The daily life of a law student involves two things that you may not be familiar with: case briefing and outlining. These two skills are necessary in order to be successful because of the Socratic Method.
What is the Socratic Method, you may wonder? Well, the Socratic Method of teaching involves almost no lecturing and lots (and lots) of in-class discussion. Your professor will ask you progressively more challenging questions, asking you to recall and manipulate a case fact pattern and answer a bunch of “what-ifs”. This is likely very different from your undergrad classroom discussions. Therefore, your preparation should also be different.
Case Briefing in Law School
The best way to prepare for your law school class is to become adept at case briefing. Case briefing is an essential step in learning how to “think like a lawyer” and in being prepared for a Socratic dialogue. The goal of case briefing is to summarize the case so you have a quick reference if called on in class. Your case briefs are also a necessary component for the outlining creating process. The basic components of a case brief are Facts, Issue, Procedure, Holding and Rule. Note: your professor may wish for you to add additional sections to your briefs.
- Facts. The most straight-forward section in any brief – note the parties, and how they ended up in court.
- Issue. What does the court need to decide? Keywords for finding this are “whether” and “if.” Important note: in a torts case, a party is liable (never guilty).
- Procedure. What has been the progression of this case through the courts? Is it at trial or appellate level? Note, at trial level, the person who files is Plaintiff and the other party is the Defendant. If it’s an appellate case, the person who filed the appeal is the Appellant, and the other party (who probably won at trial) is the Appellee.
- Holding. What did the Court decide and how did they get there?
- Rule. What is the take away from the case? It should be general enough that it can be applied to other cases as well – and several assigned cases may be slightly different so the rules become nuanced – to be applied when certain facts are present.
Outlining in Law School
Outlining is a way for you to synthesize the material you have read and discussed in class so that you can fully understand the law and prepare for your final exam. Your finished outline should condense all the materials (syllabus, class notes, case briefs, notes from outside reading, statutes, problems) into an organized study aid. If you do it properly, your outline will be your primary, if not only, study aid for when you prepare for your final exams. It is a good idea to start the creation of your outline with your syllabus and your course book table of contents. This will allow you to create a skeleton outline of the topics/subtopics/cases. Then, to flesh out your outline, add a condensed version of each case brief into your outline. (See, your case briefs come in handy even after class!) It is a great idea to add your class notes and additional content that you think may help you think and understand the content.
Here are a few key pieces of outlining advice:
- Outlining is additional work you will need to do on top of your class load and other assignments.
- Remember: the goal of outlining is to internalize/learn the law, not to create the outline itself.
- Creating the outline is an essential step but the outline itself is merely evidence of the process of learning the law.
- If you find yourself focused on the length of the outline, color coding, font and so forth, you are focusing on the product, the outline itself, rather than the process of internalizing the law.
- Continue to review and condense your outline through the semester. Your outline will become a list of what you don’t know and “triggers” to help you recall the facts and relevant law.
- Start early! This will help you turn a mountain of work into a manageable mole hill. Be sure you are working on your outlines each week. Don’t put it off. Add it to your calendar each week to ensure you stay on track.