How to Case Brief | 5 Killer Guidelines
By Adam Ballinski
Updated: May 16, 2019
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it’s helpful to remember the purpose behind case briefs.
Why do law students write case briefs?
To help you learn and remember. As long as you keep with that core, you really cannot go wrong. You’ll see different professors and blogs suggest slightly different semantics and concept grouping. But there’s no “right way” to label and organize the parts of a case brief. Use whatever verbiage and chunking that makes the most sense for you and your crew.
The why behind this blog post is to give you basic guidelines that should help as you create your own case briefs and give you at least one decent example of a case brief.
Guideline #1 – Decide what to include in your case brief based on what the professor for that class holds you accountable for and common sense. Odds are, you will need to know the basic facts of a case (the story, the players), the issues, the rules, and the holdings. You may need to know the procedural history (what happened in lower courts leading up to this). It’s usually helpful to note which court made the holding and when to give you an idea of how many grains of salt to take the holding with (the older the case, the more likely the law has changed; the lower the court, the less likely the rules are generally applicable).
Guideline #2 – Don’t copy and paste anything long into your case brief or write things that you don’t really understand. Use your own words. The point is to learn and remember. Putting it in your own words will facilitate that, so avoid CTRL+C and CTRL+V as much as you can. Also, don’t write: “Blah, blah, blah blah blahhh,” if that really doesn’t make any sense to you. That said, go ahead and call out specific, confusing things to follow up on in your study group or class, like this: “Not sure what X means.”
Guideline #3 – Use quick memory hooks at the top of every case brief.
Put some memorable trigger terms at the top of each brief to quickly jog your memory later. The trigger could be a clever mnemonic, a moral of the story, or just a string of key words.
- Follett v. Jones: “lung cancer + car accident = early death”
- Lancaster v. Norfolk: “Bug-like, humanoid hallucinations”
- Pennfield v. Meadow Valley Electric: “Deadly pig pens”
- Poole v. Alpha Therapeutic: “Blood Poole… AIDS, market share”
Guideline #4 – Occasional editorialization is okay. When something gives you strong emotions, note that in your brief. If you think something is crazy dumb, say so. Emotions can aid recall, so note your strong feelings, so you can feel them again later. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to remind yourself that just because a case says so, doesn’t mean it’s right.
Guideline #5 – Be concise. Get to the point and leave out words that don’t add meaning. Shorthand is great. Don’t worry about grammar or punctuation, except as essential for clarity.
Case brief example
Lancaster v. Norfolk (7th Cir. 1985)
Trigger: “Bug-like, humanoid hallucinations”
- Lancaster – Abused mechanic who goes schizo.
- Norfolk – Railroad company that apparently only hires abusive bosses.
- Crazy boss #1 flips over table a co-worker is sleeping on, grabs a broom in “menacing fashion,” and screams at Lancaster for 15 seconds while shaking broomstick in his face.
- Crazy boss #2 “goose[s]” workers despite protest (pulls hair, grabs/pokes butt, other weird stuff). That’s when Lancaster’s bug-like, humanoid hallucinations begin.
- Crazy boss #3 throws sledgehammer.
- Crazy boss #4 throws pickax handle, which hits nearby door frame.
- Lancaster goes schizo.
Jury awarded $$$ for medical expenses, suffering, and lost earnings. Defendant appealing based on jury instruction.
What happens if a victim is fragile, can you still be liable for full injury? Yes.
Eggshell or thin skull rule – “Take you victim as he comes.”
But can apportion damages based on probability victim would not have suffered fate but-for the tort (maybe already had big chance to suffer like that due to nature).
Railroad only liable for what crazy boss #4 did, statute of limitations had run for the others. However, because of past abuse he was fragile and due to eggshell rule, railroad liable for all damage, even if #4 was only the tipping point.
While maybe his latent schizophrenia would have triggered from something else down the line and thus, the damages could be apportioned, the trial court did not commit reversible error because the jury was at least aware of this, and the defendant didn’t offer a better instruction or put forth any evidence that would have helped the jury apportion damages.
About the author
Adam Balinski is a former TV reporter turned attorney entrepreneur. He founded Crushendo after graduating summa cum laude from BYU Law and scoring in the top 5% nationally on the Uniform Bar Exam. Adam is currently writing a book called, “The Law School Cheat Code: Everything You Never Knew You Needed to Know About Crushing Law School.”