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That’s right: Stop briefing cases.

I spend a good deal of ink in my book telling potential law school ninjas that one of the important steps to beating the curve in law school is clearly understanding what is important–and what is not important—in law school.  One thing that is not important? Briefing cases.

I know, I know. The conventional wisdom is that briefing cases is the most important thing you can do to succeed in law school.  POPPYCOCK. If you think that is true, just go up to ANY 2L you see tomorrow and ask them to see one of their case briefs from last night’s studying. They will laugh in your face. Why? It took them a year to figure it out, but they figured it out: briefing cases is a moronic waste of time.

Here is an excerpt from the book where I discuss this a little more:

John Boy Law Student spends one hour a night reading his cases for the next day, and three hours briefing them. He briefs every one start to finish in a beautiful Microsoft Word template he has made for every class. He closes the library every night, all semester long. “Good John,” his mother says. “What a serious boy,” says Dad. And every day John goes to class, full of enthusiasm. He thinks: “I’ll be ready if I get called on today, yes sir!” And sure enough, the one day in the semester he gets called on to explain a case, he is spot on. “How proud we all are of John.”

Trouble is, the Professor does not spend most of every class on the cases John has read. Instead, the focus is on some portion of the cases, or even only a detail. Or, the professor camps on a concept that he is uncovering from a synthesis of the group of cases John has read. The purpose of the class is to reveal the rule that appears from that soup.

The principles that emerge from a synthesis of case involving related subject matter are sometimes called the “black letter law.” And the professor—if he or she is doing the job—will get the black letter law for the day to the class one way or another. Sometimes its through the Socratic discussion with a student, but other times the professor will just lay it all out lecture style.

From the general group of cases the professor has focused on a specific point. So too, from the details of the cases, the Professor has synthesized a general point. At the end of the class each day, everyone has been sharply focused by the professor on what matters most.

So now what does John do with this information? Well, nothing, actually. Why? Because tonight John goes back to the library and prepares for class for the next day. There is no way John is going to be caught unprepared for class.  He reads his cases for tomorrow and then briefs them closely as he always does. John sleeps well knowing he has done his best.

By now you can probably guess what I think of John Boy’s approach to daily study: it’s idiotic, it’s moronic. It is also an incredible waste of time.

The problem with John is that almost all his study is focused on the wrong things. He is faithful to the work, no doubt. He is to be commended for that. He can sit down for more than five minutes. Good for him. If someday he was going to be reciting facts of cases and their holdings his briefing might be the perfect preparation for such a test. But what exactly is he accomplishing towards his goal of preparing for actual law school exams?

Boil it all down, and John is spending four hours preparing to go to class, where he finds out what he should have been studying with those four hours. Then, after the professor tells him the key points he should have been studying, John goes home that night and spends the next four hours studying something else. Do you see the problem? If John continues this pattern all year, John will never study what he needs to understand. John is always—good law student that he is—studying stuff that in the end matters very little on an exam.

There are a lot better things you can do with your time than briefing cases. You have my permission to stop briefing cases and finding more productive things to do with your time.

One Comment

  1. candybeans
    Posted March 3, 2010 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    totally, 100% true. took me far too long in my 1L year to figure out the tremendous parts of my life i was wasting on briefing, instead of actually learning the material.

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