Tag Archives: case briefs

Asking Good Questions in Law School

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One skill that law students should develop is the ability to ask good questions. I’m talking about “big” questions here, not questions about small details of the cases that you’ve read. There are going to be many times in law school where you don’t understand something that you read or that was addressed in class. As a law student, you want to develop the ability to ask good questions.

Asking good questions is a way to give your professors the tools that they need to help you understand the law better. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Most law students start their Civil Procedure course by learning about personal jurisdiction. In the first few several weeks of the course, you will read multiple cases about personal jurisdiction, and your professor will use numerous hypotheticals to expand your understanding of that legal issue. It doesn’t help you or your professor if you raise your hand in class, or go to his office during office hours, and say, “I don’t understand personal jurisdiction. Can you explain it again?” It would take a really long time for your professor to reteach several weeks of material to you a second time, and it is probably just a part of the issue that you don’t understand, not the entire subject.

Your questions (and your professor’s answers) will be more helpful if you do some preliminary work first. Here are two important tips for developing good questions:

(1) If you don’t understand a particular legal issue that you are studying, trying to reason your way through it first. Reread your case brief and class notes, and even go back to the cases and read the relevant parts.

(2) Take the time to figure out what you do know, and then ask yourself, “What do I actually not know?” Maybe a particular legal test has four elements. You determine that you actually do understand elements 1, 3, and 4, and it is just element 2 that is giving you problems. By narrowing down what you don’t understand about the issue, you will be able to craft good questions.

If you take the time to do a little advance work and tailor narrow questions, you will give your professor the tools he or she needs to be able to help you.

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Case Briefing Shortcuts

Image courtesy of nonicknamephoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nonicknamephoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over the past several posts, we’ve explored how to read and brief cases for your law school classes. As you’ve read those posts, you’ve probably started to realize what a time-consuming process law school studying really is! All that reading and briefing takes a lot of time, actually—and that’s why I think a cautionary note is appropriate at this point. As you read and prepare for class, resist the urge to take shortcuts. The reading and note-taking process I’ve described in my previous posts is really what you need to do to understand the material when you are a new law student.

You may hear upper-level students talking about “book briefing”—in other words, just underlining or highlighting material in the casebook and jotting a few notes in the casebook margins, without actually completing a case brief. Some students may eventually get comfortable enough with their reading that they can book brief and get by, but book briefing is not a sound approach to studying during your first year of law school for sure, and for most students it doesn’t work well even after the first year. You will get more and more efficient in your reading and case briefing over time, but you still need to do the things that give you a deeper understanding of the assigned reading and organize material in a way that will be helpful to you later, as we’ve talked about before.

You should also avoid the temptation to rely upon other students’ case briefs or commercially prepared briefs—it may seem easier and quicker to take this approach in the short term, but you will not know the material as well and will not remember it as much when you are studying later for the exam. When you rely too much upon commercially prepared materials, you are not thinking about the subject in the way that your professor has organized your course. Commercial materials can be valuable, but as a supplement—not your primary source of information for the course. Don’t forget who will be grading your exams–it’s rarely the person who created those commercial briefs.

Moreover, don’t forget that many of the courses that you are taking in law school, including all of the first-year courses, are on the bar exam. The harder you work to really understand the law in each of these courses now, the better foundation you will have when you start studying for the bar exam after you graduate.

The bottom line: there is no real shortcut to law school success—if you cut corners with your studies now, you will find it harder to be successful on your law school exams—and on the bar exam. Shortcuts are really a dead end when it comes to learning.

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A 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases in Law School

Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday I explained what a case brief is and why case briefing helps you to be: (1) prepared for class; (2) organized and focused on the important law for legal writing assignments; and (3) prepared for later synthesis and outlining of course materials. The first step to briefing a case is reading the case. As we’ve talked about before, law school reading is generally very different from most students’ previous reading experiences. This is because the focus is on critical reading. Often, students are used to being able to read class assignments quickly, skimming to identify what’s important. In contrast, cases are very dense in terms of information, and they require focused reading and attention to detail to unpack everything that’s important. A quick read will leave you without important information that you’ll need for class and on the exam.

With that in mind, here is my 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases for Law School:

(1) Read the case. I know, I know. This seems obvious. But bear with me here—there is a method to my madness. The first time that you read a case, you should just read through it without taking any notes about what the case is about. It is during this first read-through that you should look up any legal terms you don’t understand and make notes to yourself about their meanings. One of the reasons why it takes so much time to read a case, especially in your first semester of law school, is because of the new legal language that may trip you up in your reading. When you come across legal words and phrases that you do not understand, you should stop, look them up, and make note of their definitions. Black’s Law Dictionary is a good resource for law students. You can access Black’s Law Dictionary on Westlaw, and it is also available in print form and as an app for iPhones and iPads.

(2) Read the case again, this time marking important points and taking some notes. Once you have read through the case once, start reading through the case a second time. It is at this point that you should begin to mark important parts of the case and take notes. Some students first underline important aspects of the case in pencil or pen and make notations in the margins of the case book. Visual learners often use highlighters—they may even use a different color to signal each part of the case.

