Preparing For Class

Preliminary Matters

Preparing for class is more than simply briefing a case. Before you even start, you need to guarantee that the atmosphere is proper for learning and reviewing. So decide: are you an "I must have quiet" sort of person? If so, hit the library and resist that temptation to prepare with friends. How about "I can't think unless there is music?" Find a good location for some sound - although you might need the music at lower decibels than normal. Law school requires immense concentration. Finally, can you prepare with friends? This one may be the most questionable: all of you need to be ready to prepare - and have the same degree of concentration. Otherwise, the studying may deteriorate into a talk session.

Once you found the proper atmosphere, you need to determine how to begin. In the same way an outline will guide you through the entire course, you need some guide of the day's assignment. Before you begin, look at the professor's syllabus and the table of contents. What is the subject matter being covered? Is it an historical overview of that particular area? Are you dealing with the basics? Exceptions? Be prepared to even skim over the day's reading to have a sense of proportion regarding how this day's readings fit into the entire scheme of topics currently being covered by the professor. If you are totally confused about where the professor is - and how the topic fits into the overall context of the course - you might wish to look at a commercial/outside outline or treatise to find the major points. Remember, these outlines are never a substitute for your preparation. However, if you are too perplexed to effectively study, this might help.

This preliminary period may also be a good time to review the questions following the reading: they might provide some focus regarding the cases. Don't be afraid to spend time getting ready - it can save you confusion later on.

Everyone knows that briefing is a preliminary skill that everyone is supposed to do - and lots of students fail to do. The question, of course, is how important is briefing cases prior to class - and how important is it to the overall preparation for exams? After all, good grades are the goal - not perfect briefs.

In fact, briefs can help in shortening exam preparation time so that you will have more time to study and take practice examinations. But reading a case is not the same as reading the latest great American novel - or even a history textbook. In fact, you need to recognize that court cases are not always an example of great writing. Archaic words and style often interfere with your understanding of the topic. Moreover, judges often lack the editing skills necessary to engage their audience. Unlike the instructions you have received from your Legal Research and Writing instructors to write for your audience and provide context, judges often assume you already understand the area of law. Remember, the case opinion is a result of parties suing and being sued in a real-life situation. The judge is primarily addressing his/her opinion to those parties - and they already understand the law. So don't get discouraged if you feel somewhat lost.

Another very important consideration is that you are beginners at legal analysis - and it is not easy to understand. Be patient with your ability - and realize that the initial months will be most difficult to process the courts' decisions.

So What Can You Do to Assist Your Briefing?

Have a legal dictionary - use it when you don't understand a word or phrase. You will find yourself relying upon it less and less as the months go by.

If you can't understand the case and have no sense of context - where does this case fit - go to the table of contents, outlines, or even a treatise to give you sufficient background. All the additional time you spend at this point will save time in the end.

Always make sure you know what system the court is from. Is this state or federal? Trial (rarely), appellate or at the highest appellate level? Remember, not every "supreme court" equals the highest appellate level - New York's Supreme Court isn't!

Remember that the cases you read for a particular assignment might be interrelated. Your understanding may be increased if you think of the cases as part of a continuum.

Don't be too concerned if you just don't "get" a particular case. After reading and attempting to understand - move on. You can always come back later.
Be prepared to have different interpretations of cases. After briefing, you might wish to discuss the cases with colleagues to get their opinions.

Finally, remember that the process of briefing is helping you not only understand a case - but also the legal analysis process. You use cases because they provide:

  • Rules and Doctrines
  • Arguments
  • Policies
  • Legal strategies that affect clients and outcomes

As you brief, you also learn how to do all the above - a great benefit beyond the who, what, when and why of case briefing!

All of you were given a lecture regarding briefing. As a quick review, let's go over the components.

1. Case name and citation - make sure you indicate level of court.
2. Statement of the case - this includes the relevant facts and any procedural history that is necessary to make sense of the case. Remember that case textbooks are often edited - you will be less likely to find extraneous material in your casebooks as in actual cases. Nevertheless, you need to focus on the important information regarding who is suing whom for what remedy - and what part of the case was the judge deciding on? If it is on appeal, make sure you know what happened in the lower court.
3. Issue - generally the court is either deciding what the proper rule of law should be applied and/or how does the law apply to these facts? Sometimes the court needs to decide the proper law before it can apply it to the relevant facts. So don't get confused if you have several issues.
4. Argument(s) - ask yourself what the current court is deciding. Is the judge ruling that the trial court was correct? If so, what was the legal theory and application and why is it correct? If the current court holds that the lower court was wrong - why is it and what is the correct application and legal theory?
5. Holding - fill in the blanks: "Under the correct legal theory, which is _____________, and under these facts, _________________________, then (what happens) ________________ legally?"
6. Policy - if applicable.
7. Analysis: what do you think about the decision? Later, you might add what your professor thinks about the decision.

After Briefing - but before Class
Once you have briefed a case, it is important to ask yourself several questions to help you prepare for the next class. Remember, in a Socratic class, you will be asked about this case - and other hypothetical situations. The professor will often use these new facts to help you determine the extent of a rule, find the exceptions, test the judge's analysis, and the like. Give yourself a head start by asking yourself:

Why did the judge focus on certain facts in reaching a decision?
Why did the judge ignore others?
Try altering some of the material facts and asking yourself what the result would be - and if it makes consistent sense, particularly if the court looks at policy considerations.
Compare this case to the previous ones in the same section: how is the case different? Does this case change the established law, or add to it? Does it create exceptions?

Once you have answered these questions, you may find that the class is easier to follow. Remember, preparation is the key.

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