How to Brief a Case: Tutorial

The caption of a case "brief" contains a surprising amount of information that can sometimes be very useful in helping an astute law student better understand the appellate court's decision or analysis in a given case. Technically, the caption only includes the name of the parties involved in the litigation, as well as the name of the court and the date of the (appellate) court's decision. The name of the individual judge who wrote the opinion, although normally NOT included in the brief, is sometimes also a helpful addition to the brief. For example, where an opinion has been written by a particularly prestigious (or perhaps even controversial) jurist (e.g., Cardozo, Learned Hand, Traynor), this additional information may "cue" the student as to a particular type of analysis to expect. To illustrate this, most Posner opinions routinely incorporate some kind of "economic analysis" into the discussion. Likewise, Cardozo is well-known for his masterful (if not always entirely candid) appellate decisions. A student who encounters an appellate opinion authored by Judge Posner should expect at least some economic analysis, whereas any student would be well-advised to approach the analysis presented in one of Cardozo's opinions somewhat warily.

Party Names. Knowledge as to the actual identity of the parties can sometimes aid the student in understanding important subtleties in the court's analysis which might not otherwise be apparent from the text of the opinion itself. For example, in Garratt v. Dailey, 46 Wash. 2d 197, 279 P.2d 1091 (1955), an adult plaintiff sued little Brian Dailey (a 5 year, 9 month old boy) DIRECTLY for the tort of "Battery." The student should immediately ask why would anyone want to sue such a young child? By contrast, the plaintiffs in Walker v. Kelly, 6 Conn. Cir. 715, 314 A.2d 785 (1973), sued the parents of the minor child alleged to have committed a "Battery" against their minor son. The child's parents didn't commit a "Battery," so the student should ask why, then, were the parents sued at all? Answers to these basic questions lead to the conclusion that the tort action in Walker was based on the parents' alleged violation of a "parental responsibility" statute (an entirely different cause of action) rather than the simple common law tort of "Battery" which was involved in the Garratt case.

Name of Court. The name of the court itself is obviously useful in determining the precedential value of each individual decision, since only those decisions from courts of the highest authority are absolutely binding (under the doctrine of stare decisis) upon all other courts in each respective jurisdiction. Usually, the appellate level of the court is quite obvious from the name of the court itself (e.g., Supreme Court of Washington, Court of Appeals of Ohio, etc.). However, sometimes even this simple nomenclature can be confusing to a beginning law student who, for example, has not yet learned that the highest court in the state of New York is called the New York Court of Appeals, whereas the Supreme Court is only an intermediate level court in that state.

An awareness of the specific geographical location with respect to each appellate decision studied may also aid the student in understanding certain jurisdictional variations in the law, including "majority" and "minority" rules, as well as other issues relating to specific regional, geographic or cultural differences which might be reflected in the court's analysis, or even dispositive as to the ultimate resolution of certain substantive legal issues.

Date of Decision. Apart from the obvious precedential significance which is inherent in the date of any judicial decision, this information also helps the student to understand the case analysis in light of its historical perspective. This is particularly important in a common law system of jurisprudence such as ours which spans several hundred years in duration. For example, would a court today be as likely to construe (i.e., interpret) a federal banking regulation in the same manner as that very same court might have done during the very height of the "Great Depression?" Reading each case in light of its historical perspective can often provide invaluable insight into the court's analysis.

Caption of the Brief

Edward C. Martin

To view descriptions of each element of a case "brief,"  CLICK on the appropriate links below.


Type of Action


Procedural History

Contentions of Parties