You should also begin taking notes at this point—your notes will become your case brief. Tomorrow, I’ll explain more about what should be included in the case brief. Right now, I want to focus on the note-taking process though. Some students hand-write their case briefs, while others type them. Whichever form you choose to use, you want to make sure that these notes are organized and easy to read, as you’ll refer to them in class and as you begin synthesizing and outlining information in preparation for your exams.

(3) Reread the case yet again. After you’ve completed the process I described above, you’ll realize that there are some things about the case that you still do not understand. At this point, you should go back and reread the case yet again, focusing specifically on the things that you need to work through. You may reread some parts of the case multiple times, in fact. As you continue to work through the case, you will add to your Case Brief until it is completed.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll begin to explore what you should include in your case briefs. In the meantime, start reading!

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What Is a Case Brief?

As we discussed last week, incoming law students are now receiving letters and emails regarding first-day assignments from their law schools. This week, I am posting a series of blog posts giving you more advice about how to tackle those first-day assignments—specifically, how to read and brief cases.

Most of the reading that you’ll do during your first year of law school (and beyond!) will be cases. In fact, those expensive books that you have to buy for law school are usually called casebooks, rather than textbooks, for that very reason. Reading a case is very different from other types of reading that you have done—there’s a lot crammed into one case that you will have to unpack in order to make use of your reading in class and on exams. That is why one of the most useful tools you will have in your law school classes is your case briefs.

So, what is a case brief, and why should you create them? A case brief is a document created by and used by a law student. Your case briefs will summarize the important parts of the case in your own words. The way that the court wrote the opinion in the case may not be the most helpful approach for you to use it in class, and creating a case brief allows you to focus your attention on key aspects that will be helpful both immediately and in the future.

Case Briefs and Class: The initial reason why a law student briefs a case is to prepare for class. Cases in law school textbooks vary in length, and it is helpful to have all important information from the case summarized and organized in a way that that you can easily refer to in class. Briefing cases can also help you to process what you are reading in a case. If the professor calls on you in class, you will have thought about the case in advance in a way that will help you to respond to the professor’s questions and hypotheticals. If your professor uses Socratic Method in the classroom, your case briefs can be especially important reference materials if you are called upon.

Case Briefs and Legal Research and Writing: Another reason why a student may brief cases is to pull out important information for legal writing. You may brief cases as you are completing research or writing assignments for your Legal Research and Writing class. In this context, case briefing helps you to identify important information that you will need from cases to complete your legal analysis and arguments.

Case Briefs and Outlines: Finally, case briefs also create the foundation for further study. As you read and brief additional cases and take notes in class, you will begin to synthesize these course materials and develop a more comprehensive understanding of that subject’s law, a process that many law student refer to as outlining. We will talk more about the outlining process in the coming weeks and months, but, for the meantime, it is important to know that good case briefs continue to have value long after the initial class on that case is over.

Stay tuned this week as I continue providing advice for how to read and brief cases. Next up tomorrow: some specific tips for reading cases.

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What is a First-Day Assignment?

For new law students, the next several weeks will introduce new ways of thinking and learning, new friends and colleagues, and new mentors and teachers. We’ve already explored some of these new things, like the Socratic Method and law school grading systems, and we will continue to explore many others in the coming weeks. Today I want to focus on one specific new requirement for law students: the first-day assignment.

Many of you may have already received a letter or email from your law school that includes a first-day assignment or directs you to a first-day assignment link on the law school website. On the surface, the first-day assignment seems pretty self-explanatory: it’s an assignment for the first day of class. In reality, there are some things you should know about first-day assignments that will set you up for success in your first week of class.

(1) You should read the first-day assignment before you go to class. In undergrad, the first day of class was often a really light day, with no real stress. Your professors probably went over the syllabus, their expectations, and what assignments and exams would be like, but often there is no substantive material covered on the first day. In law school, you will hit the ground running on the first day of class. You professors expect that you have done the reading before coming to class, and what happens in class builds upon that reading. If you don’t do the reading before class, you will be unprepared if the professor calls on you, and you will not have a foundation for anything that is covered during that class. Don’t fall behind in the very first week—come prepared!

(2) Make sure that you allow enough time to read each assignment. As I’ve mentioned before, law school reading assignments take much longer to read than most undergraduate assignments. You might have budgeted half an hour to an hour to read one assignment in undergrad, but that same number of pages could take your three hours (or even more) in law school. Don’t wait until the Sunday afternoon before your first day of classes to get started on your reading. If you wait until the last minute, you’ll run out of time before you’re finished.

(3) “Read” means something different in law school than it means in most undergraduate classes. Don’t just skim your assignments. Read them closely. Look up words and phrases that you don’t understand. For most assignments, you will need to read the assignment a second time, and even a third time. If it’s a really difficult case, you may read it over even more. Especially during your first semester of law school, you will have to read your assignments multiple times to understand everything you need to know before going into class.

(4) Brief the case—don’t just read, but take notes of important information from the case. We will spend more time talking about how to brief cases in the next couple of weeks, but one of the key aspects of being prepared for class is knowing how to take the right notes from what you read. Your case briefs will be an essential foundation to your classroom learning and later synthesis of course materials (commonly known as outlining).

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