Thursday, October 18, 2012

How To Write a Case Brief

Should you write a case brief?  It depends.  If you are new to law school, writing a case brief is a skill that is important to learn.  Will writing a case brief get you better grades?  That depends.  The reality is that some people learn better by engaging in their work, while others have memories that make it so that they don't need to spend a long time writing briefs.  The most important thing is to read the case.  Once you understand the case and can glean the law from it, you can move on.  Eventually, you may find that you don't need (or want) to write case briefs.

Keep in mind that many practicing lawyers consider being able to write a case brief to be an asset, so it's a skill you will probably need to pick up sooner or later.

There is a general format for writing case briefs, and once you understand the format, the rest is pretty easy.  It is best to read through a case once before you begin briefing, and then focus on the important parts of the case, which will become the elements of the case brief:

The amount of time that writing a case brief takes depends on the case itself.  I found that I understood and remembered complex cases better when I spent the time to brief them.  That being said, there were some cases that did not warrant me taking time with the task of briefing the case.


Facts: Here you will pinpoint the determinative facts of a case, i.e., those that made a difference in the outcome or made the case stand out from other cases. Your main goal here is to be able to tell the story of the case without missing any pertinent information while also not including too many extraneous facts at the same time.  It takes some practice to pick out the important facts, so don’t get discouraged if you put too much.  You'll start to see what's really important as you read more cases and can compare and contrast the cases.  Above all, make sure you have clearly marked the parties names and positions in the case (Plaintiff/Defendant or Appellee/Appellant).  You don't want to mess up who you are talking about or who is suing for what.

Procedural History: Later on you will find that this is probably the least important section and may cut it out altogether.  However, with some classes, such as Civil Procedure, this is an important part of the case and should be recorded.  Here you will record what has happened procedurally in the case up until this point. The dates of case filings, motions of summary judgment, court rulings, trials, and verdicts or judgments can all be noted, but usually this isn’t an extremely important part of a case brief unless the court decision is heavily based in procedural rules.  Again, this will not matter in classes such as Torts and Property, but may matter in some Criminal Law classes.  Further, in Constitutional Law, all cases that you read will probably be Supreme Court cases, so you know they were all up for appeal.

Issue: This part is usually just a sentence or two to formulate the main issue or issues in the case in the form of questions, preferably with a yes or no answer, which will help you more clearly state the holding in the next section of the case brief.

Holding: The holding should directly respond to the question in the Issue Presented, begin with “yes” or “no,” and elaborate with “because…” afterward. If the opinion says “We hold…” that’s the holding.  Keep in mind that some holdings aren’t so easy to pinpoint, though, so look for the lines in the opinion that answer your Issue Presented question.   This is an important area of the case brief, but probably not as important as understanding exactly how the court got to this point (which is in the Analysis section).

Rules: The rules section is where you will write down all the rules that the court used to get to their point.  Many of the rules may not seem important at first, but take note of them anyway (unless they do not pertain to the course at all, such as rules of Evidence in a Family Law course). 

There is usually a general rule that the case is centered around, and this rule should be understood.  After all, this is why you are reading the case.

Analysis: It is almost universally accepted that is the most important part of your brief as it describes why the court ruled the way it did.  While some law professors dwell on facts more than others, and some more on procedural history, almost all will spend the most time on the court’s reasoning as it combines all parts of the case rolled in one, describing the application of the rule of law to the facts of the case, citing other court’s opinions and reasoning as well as public policy considerations in order to answer the issue that was presented.  The analysis should give you insight on how to write a final exam.  After all, the professor will want you to analyze an exam just like a judge analyzes a case.

The Concurring and/or Dissenting Opinion: You don’t need to spend too much time on this part other than to understand how the concurring or dissenting judge analyzes the case for himself.  At first, I wondered what the point of this section was, but realized that a law exam is generally based on a fact pattern that can be decided in multiple ways.  Reading the concurring and dissenting opinions shows how judges can provide excellent legal arguments and come up with a differing answer, some of which are opposite of the main judge's holding.  Many times a professor will talk about the concurring or dissenting opinion, so it is good to read it, even if you don't brief it. 


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