Better Case Briefing
Here are some tips for avoiding common mistakes in briefing your cases:
- 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.
- At the end of reading, spend time analyzing the case as a whole before you write your brief. Why did you ultimately need to read the case? What did it teach you about the major topic you are discussing in class?
- Most professors use hypotheticals with changed facts to get students to think about applying the law in situations 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.
- Include in your brief the essentials, not everything in the case.
- 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.
- Try to put the brief into your own words. Do not look at the language of the opinion to write your brief if at all possible. If you cannot put the gist of the case into your own words, then you did not understand the case.
- 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 editorial 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.
Anxiety over being called on in class
I vividly remember the first time I was called on in law school. It was Contracts class. I do not remember anything about it other than which class it was, and the fact that my anxiety was so sky-rocket high, that it seemed like I was called on for the entire class. The reality? He probably asked me two questions at the most.
But the anxiety of being called on in class and the stress over “sounding stupid” in class can take on a life of its own and literally take over your purpose in preparing for class. Now that almost all of you have been called on in at least one of your classes, remember this: you survived. Let go of the anxiety about being called on in class. Replace as your purpose for preparing for class learning the meaning of the subject matter.
Here are some tips to help you become more confident in class:
- After reading and briefing (or taking notes if material other than cases is assigned), take a few minutes to synthesize your reading. Then out loud explain the reading to an empty chair, your pet, or an understanding friend. Think of the professor’s usual questions and answer them out loud. You can practice your answers and gain confidence by this recitation step.
- When the professor asks a question in class, answer silently in your head. Then compare your answer to what another student says. Listen to the professor’s feedback. You will probably find that you would have answered the question well. Again, your self-confidence should get a boost from this exercise.
- Gain additional practice voicing your opinions, questions, and answers by talking in your study group more than usual, talking with a classmate about the material, participating in student organization meetings, or asking the professor questions in office hours. The more you talk, the less apprehensive you will be.
Taking Stock and Outlining
By now, many of you attended the session on outlining. But just as reminder, here are some tips for taking stock and outlining.
At this point, you may find yourself hurtling through the semester without any conscious thought about what you should be doing next in your studies. Many of you may be merely reading for class and doing no additional thinking about the law. Most of you probably have not looked at your class notes since taking them. Some of you may have started to outline your classes; others may not have begun.
It is critical that you take stock now. Here are some tips for students who have not yet focused beyond survival:
- The point of outlining is not to have an outline. It is to learn the vast amount of material. You will not have time on your exams to read through your outline. If you find yourself reading through an outline during an exam, you likely are missing out on opportunities to analyze the exam problem.
- If the entire outline for a course seems too difficult of a task, then focus on the first sub-topic. Move on to the next sub-topic and so forth. The trick is to BEGIN.
- If your professor does not provide a syllabus that is structured by topics and sub-topics, the general table of contents of the casebook can provide the structure. Do not structure the outline by case briefs.
- If at all possible, condense material BEFORE it goes into your outline. Wholesale inclusion of every brief and every word in class results in overwhelming detail and obscuring the bigger picture of the course.
- If an outline is constructed properly, it will include all of the essential information from your briefs, casebook, and class notes. In short, you should not have to go back to those materials again. The outline is truly the master document for exam study.
- The outline should be formatted to give you a 360-degree view of the course: what is the big picture of the course; what are the main concepts and interrelationships among concepts as well as any relevant policy; what are the steps/rules/tests/questions to ask for analysis; and what are the details/fact examples/case names to flesh out the outline.
- The outline is building a toolkit to solve new legal scenarios that will show up on the exam. Include the essential tools (each course may have different types of tools): rules, exceptions to rules, variations on rules, definitions, steps of analysis, questions to ask, bright line tests, policy arguments, etc.
- After you have intensely reviewed a major topic in the outline and you have done practice questions, condense that portion of the outline by at least half. Start a second document that is the condensed outline so that the longer version is never lost.
- Approximately one - two weeks before the exam, condense the entire outline to 5-10 pages of essentials for the material so far. The essentials will bring back the more detailed information if the material has been studied properly. Use the condensed outline to recall the information.
- Condense the shorter outline again to the front and back of a sheet of paper. This condensed version can be memorized as a checklist for a closed-book exam. When the proctor in the exam tells you to begin, quickly write your checklist on scrap paper and use it as a guide throughout the exam.
- The outline should flip your thinking from individual cases and minutia to synthesis of the material and the solving of new legal scenarios with the law that is learned through the cases. Except for major cases, cases should become illustrations rather than the focus of the outline.
- Where appropriate, condense material by using graphics. For visual learners, a picture is truly worth a thousand words.
- Avoid the shortcut of using another student’s outline or a commercial outline instead of making your own. You gain deeper understanding and greater retention by processing the material yourself. Other outlines are useful to suggest a format or to check completeness after you have finished your outline - but match your outline to your professor’s course.
- Have a goal of outlining new material every week once your outlines are current. You will not have to re-learn material to outline if you do it regularly and you can begin your exam review earlier.