September 17, 2009
The last few weeks have been busy with helping 1L students become more efficient and effective in briefing their cases. In working with them, I have noted a number of common mistakes. Here are some tips for avoiding those common mistakes:
- Think about the pattern of your professor's typical class. What questions does your professor usually ask about the cases? In reading and briefing the cases, use these questions as a guide.
- As you read the case, write margin notes condensing the points for the "natural chunks" within the case: fact paragraphs, procedural history, paragraphs on one precedent, a concurrence, a dissent, or other chunks. These margin notes help you focus on the importance of each chunk as you read.
- At the end of reading, spend time analyzing the case as a whole before you write your brief. Take all of the margin notes for the chunks within the case and put them together. Why did you ultimately need to read the case? How do the chunks fit together to explain the overall case?
- Most professors use hypotheticals with changed facts to get students to think about applying the law in situtations that are different from the case. If your professor does so, then spend some time thinking about how variations of the facts would change the outcome. Include your thoughts at the end of your brief.
- Your margin notes and highlights can supplement your briefs when the professor calls on you. Include in your brief the essentials, not everything in the case. Refer back to the margin notes or highlights if you need more detail.
- Synthesize cases on the same sub-topic after you read them. Why did you have to read each case? How are the cases in the series similar or different? How does each case fit into the sub-topic and larger topic? Include the synthesis insights in your brief.
- Use bullet points, numbered lists, abbreviations, and symbols to save time in writing your briefs. Use phrases instead of sentences when possible. Avoid including long quotes from the case in your briefs.
- Remember that briefs are usually for your eyes only. Therefore, brief in a method that is most useful to you. You may need to vary your briefing for different professors' classes.
- Recognize that your professor may have a different slant on a case than the casebook editor, a study aid, or editoral notes from a case reporter. If you have a pattern of missing your professor's perspective, ask your professor for some guidance.
- Use canned briefs only to check your own briefs. You need to learn the legal analysis skills yourself rather than depend on a canned brief. Canned briefs can be wrong, may not cover all of the points in the case, or may miss your professor's view of the case.
Law students become adept at legal analysis through completing briefs for their cases. Too many law students are tempted to stop briefing because it is a time-consuming task. Instead, they should strive to become more efficient and effective at briefing their cases. Now is the time to learn the skills because lawyers in practice must read and brief cases expertly. (Amy Jarmon)
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