How, Why, and When You Should Brief a Case

Have you been wondering how to brief a case or whether it’s even worth your time to do so? Learn when and how to brief a case so you don’t get embarrassed in class and are prepared for capturing the most important part of the case.

I want to give you some advice on briefing cases.

Should You Brief Cases?

First the magic question should you bother briefing cases? Since you are likely hearing conflicting information your professors at academic support faculty are telling you yes and some upper level students are tell you no.

Early in my teaching career this question came up during a faculty meeting. In the room were very successful academics who attended the most prestigious law schools in the country. About half the people in the room said they briefed all throughout law school and the other half said they didn’t, quitting after the first semester of law school.

Purpose of Briefing a Case

Before answering the question we first have to discuss the purpose of case briefing which is twofold. First, case briefing is designed to prepare you for classroom discussion. For some of you your professors cold call so 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 prepared will allow for greater engagement during class time. If you’re not engaged you will likely not fully understand the discussion which will lead to lower grades.

The second purpose of case briefing 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 need after you finish discussing the case.

Brief a Case? Yes and No

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 definitely brief cases including the case name, the court’s name, the relevant facts, the procedural history, the issue, the rule of law, the holding and the court’s rationale. This is essential because what you are doing is learning how to read and understand case law. Now by understand I don’t mean a superficial understanding, but a deep understanding that will help you develop the skills you need to succeed.

Most law students fail to brief because they think that they know the case. They don’t so use case briefing as a method, at least for a semester, to learn how to think like a lawyer. Now 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 the amount of time to spend on this task. Don’t spend a whole lot of time on case briefing. Your brief should be no more than a page in length and ideally about half a page. Second don’t spend too much time on this except for articulating the rule statement, which is vitally important for the final exam.

As to the rest of the case you need a working knowledge of the case for classroom discussion, but not complete mastery as you’ll never look at that case again after 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 tools in case briefing are class engagement and rule identification so 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 usual consequent is a little bit of embarrassment, but ultimately most if not all of your course grade is coming from a single final exam so you must use your time in a way that will maximize your grade not help you feel better after being called on by the professor.

I hope you enjoyed today’s discussion. If you like this advice please leave a comment and tell us about it.