How to Read and Brief a Case When Doing Legal Research

As we have said on here many times, the chief advantage an attorney has over a pro se litigant (someone who is representing themselves in court) is knowledge. Not intelligence, but knowledge. What that really means is that they 1) know when they don't know something and 2) they know where to find it.

This is one of the reasons that and joining forces to bring you The Guerrilla Guides to the Law and, in the context of this article, specifically The Guerrilla Guide to Legal Research: Finding the Law for Non-Lawyers.

However, once a person who is representing themselves does legal research and finds cases, then what do they do?

First off, they need to realize that legal research is not about the facts so much as it is about the concepts. Many pro se parties make the mistake of trying to find cases that are exactly like their's when, in reality, very few cases are just alike.

On the first couple of days of law school, students are taught how to read and brief a case using the IRAC method.

The letters I R A C stand for:

  • Issue
  • Rule
  • Application/Analysis
  • Conclusion

We'll discuss these in more detail.

Issue – What is the issue that is being presented to the court. Essentially, what were the parties fighting about, and what are they asking the court to decide? As an example, if someone were attacked at a bar, then the court might be having to decide whether a bar is required to provide security to protect its patrons.

Rule – What are the rules of law that the court used to make its decision? These can be statutes, regulations, ordinances, case law, parts of the Constitution, etc. They can also include concepts of law. In the case of whether or not a bar has a duty to provide security the court might discuss negligence, the foreseeability of the harm versus the cost of providing security, etc. These will be discussed in detail by the court and there can be multiple "rules" that apply. 

Application/Analysis – Why did the court make its decision the way it did? This is the most important aspect of doing a case brief, mainly because it will be where the court took the "concepts" of law and applied them to the specific facts of that case. Since that is exactly what the pro se will be asking the court to do it is important to understand this. Again using the example of the bar, the same concepts of that case could possibly be applied to a restaurant that serves alcohol and possibly even to one that did not.

Conclusion – What was the ultimate outcome of the case? As an example, the court could have found that the bar did owe a duty to provide security of some kind for its patrons since alcohol increases aggressiveness.

Anyone that is representing themselves in court should use this method to brief cases, at least at the beginning. It ensures that they understand and can quickly spot the most important parts of the case law they find through their legal research.

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