Get it together: 10 tips on making case summaries

On the 15th of March, La Trobe Law School ran the second 101 Law Skills Workshop of 2016. Organised throughout the semester, these workshops aim to sharpen your legal and professional skills and provide you with some handy tips for your law school career.

After each workshop, we will make sure to summarise the essential tips for you on the Law and Justice Blog.

1. Read well.

In order to make good case summaries, also called case notes or case briefs, you will have to be confident when it comes to your ability to read cases and understand them. As mentioned in the previous post, reading cases is a legal skill that can be acquired and sharpened if you practice enough. Remember our tips on reading cases before starting on your summary (like making notes and breaking the case up into sections) to make sure you find and understand the important parts of your case.

2. DIY!

Make sure to make a case summary yourself, rather than relying on someone else’s. By going through the process of structuring and processing the information, it will be much easier for you to remember core information relating to the case. If you annotated your case well, this can be enormous aid to memory if you need to return to it at a later stage. Your own summary will also be easiest to understand for you. If you work with someone else’s summary, you might not understand their shorthand, or any abbreviations or symbols they may have used. A summary reflects the particular way its author understands the case, so case summaries can differ greatly depending on who made them.

3. Think about your purpose.

As with reading cases, think about the purpose of summarising this case. What situation will you be using this summary in? Is it for a closed-book problem-solving assessment, or an open-book exam with a problem question? Or, are you using it as a resource to write an essay? If it’s the latter, keep the nature of the essay in mind as well: a research essay will differ from a commentary one, and if it’s meant for publication there will probably be additional depth and detail required.

4. Cover the essentials.

Covering the essentials in your summary is crucial. Remember to include the names and roles of the parties, the court in which the case took place and the authoritative citation. Also include a summary of the facts. It’s easy to waste words here, because it’s often the easiest part to understand. But usually, the fact summary only needs to be brief – since this is the core story of the case, the facts are typically the easiest part to remember. If your summary is meant as a memory aid, for instance for a closed-book assessment, try to incorporate images and colours in your facts summary – this is an effective way to imprint the story in your memory for later on.

A good way to test your understanding of the case, is to see if you are able to clearly formulate the main legal issue as a question. Remember, there may be more than one legal issue to include in your summary. Once you’ve defined the issue(s), ask yourself: how was this question answered? Who won the case? Once you’ve identified the finding or the ruling, it’s time to think about the reasoning behind this outcome.

5. Formulate a ratio.

As you know, the crucial part of a case is the ratio decidendi – the reason for the decision. So when you are summarising a case, make sure to spend time formulating a ratio as clearly as you possibly can. Importantly, try to state the ratio in abstract terms, rather than just summarising the reasoning as it related to this particular case. See it as a principle that can then be applied to a similar set of facts, so you can apply them in a situation where you’ll need to do some problem-solving.

With any case, the ratio can be expressed narrowly, as quite confined to the particular scenario that the case involved, or broadly, so that it could easily be applied to other situations. Think about where on this spectrum your ratio sits, and what is more appropriate for the case at hand. Keep in mind that the way you formulate a ratio, will differ from someone else’s.

Don’t give up if doing this seems hard at first! Formulating a ratio is a tricky legal skill, but – as with reading cases – will get easier with time and lots of practice.

6. Choose your extras carefully.

Now that your summary has the essentials covered, it’s time to consider what extra items you want to incorporate. Of course, this will depend on the purpose for your case summary, and possibly whether you’re making the summary on a computer or in hard copy only. For instance, do you want to include some key words you can use for searching? Is there some reason to include the procedural history, or notes about any dissenting judgments? You might want to include some comments that were orbiter dicta, or give some detail about the particular remedies awarded.

Perhaps you want to make some kind of diagram to summarise the reasoning involved in the case, or make comments on any connections to other areas of law. It’s often a good idea to include some cross-references, whether to other cases, or lecture slides/notes, the textbook, or other notes of your own. These can help to save time in an exam, when every minute counts. If you are writing an essay, you might include some discussion or analysis of the case: what do you think of the outcome and the reasoning? Can you identify the strengths and weaknesses of the case? Is the reasoning sound? You might even provide some discussion about the significance of the case – either at the time it was decided, or in light of later developments in the law. Of course, this depends on having further background knowledge, beyond looking at the case report itself.

7. Beware of the quotation.

Quoting can be tempting, especially if you are creating summaries electronically and can simply copy and paste from a case, some notes, or slides from a lecture. But in the end, quoting will probably just make your summary harder to read and understand. For most assessments, time will be a factor (and often be limited), and word limits in law school tend to be tight and strictly enforced. Consider the convoluted way that most judges write – can you say the same thing with less words and simpler language?

It is also important to make sure you are able to summarise and paraphrase in your own words. Not only is this a good way to test yourself, you will be able to use this ability later on as well, to demonstrate your own understanding of the reasoning to your teachers. There is an important exception to this rule, because some cases provide particular quotes which become significant legal terms or standards: if so, then your teacher or textbook will probably indicate as much. Usually these are very short quotes – less than one sentence – and they are fine to include in your summary.

8. Use shorthand, symbols, and abbreviations.

To condense information, use shorthand, abbreviations, and symbols. Especially if you are trying to fit things into a smaller space to bring less paper to your exam, this can come in handy. Images and colour are also a good idea: use colour to categorise information according to legal issue or area of the law, and integrate images to trigger your memory at a later stage. Make sure to prioritise what you want to include. Some abbreviations are common and may even be acceptable for you to use in an exam – for instance P for plaintiff and D for defendant. Others are more generic depending on the area of law you’re studying – like DOC for Duty of Care, or RP for reasonable person.

9. Look away, look back.

The best way to ensure that you include only the essential things you need in your summary, is to look away from the case itself. This will also help you to resist the temptation to quote directly from the headnote or judgements. Once you have read a case, look away and write your summary. This will force you to express the legal issue and the reasoning in your own words, which is a great test of how well you have really understood it.

Once you’ve done this, make sure you check back to the case itself, along with the notes you made along the way as you read it. Skim back over the case to check what you have written is correct, and if there’s anything else you should incorporate in your summary. Did you forget an important issue? Did you formulate the ratio too narrowly or too broadly?

10. Put them into practice.

Summaries are most effective for you when you make them week by week, instead of the night before an exam. If you use your case summary in the weekly tutorials or seminars, you will know how to use them once the exam rolls around. During the semester, then, your summary is a work in progress: add things, delete things, or insert more cross-references as necessary. By doing this, you will not only learn what information is most important in a case, but you will also have the best version possible to use for an assessment.

Remember, your summaries in different subjects may look different, because you might be creating the summaries with a different purpose in mind. Like any legal skill, the best way to learn is through practice. The more experience you get preparing and using your summaries, the faster you will become an expert at summarising cases!

Want to learn more about different legal skills? Attend one of our upcoming 101 Law Skills Workshops!
See the 101 Law Skills Workshops flyer for more details.

La Trobe