How to Brief a Case
The cases that you will read are the written opinions of trial and appellate court
judges explaining their decisions in the lawsuit. A court opinion is similar to a short
story of an incident in which a court acted to resolve a legal dispute. The opinions are a
record of the court’s decisions that will be used as precedents to provide authority or
guidance in resolving future legal disputes.
Case briefing is an aid in reading and understanding court opinions. The process
is actually a very familiar task to you – it involves outlining and making notes about what
you read by identifying the parts of a case and summarizing them. Case briefs will be
useful to you in preparing for class and in reviewing for exams. After you have read a
case, re-read and brief it using the following format for briefing a case.
1. Name of Case
Write the name of the case at the beginning of your brief so that you will be able
to identify it later. The case name usually contains the names of the plaintiff and the
defendant, who are the parties to the lawsuit. Be sure that you can identify who sued and
who was sued as you read through the case.
Briefly summarize the facts of the case. Facts are the “who, when, what, where,
and why” of the case. Describe the history of the dispute, including the events that led to
the lawsuit, the legal claims and defenses of each party, and what happened in the trial
court. Do not merely copy the facts verbatim; not every detail is important. Instead,
include only the relevant facts. To decide which facts are relevant, ask yourself whether
a particular fact was important to the court’s decision. If the answer is yes, include that
fact in your brief. You can also ask yourself whether the court’s decision may have been
different if a particular fact was omitted or changed. If so, then it is important. You
should also look for facts that are repeated at least once in the court’s opinion since these
tend to be legally relevant.
The issue is a statement of the question of law that the court must answer in order
to decide which party should win. A case may involve more than one issue. Sometimes
the court will directly state the issue in the opinion. If so, then you can quote the court’s
statement of the issue in your brief. In most cases, however, you will need to write your
own statement of the issue. The issue should be expressed in the form of a question that
can be answered “yes” or “no”. To ensure that your issue statements are written in the
form of a question, begin them with “whether,” “did,” “can,” “does,” “is,” etc.
The holding is the answer to the issue. If there are multiple issues, then you
should state a holding for each issue. The holding succinctly states the court’s ultimate
conclusion, but does not fully explain the conclusion. Write the holding as a single
sentence that begins with “yes” or “no,” followed by the word “because.” Doing this will
ensure that you directly answer the issue and provide a brief reason for the court’s
The court must justify its holding by providing reasons for answering the issue in
the way that it did. The rationale is a summary of the reasons that explain how the court
reached its decision. The goal for this part of your brief is to understand how the court
used the rules of law to resolve the dispute. The court will state the applicable rules of
law, and they can be found in readings from your textbook as well. You should
summarize how the court applied the rules to the facts to reach its conclusions.
After you have finished briefing a case, take a moment to critically evaluate the
court’s decision. Ask yourself whether you agree with the outcome. Is the outcome fair
in light of the facts and the law? Has the court considered all of the relevant facts? Do
you agree with the court’s reasoning? What is the likely impact of the decision in the
There are different approaches to briefing each aspect of the case that work
equally well. You can write your brief in narrative form or simply list the facts, issues,
holdings, and reasons as bullet points in your brief. The key is to create a complete
summary of the court’s opinion. Remember also: case briefs should be brief. A good
rule of thumb is no more than one page for most cases.
To practice briefing a case using the method described above, read the following
case of Hagan v. Adams Property Associates, Inc. The case involves a limited liability
company, or LLC, which is a type of business where the owners manage the business but
have limited legal liability as to business debts and obligations. After you have read the
Hagan case, re-read it while referring to the sample case brief that follows. As you do so,
critically evaluate the outcome of the case and the reasoning behind the court’s decision.
Consider whether or not you agree with the court’s decision.