Law Schooled: The case for a nine-minute briefing

‘A brief is called a brief because it’s brief.’

Thus did a dean during 1L orientation introduce the notion of case briefs.

It was online of course and case briefing is, also of course, more than a mere notion — but a core element of every … course for the next 36 months [1,095.7266 days, but who’s counting] of our lives.

Even when we’re no longer doing them in fact or law, we’ll still be doing them in our dreams. 

So let’s make the nightmares, and briefs, as short as possible. The latter end up great, fitting their purpose and ours, and even help illustrate the old adage, which many wouldn’t identify with the law: less is more.

Quick tip: see briefing as a case.

IRAC it:

  • Issue: Whether briefs can be made brief
  • Rule: purpose is short, fast, effective
  • Analysis: best for the brief, the prof, and you 
  • Conclusion: given other elements, yes, we can do it

Other elements include how closely profs check and how fast we learn.

Here goes.

Briefs love it: Why brief? To distill a case to discuss it in class. Yes, there’s more, but that’s the immediate need.

My ‘hardest case’ prof says a brief is  

  • Facts
  • Procedure
  • Issue
  • Holding
  • Rationale

This fits on a notecard.

Anything that fits on a notecard should. I knew a math teacher who allowed one notecard in tests, covered with any info her students could Tetris in. They used 0.3 gel pens. Less cheating. More studying, too.

Casebooks get updated as specifics change, and the law and the devil are all about details. But really it’s rules, cases, briefs. Same as always.

Remember: briefs are brief, hence the name.

Why else to brief?

Profs want it: Another three-legged stool: one subject, one casebook, one professor. The last one is the only wild card. 

  • One might want only — and all of — what’s in the case 
  • Another loves more — she’s thrilled if you read background material or even Google it.
  • A third demands less — case are solely to learn the specific [that word again!] rule or element it illustrates

Since they also differ on how classes are conducted — interrogation? Sage on a stage? Pop quiz hypothetical? — even to whether a 3-hour session has one break or two, we can get an idea of how the type of material demanded will be presented.

Wordcount don’t matter to them.

Why does it matter to us? 

You benefit: If we do notecards right, stuff happens. 

First there’s class discussion. As in Hamilton, it’s in the room where it happens, and it’s the immediate reason we’re ‘doing’ case briefs. Here is where we learn — the warp and woof of ‘four walls and a floor’ filled and willed into action and interaction by minds and bodies wanting to grow.

Notecards are awesomely integral to this. When we can fit what’s wanted by the specific prof on a single ‘postcard’ to ourselves on each case — heck, use the 0.3 gel pen if you want — we’ve had to think hard about it first. 

Then we engage in the take-and-give of classroom jousting — or even if we are simply listening to the prof add to what we’ve already notecarded — a millennia-old process begins, continues, and does not stop.

Not ever.

As the content of our character in law school, briefing cases is one leg of a thousand-year-old, three-legged stool: rules, cases, briefs. On use, they’re part of another, along with memorizing and us. 

Briefing and memorizing don’t change. 

We’re the wild card in that list.

The immediate reason to brief cases is to prep for class. 

What’s really going on is us getting good at it. The action is good — and getting good at it is its own reward. There’s more in about 36 months but it starts here.

Briefing cases in any form builds muscle memory of the issue spotting and fact patterns and all the other fun new vocab words of law school. We get good at it, memorize the rules, and put our ‘us’ into it …

Well, who knows what might in this room happen, what good will come of it?

A couple final points.

  • Along with the 0.3 gel pen, use 4x6 notecards: smaller is too small, larger is too large; both sides and you might as well type them.
  • I tape them to casebook pages at the case. Pro-tip: don’t tape over text; it could come up when you remove the cards.
  • Why remove them? We can review them better in a stack … and if this process has made us at all uncomfortable we can re-do them

Like that math teacher — more studying.

Should all other reasons fail, look at it like this, the end of a scene from the late 1960s classic, Cool Hand Luke. The men on the prison work farm — barely an advance on prior ages’ galley slaves and chain gangs — have been given a road to tar under the hot Southern sun. Paul Newman’s title character spurs them to do not less — but more than their masters have commanded.

The results are joyful and far-reaching because the reasons are far more real: it shows them, and us to be human, with choices and the ability to enjoy good ones.


Paul Hughes is a writer and 1L in California. Twitter @PoetAndPriest.