How To Brief A Case

To date, I’ve never discussed how to succeed as a law student. This is so for several reasons. First, there are plenty of bloggers, professors, books, etc… who are more than happy to advise on that. Second, I don’t like to brag about my success in law school (unless you happen to be an employer). Third and finally, I’d much rather discuss the law itself.

This will perhaps explain why I’m surprised at the high volume of search engine referrals I get that read something as follows: “example case brief.” It’s a consistent search phrase that tends to link to pieces I’ve written about appellate briefs. Now, appellate briefs are actual court documents that advance an argument for a party of interest or friend of the court. Case briefs are things that law students write summarizing assigned case opinions. The idea is that by writing a case brief, you’ll be prepared to answer questions the professor will ask you in class about said case. Today, I’ll make a rare departure and give some advice to new law students. Don’t expect this to happen again.

Question: What’s the best way to brief a case?

Answer: Don’t waste your time trying.

Look, I’ve only taken one law school class where I had to know case-specific information on the exam. That class was Constitutional Law. In ConLaw, I would recommend briefing the cases since you need to know them specifically. But outside of that narrow exception, it just makes no sense to waste your time briefing cases. The exam won’t test your intimate knowledge of Palsgraf or International Shoe. It won’t. What you will need to know are the rules that those two cases demonstrate (respectively, the concept of proximate cause in tort law and the “minimum contacts” test in civil procedure).

I can’t tell you how to brief cases properly. There is no right way. And besides, I don’t believe in doing it at all so I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I tried my hand at telling you how.

But doesn’t that leave you a little vulnerable during class if the prof calls on you? Well sure…but who cares? You’re in law school to get a Juris Doctorate, not to convince your peers and professors that you’re a brilliant little snow flake. And beside, I’m not saying that you should avoid doing your reading. Read what you’re assigned but do it efficiently. Do it intelligently. Annotate sparingly (after all, if everything’s highlighted then nothing is). Thus, if you’re called on to discuss a case, you won’t look unprepared.

Stop thinking about case briefs. Start thinking about that exam at the end of the term that will count for 100% of your grade. Mandatory grade curves mean there are a fixed number of A’s available. Wouldn’t you like to be one of the precious few who gets one?

-Zachary Cloud

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