Right now, thousands of incoming law students across the nation are probably not sitting at home preparing for their very first classes of law school. But they should be. And if you are one of these students, when you do crack the books one of the most important things to do is learn how to brief the cases--that is, prepare written summaries of them in advance of class, so that you are familiar with each case, the issues it presents, the proposition of law it stands for, and so on.
Let me repeat that: as a new law student, you need to brief the cases. Not rely on a casebrief from a friend, or an outline from last year's class, or a commercial outline, or (heaven forbid) some casebrief you download from the web for free. (In my experience, you get what you pay for in the latter case.) You can experiment with different, and possibly faster, approaches later in law school and decide what works best for you. But right now, at the beginning of your law school career, you really, really need to learn how to brief a case.
This is because briefing a case is a good exercise for learning to differentiate among the different parts of a judicial opinion. Perhaps shockingly (or perhaps not so shockingly), judicial opinions are not always well written--including those by our esteemed Supreme Court Justices. Working to identify the specific legal issue in question, the relevant facts, the analysis and reasoning of the case, and the legal holding of a case--and writing it all out in a concise and standard format--is a good habit to get into as a new law student.
So, how do you brief a case? One method I commonly hear recommended is that students should follow the "IRAC" method, which as I understand it stands for "Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion" (with the conclusion being the holding). I suppose that's fine as far as it goes, but it seems incomplete to me. What about the facts--aren't they important? Who are the parties? What is the procedural history of the case? These things make a difference. So the IRAC approach falls somewhat short, in my opinion.
Yet on the other hand, you are trying to distill the case down to its essence, and too much information can cloud the picture. What is a first-year law student to do? I suggest a compromise. It's basically the IRAC approach, but topped-and-tailed with additional information. Here is what I think you should include in a typical casebrief:
- Relevant facts
- The legal issue(s) raised
- Summary of the relevant law
- Analysis: the application of the law to the issue(s) and facts at hand--that is, the court's reasoning
- Holding (and disposition)
- Your thoughts: was the case properly decided? What did the court get right or wrong? What do you think the implications of the case are?
Is there an acronym for this? PFILAHT? PRILAHY? I've seen worse, I suppose. Any suggestions for a good acronym would be much appreciated. "IRAC" is a great acronym--just an under-inclusive approach, in my view.
Thanks to Professor Randy Barnett of Georgetown University Law Center for sparking some of my thoughts on this issue. His Contracts casebook (3d edition), which I use in my first-year Contracts class, contains very helpful suggestions on briefing cases. My "PFILAHT" (ugh) approach is streamlined and altered from his approach--but I suppose that proves my point about ultimately using whatever method is best for you. Whatever approach you take, though, I hope you come up with a better acronym than me.