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How to Cheat When Briefing a Case: Let Westlaw Do It for You

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 24, 2016 11:57 AM

You're terrified of getting cold called and stumbling to remember the procedural posture in Pennoyer v. Neff. Alternatively, you can't wait to get called on and perfectly recite Pennoyer's procedural posture and throw in some background details on the Pacific Christian Advocate and 1870's Multnomah County, Oregon. (Really, tone it down, gunner.)

What do you do to prepare? You brief the case. But here's a hint: you don't have to do it all yourself. Westlaw can do a lot of it for you.

Make Case Briefing Briefer

If you're not familiar with case briefing, it's essentially just a synonym for "taking notes" prior to class. But in law school, taking notes follows a pretty traditional format. You read the case and outline the procedural history, the legal issue or question presented, the factual background, the holding, and the court's reasoning justifying the holding. It's work. And when you have three to four difficult cases to get through a night, it can be a lot of work.

Luckily, you're in law school. Which means that you've probably been given free access to legal research services like Westlaw (disclosure: Westlaw is FindLaw's sister company), that other guy, and maybe even Bloomberg Law. (Is Bloomberg Law still around?)

You'll probably even get free training on how to use these services, which will seem annoying at the time, but which will be extremely helpful throughout law school. For, while Westlaw will help you in your legal research, writing, and upcoming clerkships and internships, it can also really cut down on the time it takes to brief a case.

How to Use Westlaw to Brief Your Cases

Sadly, there's no "brief this" button on Westlaw that lets you turn case text into perfect law school notes. But there are plenty of tools that can help you put break down a case into something that's easy to understand (and easy to put into your notes). This is especially helpful when you're stumbling through some verbose, opaque precedent like, say, Pennoyer v. Neff.

Here's what you'll want to look for. First, pull up the case on Westlaw. Check out the synopsis at the beginning to see a brief review of the parties and procedural background, as well as clarification on the legal issues and a simple summary of the facts. That section will also include the case holding.

As you go through the case, reference Westlaw's headnotes. These are a distillation of the logic upon which the case rests. And they're often better at making sense out of the case than the opinion itself. As Westlaw notes, it's database includes "more than 17,000 cases that involve a mortgagee contain the word mortgagee in a headnote, but not in the opinion." The headnotes, then, can provide clarity and context that the case itself does not.

Of course, still read the case. Still brief it. Make sure you understand what's happening and can explain it all in your own words. Do the work. But let Westlaw help.

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