What Is a Case Brief?

Everything You Need to Know About Case Briefs in Law School

Papers and notes
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First of all, let’s get some terminology clear: a brief that an attorney writes is not the same as a case brief by a law student.

Attorneys write appellate briefs or briefs in support of motions or other court pleadings whereas law students’ case briefs concern one case and summarize everything important you need to know about a case to help them prepare for class. But briefing can be very frustrating as a new law student.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of your briefing.

Case briefs are tools for you to use to prepare for class. You will typically have hours of reading for a given class and you will need to recall many details about the case at a moments notice in class (especially if you get called on by your professor). Your brief is a tool to help you refresh your recollection about what you read and quickly be able to reference the main points of the case.

There are two main types of briefs – a written brief and a book brief.

The Written Brief:

Most law schools recommend that you start with a written brief. These are either typed or handwritten and have some pretty typical headers summarizing the main points of a given case. Here is the commonly accepted framework of a written brief:

  • Facts: This should be a quick list of facts, but make sure to include any legally significant facts.
  • Procedural history: These are notes about the journey the case has taken through the court system.
  • Issue presented: What is the legal issue that the court is discussing? Note, there can be more than one issue.
  • Holding: This is the ruling of the court. If the issue presented is a question for the court to answer, then the holding is the answer to that question.
  • Legal reasoning: This is a quick summary of the thought process used by the court to reach their conclusion.
  • Rule of law: If the court applied any rules of law that are important, you want to write that down too.
  • Concurring or dissenting opinions (if any): If your casebook included a concurring or dissenting opinion in your reading, you will need to read it carefully. It is there for a reason!

Sometimes you might find that your professors ask very specific questions about cases that you want to include in your brief. An example of this would be a professor who always asked what the Plaintiff’s arguments were. If I were in that professor’s class, I would make sure I had a section in my brief about Plaintiff’s arguments. (If your professor consistently brings something up, you should also make sure that is included in your class notes.) 

A Warning About Written Briefs

One word of warning! Students can start to spend too much time working on briefs by writing out too much information. No one is going to read these briefs except you! Remember they are just notes to solidify your understanding of the case and help you be prepared for class. 

The Book Brief

Some students prefer book briefing to writing out a full written brief. This approach, made popular by Law School Confidential, involves simply highlighting different parts of the case in different colors, right there in your textbook (hence the name).

If it helps, you can also draw a little picture at the top to remind you of the facts (this is a great tip for visual learners). Thus, instead of referencing your written brief during class, you would instead turn to your casebooks and your color-coded highlighting to find what you are looking for. Some students find this to be easier and more effective than written briefs. How do you know it is right for you? Well, you give it a go and see if it helps you navigate the Socratic dialogue in class. If it doesn’t work for you, go back to your written briefs.

Try each method out and remember briefs are just a tool for you. Your brief doesn’t need to look like the person’s sitting next to you as long as it keeps you focused and engaged in the class discussion. 

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Your Citation
Fabio, Michelle. "What Is a Case Brief?" ThoughtCo, May. 17, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-case-brief-2154989. Fabio, Michelle. (2017, May 17). What Is a Case Brief? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-case-brief-2154989 Fabio, Michelle. "What Is a Case Brief?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-case-brief-2154989 (accessed January 21, 2018).