Case Briefs: Key to Success
To case brief or not to case brief? That is the question! Your professors and academic support faculty are telling you yes. And some upper level students are telling you no.
Early in my teaching career, this question came up in a faculty meeting. In the room were very successful academics who attended the most prestigious law schools in the country. About half of them said they briefed all throughout school, the other half saying they quit after the first semester.
Before answering the question, we have to discuss the purpose of case-briefing, which is two-fold. First, case-briefing is designed to prepare you for classroom discussion. Some professors cold-call and you don’t want to be embarrassed by not being prepared. But even if you’re not in that situation, you still need to be prepared because being it will allow for greater engagement during class time. If you’re not engaged, you will not fully understand the discussion which will lead to lower grades.
The second reason is to get the rule of law. At a bare minimum, before class time, you need to find the rule of law for each case. Write it down. Then revise it during class if it’s not correct. This is important because the rule of law is the only information you will need after you finish discussing the case. If you are struggling with a difficult reading and just cannot find the rule of law, please watch this video on how to get through and understand difficult reading.
So now let’s answer the question of whether you need to brief cases. The answer is yes and no. During your first semester you should absolutely brief cases, including the case name, the court’s name, relevant facts, procedural history, issue, rule of law, holding, and the Court’s rationale. This is essential because you are learning how to read and understand case law. And I don’t mean a superficial knowledge, but a deep understanding that will help you develop the skills you need to succeed.
Most law students who do not brief cases do so because they think they understand the case after one read-through. They don’t. So use case briefing as a method, at least for the first semester, to learn how to think like a lawyer. After the first semester, if you’ve mastered the skill sufficiently, then you can cut corners. You can start writing notes in the margins of your case book.
Since I’m recommending case-briefing, let’s talk about how much time to spend on this task, which is, not a lot. Your brief should be no more than a page in length and ideally, around half a page.
Additionally, spend the bulk of the time on articulating the rule statement, which is vitally important for the final exam. As for the rest of the case, you only need a working knowledge of the case for classroom discussion. You do not need to completely master a case because you will never look at that case after the class is over. Some of your colleagues will spend hours on a single case, attempting to master every part of it. That’s a waste of time and effort since your two goals are class engagement and rule identification. Your time is better spent on other tasks like outlining and final exam prep. As I tell my students, if you are called on and you miss some facts or you don’t have the rule exactly right, the result is a little embarrassment. But ultimately most if not all of your course grade is coming from a single final exam. Instead you should use your time in a way that will maximize your grade, not help you feel better after being called on by the professor.