I have a confession.
Two weeks into my first year of law school, I stopped briefing cases.
I was putting too much time and effort into preparing them and was getting too little in return.
Now, as a law professor, I don’t expect my students to brief their cases.
Don’t get me wrong. Briefing can be a useful exercise for some students.
But, as practiced by the vast majority of law students I’ve come across, briefing is marginally useful at best and a waste of time at worst.
The typical 1L student reads a case, writes down verbatim the facts she finds pertinent, copies a handful of quotes that she can recite if called upon by the professor to explain the holding or reasoning of the case, and calls it a day.
Some students go beyond this basic level of briefing, read the cases multiple times, and spend hours meticulously perfecting their briefs.
But here’s the problem.
Your grade in law school is not based on the beauty of your class briefs.
It’s based on your final exam performance.
And when it’s time to prepare for final exams, your briefs are of little use. They will be replaced by your class notes.
The briefs reflect your take on the case before your professor says a word about the cases. If your briefs are anything like mine in law school, they will have numerous errors and omissions in them. You may have misunderstood the holding of the case, missed key points of the Court’s reasoning, or otherwise skipped over parts that your professor found significant.
And the final exam will be based–not on your own take–but on your professor’s take on the material you study.
To be sure, it’s extremely valuable to engage with the case on your own before class (more on that below), but that engagement doesn’t necessarily have to happen through traditional case briefing.
If the goal of briefing is to understand the cases, learn to break them down to their sub-components, and think about how they might apply in different factual scenarios, that goal can be accomplished through multiple different means (including outlining and taking practice exams).
Why, then, do law students spend so much time writing briefs?
They’ve been told they’re supposed to brief cases.
They also want to do well in class if called on by the professor.
The brief provides a safety net. It’s a ready-made script for answering questions during Socratic examination.
As I’ve discussed before, your class performance is not nearly as crucial as you think it is.
Beyond that, if I call on students who have prepared through traditional briefing, many regurgitate facts and quotes from the opinion that they copied to their briefs, without quite understanding what they mean.
Below, I will share with you the basic outline of the strategy that I followed in law school.
But proceed with caution. People have different learning styles, and what worked for me may not work for you. Experiment with different methods and tweak them to suit your preferences. If briefing has worked for you in the past, by all means, keep doing it. But if you’re like me, and the costs of briefing tend to outweigh their benefits, read on.
Here are the five basic principles I followed:
1. Get a general overview of the area of the law.
Your casebook may provide a general background on the area you’re covering at the beginning of each chapter. For example, the chapter on offers in contract law may begin with the lay of the land. Don’t skip it and go directly to the case law. I found it very helpful to get a 30,000 foot overview of the relevant area before reading the specific cases on point.
If you want to be extra diligent (though this is by no means required), you can borrow a hornbook/treatise or check out the resources page on TWEN and skim through the relevant section. Ask your professor for a recommendation. The hornbook/treatise your professor recommends is likely to be consistent with her mindset on the relevant subject.
2. Read the assigned cases with a pen in hand.
After you get a broad overview of the area, read the assigned cases.
As you read the opinion, mark with a pen on the margins the sections of the opinion where the Court discusses its holding and reasoning.
If the case is particularly complicated, you might write on the margin or the top of the page a one-sentence statement of the holding and the reasoning.
To help with retention, you can also jot down a shorthand name for each case.
You can give cases memorable names like “the nose job case” (Sullivan v. O’Connor in contract law) or “the Nile crocodile case” (Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife in constitutional law). You get the idea.
The temptation to skip reading the assigned cases and resort to ready-made summaries you find online or in a supplement will be enormous.
Don’t do it.
You can’t excel in law school if you don’t learn how to read and digest cases.
That means you have to engage with them on your own.
Beyond that, you’re doing yourself and your future clients a tremendous disservice if you haven’t learned how to efficiently read cases in law school.
3. Pay attention to the questions your professors ask in class.
You’ll note that each of them has a favorite set of questions they tend to repeat class after class.
Some will pay careful attention to facts.
Others will always ask about procedure.
Some ask the same questions posed in the notes after the case in the textbook.
So, if you’re concerned about your class performance, pay particular attention to those questions as you read the assigned cases.
4. Take meticulous notes in class.
Your final exams will be based largely on the class discussion.
Your class notes are by far the most important source of information in preparing for finals.
So make sure your class notes are complete, and take the time to review them on a regular basis.
5. When the time comes, turn your class notes into outlines.
Contrary to accepted wisdom, you should not outline your classes right away during your first year of law school. More on that in a future post.
What techniques have you found useful for studying efficiently? What has worked and has not worked? Leave a comment and let me know!