Throughout law school you will be assigned thousands of pages to read each semester, including hundreds of court holdings which you will need to discuss in class and on exams. With so much reading, the ability to brief cases thoroughly & efficiently becomes a necessary skill.

          Briefing cases is simply the art of reducing a court holding to it's basic elements, so that it can be easily referenced in class and easier to remember during exams. After mastering this art of case briefing you will be more prepared in class and will be able to finish your assigned readings much faster.


First: Make a Template

          Whether you use a notepad or a laptop, add any anticipated headings or subheadings before you begin reading; you will not want to interrupt your train of thought in order to format your notes once you have begun. For now, you can base your headings on the IRAC method with headings for Issue, Rule, Analysis, and Conclusion. Every course and professor will be different though, so you will need to modify your template to suit each particular situation, an example template can be found at the end of this article. You may find it helpful to customize a blank outline/brief for every class that you take, and save it for quick access any time you begin reading a new case.


Read The Case

          Now it is time to read. Grab a highlighter, take some aspirin, and open your case book.  But don't start highlighting everything that you see just yet; if you are new at this, you will likely highlight and underline every word (or at least the wrong words) and render your case book difficult or even impossible to reference efficiently.     

          Until you get the hang of briefing, start by first skimming the case to get the general idea of what the facts are, what arguments are made, and what the court holding is. This way, when you begin reading in earnest, you will be able to better spot the key points and know what is relevant and needs a notation or highlight.


The Key Points

          While reading a court holding, it is often difficult to discern between what is important and what isn't. This is because the text of assigned cases is always dense, and often times, the court won't make it's final conclusion or even the basic reasoning very clear to the reader. Personally, I think that the authors of these case books choose such dense cases intentionally, forcing law student to dig for the answers themselves. But here is how to find those answers:


          Learn the Elements: To figure out what the court is saying, you need to understand the elements of the law that is being discussed. Fortunately, your professor won't leave you completely stranded in this regard. Somewhere in your reading assignment you will find an explanation of the elements that you are supposed to be learning from this assignment. For example:

          In your Torts class,  at some point you will be given an assignment regarding "the duty of care". This assignment will certainly contain readings that explain the elements that would give rise to (or eliminate) a persons legal duty, as well as assigned cases that deal with real life discussions of this duty in court cases. It is important to learn these elements before reading the assigned cases, else you won't know what to look for.


          Find the Elements: Begin reading your assigned cases and search for any discussions that directly involve the elements that you have just learned; this is the important stuff that you will want to put in your brief and make note of in your book. When you see the court use facts, precedent, or reasoning to determine whether a person has a duty, take note of all the reasons why, or why not, a person was deemed to have a legal duty of care. All of these observations are important and will be discussed in class, and you likely have to regurgitate similar reasoning on your final exam. In addition to the specific case you were assigned, you should also take note of any case precedents cited within your assigned case, these too can be cited for points if they are relevant to an exam question.



          There, you are done. You should now have a quality brief/outline of the case that you just read, containing only the important details and none of the dicta. You will also have a case book with light highlights and notations which you can reference if your professor takes a tangent and asks something unusual about the case… just to see if you were paying attention.

          As far as formatting goes: As I said previously, the IRAC method is a starting point only. Each class will need it's own format. For example, in Torts, my headings were tailored to the way my professor approached cases in class. It looked something like this:


Plaintiff X v. Defendant Y

Facts: Here I put a brief summary of the facts that make the case.
Negligence: Here is where the courts arguments for or against the finding of negligence would go.
          Duty: The laws, facts, and analysis used to determine whether the Defendant had a duty of care int his situation.
          Breach: The laws, facts, and analysis used to determine if the Defendant breached his duty of care. If so, he is negligent.
Damages: Facts, laws, and Analysis used to determine whether the Plaintiff suffered any damages recognized by tort law. If not, there is no recovery.
Cause: Facts, Laws, and Analysis used to determine whether the Breach of duty by the Defendant cause the damages to the Plaintiff? If not, there is no recovery.
Conclusion: A brief summary of the brief that yo can glance at for a refresher before class or if you know you are going to be called on. You can also use the conclusion as a summary of the days key concepts learned from this particular case, which I copy and past into the class outline I use for final exam preparation. See How to Build an Outline.