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The Importance of Briefing Legal Cases

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The process of writing case briefs, which are nothing more than synopses of court decisions, does four vital things for you:

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  • Briefs teach you rules of law, because a decision is by definition a record of the process of applying a legal rule to a set of facts.

  • Briefs familiarize you with the mechanism of how courts work (e.g., how trials are managed, what witnesses can say, which courts are more powerful than others, how evidence is used, how one complains about judges who make errors). Even if the issues the court is looking at have nothing to do with these mechanics, you will learn a great deal about them simply by reading the decision.
  • Briefing cases in school builds skills in a technique that all lawyers must master for their practice. These court decisions are the weapons lawyers use, and they are helpful weapons only if they are boiled down to a brief format.
  • The briefing process will allow you to endure Socratic sessions. Only by having the essence of the case before you, in a brief, can you recite the case in class and respond to the professor’s questions about it.

Reading the Case

Read each case twice. The first time through don’t take any notes. Read it quickly and informally. Get a sense of what is going on. On the second reading, go more slowly. Take notes in the margin, circle important points (don’t hesitate to mark up your books; which lawyer would you rather go to— one whose books were filled with notes and underlinings or one whose books looked pristine and untouched?). It is after this second reading that you’ll write your brief.


The format of a brief can be very individualized; there are probably as many different ways of writing an effective brief as there are students in your class. The following format is more comprehensive than some, less so than others, but it will give you everything that you need.

Here are the seven elements of the brief to be used in the LCM system, each of which will be discussed in depth below.

  1. Case name, court, date
  2. Facts
  3. Procedure
  4. Issues
  5. Decision
  6. Rule/Analysis
  7. Holding

Look for Subtle Differences

But what if the seemingly inconsistent cases are rendered by the same court and within a few years of each other? When you come across a series of these cases, you will have to “synthesize” or reconcile them, meaning you will have to expand the rule of law each case stands for until it is broad enough to encompass all the seeming inconsistencies. The key to doing this is to read the cases again very carefully and look for subtle differences in the fact patterns.

On a separate sheet of paper, write the rule the first case stands for. Apply it to the second case. No, it doesn’t quite fit. So you trim off some of the specifics of the first rule to make it more general. Try it again. Ah, now it fits both the cases. Apply this newly “synthesized” rule to the third case. Oops. Doesn’t fit. Well, trim it some more, making it broader yet. There! At last you have a rule of law that applies to all three cases.

The Technique in Practice

Here’s an illustration: The subject is torts. (Remember: torts are wrongs done by one person to another that don’t involve crimes or contracts.) The topic under study is dangerous animals. You’ve read three cases. You line up your briefs for each, and here’s what they say:

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Decision No. 1, in which Person X, who owns kitten Teddy R, is held liable when Teddy sneaks next door and tears apart a neighbor’s alligator-skin shoes.

Decision No. 2, in which Person Y, who owns the well- known scrapper of a tomcat, Scarf ace, is held not liable when the cat lapped up the water in a neighbor’s goldfish bowl (and ate Lucky, the goldfish, for dessert) after the neighbor had dropped off Lucky for fish-sitting while he, the neighbor, went on vacation.

Decision No. 3, in which Person Z, who owns a Persian show cat, was held not liable when the feline streaked through a neighbor’s kitchen to get a snack of milk she was leaving for him, and startled the neighbor, who dropped the milk on, and ruined, her new alligator-skin briefcase.

Your professor says, “Now, here we have three decisions from the same court, decided the same year, in which one pet owner was held liable and two were not for the acts of their pets. How do you explain these apparently contradictory decisions? How do you synthesize them?”

Let’s get some perspective. What do we have to start with? A rule that seems to deal with an owner’s liability for the acts of his cat. You try the following on for size:

One is liable for his cat’s actions when the cat damages shoes, but not briefcases and fish.

Yes, this is true, but you’re understandably afraid to offer this thought out loud in class. So you try again:

Owners’ cats can do whatever they want to live animals, but not to animals made into accessories.

Alas, the budding lawyer in you isn’t quite satisfied. You try again:

One will be liable for the acts of kittens but not full-grown cats.

This smacks of discrimination. Not very likely either. Let’s go back to the facts and review the decisions again. In Decision 1, Teddy R’s owner let him run loose, and the accident occurred on the neighbor’s property. But in the second case, the fish owner had brought the fish bowl over to Y so that Y would fish-sit while the neighbor was on vacation. The neighbor knew full well of Scarface’s appetite for fish.

So you formulate this rule, which covers the first two decisions:

A cat or kitten owner will be liable for the harm caused by the animal if the owner lets the animal run free on another’s property, but not if the harm is caused on the animal owner’s property to someone who knew the destructive nature of the animal.

That leaves us with Decision 3. The facts show the accident happened on the neighbor’s property and Z let Ike run free, yet the neighbor was unable to recover damages from Z. Our rule doesn’t seem to fit. What small fact is there that might be significant? Ah. In this case, the neighbor with the briefcase fed Ike milk in her home. She therefore invited the offending cat onto her premises.

This then is the rule:

A cat or kitten owner will be liable for the harm caused by his or her animal if the owner lets the animal run free, but not

  1. if the harm is caused on the owner’s property to those who know of the destructive nature of the animal, or
  2. if the harm is caused to those who willingly invite the animal onto their own property.

Synthesizing can be a lot of work but it is necessary for both law school and law practice, when you are daily confronted with seemingly contradictory cases.

By the way, don’t despair if you find just as you finish synthesizing the last case a tiny footnote in your casebook that states: “In response to pressure from insurance companies, all states have not passed the Uniform Limitation on Cat Liability Act, which now regulates the subject and has rendered all of the foregoing cases moot.” Such is the nature of law.

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