goals in terms of what you want to learn from the exercise to keep yourself motivated to do it regularly. Read about the Power of the Brief at Law School Academic Support Blog to learn how cognitive theory supports briefing and understand the benefits.
- Choose an appropriate structure and level of detail for your brief. Law Career Blog has suggestions about the structure in How to Brief a Case. For more discussion of the elements of a student brief, go to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice website. And here is a link to a sample case and brief.
- Write in your own words. Some legal opinions are wordy and confusing. If you copy a part of such legal opinion into your brief, you bring the uncertainty with it. Instead, take time to dissect the opinion into comprehensible bits by rephrasing the sentences. Clear language enhances comprehension.
- When you brief a case, don’t forget the dissenting and concurring opinions. They may offer important insights about the factual basis of the decision and help you determine which facts are pertinent and why. They also shed some light on how the judicial doctrine may evolve in the future.
- Practice expressing your own opinion about the courts' decisions. Part of being persuasive is the ability to take a stand on an issue. Law Career Blog offers More Thoughts on it.
- Consider the big picture. How does this decision fit in the overall doctrine? What are the implications of the decision? What kind of policy does the decision support?
- Work out the mechanics. You may choose to set up a form in your word processor with the relevant categories to streamline the process. I always advocate the use of color codes to aid your memory: you can choose different background colors for your categories. Number the issues and the steps of the court’s legal reasoning. Put the key words in bold or highlight them. Leave space for comments and notes you may want to add during class.
What do you like or dislike about briefing cases?