Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Students who fail to perform as well as they would like in the first semester have often made a critical mistake early on in their law school experiences: they have not thoroughly briefed the assigned cases. They hear from others that they need only the facts and the rule and a one-paragraph rationale, and they embrace that approach wholeheartedly. Many times, they realize they can capture all three by merely highlighting parts of the text.
The problem, of course, is that they have failed to process the cases deeply on the one hand, and have created no record of the critical steps in the reasoning on the other. Therefore, they must get back to basics, but they have largely forgotten what those basics might have been.
Below are briefing steps I teach my students and insist on for those asking for or needing academic support. Because these steps form the basis for other critical strategies, I insist that students follow them if they are working with me. They should complete the steps for the majority opinion and repeat the reasoning steps for concurrences and dissents.
Begin with SPRS
Step 1 -- (S) Skim
Skim through the case looking for headings that may be helpful in giving a quick overview of the opinion.
Step 2 -- (P) Preread
Read the first sentence of each paragraph of the case. This step will take only a couple of minutes, even for lengthy cases. The result will be that you will have read most of the key concepts and will have a general grasp of the case before actually reading it. Details will make more sense, and the logic will jump out more easily.
Step 3 -- (R) Read
Read the case straight through, placing a dot in the margin next to each idea that seems important in the court's reasoning. Do not place dots next to facts because you have no real idea which facts are critical to the portion of the case excerpted for your casebook. Focus on reasoning, and do not worry if you find that nearly every sentence has a dot after it.
Step 4 -- (S) Summarize
Begin your brief by converting each dot into a numbered sentence under the heading "reasoning." As you reread the sentences you have marked, make a decision whether you still believe the concept is important enough to keep. In other words, could you use that concept to resolve a similar legal issue on an exam? If so, put it in your brief as a discreet concept. You should end up with a list of important principles, steps in the logic, tests, definitions, etc., instead of a vague paragraph that describes generally what the case means.
Complete Your Brief
Step 5 -- Identify the Holding
The holding is the specific result for the litigants in the case.
Step 6 -- Identify the Rule
The case has been chosen for the casebook because it articulates and applies some key rule or corollary rule. You should find the key rule in your reasoning section and can generally copy and paste under "Rule."
Step 7 -- Identify the Material Facts
Capture, as briefly as possible, the critical facts that will trigger the story for you in the future. The critical facts are those on which the decision turned. One way to think about critical facts is to decide which facts, if they had not existed, would have changed the outcome of the case.
Step 8 -- Additional Possibilities
You can add whatever else you find helpful. For example, many highly successful law students add a short personal reaction to the case or to its dissents or concurrences.