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Briefing a Case

The purpose of reading in the practice of law is different from the purpose of reading in many other disciplines.  A person reads law not just to familiarize himself/herself with someone else’s ideas but to be able to use the information to answer a client’s question.  For this, sound understanding of judicial opinions in depth and being able to use the information in a number of cases to formulate an answer to a new question is necessary.

Therefore, the reader needs to be able to deconstruct the opinion into its component parts and state those components in his/her own words and in an easily accessible format.  This makes it easy for the person to apply the assimilated information to a new set of facts.

Briefing cases takes time.  First, briefing a case requires the person to put the material into his/her own words.  Second, briefing a case reduces the volume of material.

Most case briefs contain similar information but the headings and their sequence may be different.  There are however some points, the use of which will be beneficial while summarizing a case.  These include-

1. Case Name: Include the full citation, including the date of the opinion, for future reference and citation.

2. Pincites: Be sure to include pinpoint cites (cites to a particular page in the case) throughout the case brief, so you can find material again quickly within a case.

3. Procedural History:  Include what happened to the case before it arrived in this court.  If it is an appellate case, list the decisions made by the lower court(s), and note what decision is being reviewed, e.g., jury verdict, summary judgment.

4. Facts: Include a full gist of the facts.  Many cases may have procedural facts that are relevant to the decision, in addition to the facts that happened before litigation.

5. Issue: The issue is the particular question the court had to decide in this case.  It usually includes specific facts as well as a legal question.  It may be express or implied in the decision and many cases have more than one issue.

6. Holding: The holding is the legal answer to the issue.  If the issue is clearly written, then the holding can be expressed as “yes” or “no.”

7. Rule: The general legal principle(s) relevant to the particular factual situation presented in the case.

8. Reasoning: Reasoning consists of the logical steps the court takes to get to the holding.  It can be straightforward and obvious, or you may have to extrapolate it from the holding. Some reasoning is based on social policy, which tells you why the holding is socially desirable.  Understanding the reasoning behind a decision is essential.

9. Disposition: This is a statement of what the court actually did in the case (affirmed, overruled etc…)

10. Dissent/Concurrence: This part helps the students to better understand some information about the legal reasoning in the case.  Not all cases have a dissent or concurrence; some have more than one.

11. Comments: The student’s own responses to the case are put down.  This can include points like- does the reasoning make sense?  Is the holding consistent with other cases?  Is the case relevant to the question at hand?  This is a good place to note connections between the case briefed and the client’s situation.

Inside Briefing a Case