Law School 101: Tips on How to Effectively Write Case Digests
By: Archiebald Faller Capila
Aside from the common works of memorizing codal provisions, understanding legal doctrines, and reading the annotations of legal luminaries, there are still some tasks in law school that law students need to finish.
Among the additional works required to be submitted are the written or type-written case digests in different subjects. Most, if not all professors, require their students to submit specific sets of digests in order to improve the memory of those writing them. It is a proven fact that retention is better if and when students write what they are reading. Accordingly, professors see this as a tool in order to help their students learn more about various topics.
Case digests have been in law school since time immemorial. They have been said to be additional tasks for law students so that the latter may have a better understanding of the landmark cases which explain several laws and doctrines our legal system has adopted. While some law students see this as a task without a point, law professors from all over the country beg to disagree. For professors of the law, case digests must be submitted in order to inculcate discipline to law students—a character which is eventually carried out in practice.
However, most law students have a hard time writing them. Not only because some cases are kilometric in nature, but also because understanding such text-heavy materials is a different kind of burden. In several interviews with some students of the law, they see case digests as assignments that only give additional burden in the study. However, some law students believe that these case digests help them better understand an assigned case and even help them craft a good understanding of the facts, issues, and decision of an important cause. Accordingly, according to them, they better understand a case if it is them who crafted the digest and if it is them who fully discussed a case for a specific subject.
But, as mentioned, writing a case digests is not for everyone. In line with our advocacy to help students in several aspects of the study of law, we compiled some tips which would help you finish such a daunting task. In order to write an effective case digest, Barrista Solutions came up with a shortlist of tips on how to help law students write an effective case digest. Take a look at the steps on how to ease the burden of finishing the said task.
Know the syllabus first
Cases decided by the Supreme Court often explain a multitude of topics and doctrines. If you are a beginner in reading a full-text of the case and eventually writing a digest, it will be hard to determine what your professor wants to see. Accordingly, a case includes several subject matters that may not even be related to the topic of the syllabus.
In order to be effective, you must first read the syllabus and look at the topic where the case is included before reading the full text. In that way, you will be able to know what the relevant details are.
If the professor did not give a syllabus, take a look at the prescribed textbook of your professor and look at the Table of Contents of the same. More often than not, this will point out the specific topic or the most relevant topic to which the case is assigned. If there are multiple topics in which the case is designated, jot them all down and compare the same to where you are with respect to the discussion and recitations of the professor. In that way, you will know if whether your topics are behind or ahead. This is the first thing you should do before engaging in the next steps of writing a digest.
Read the full-text of the case
One of the misconceptions in reading the full-text of the case is that one needs to understand the whole of the text. This is not entirely true. As mentioned, a case decided by the Supreme Court has a multitude of topics that are discussed exhaustively. From substantive to procedural aspects, these topics are more often than not taxing and text-heavy.
Go back to tip number one and know the syllabus. If you know the topic which is related to the case you are studying, then it is now easy to read through the text of the case. In reading the full-text, it is not necessary that you memorize word for word the pronouncement of the Supreme Court. What is important is that you are able to single out specific facts, issues, and ruling that are related to the topics assigned for you to read.
Upon knowing the issue which you are assigned to read, it will already be easy to spot the proper facts and issues of the case. Understanding the full text before proceeding with writing the digest is important for you to retain the proper knowledge and wisdom behind the decision.
In short, do not rush into writing the digest. Understand first the topics of the case assigned so you can write your case digest effectively and efficiently. Accordingly, you will be able to retain in full what you have read and what you will eventually write. It will help you better understand your reading assignments as well.
Divide your digest into three parts
There are only three important parts in a case digest: the FACTS, the ISSUE, and the RULING. Upon knowing the topic you are looking for, you must be able to pinpoint these three elements in what you are reading. Remember that you must only write the relevant details pertaining to the assigned topic.
For the FACTS, you must take into consideration the pertinent discussions of the Court. Irrelevant and minute details should be dispensed with. Only write or type those which are important under your assigned topic. Backstories are not necessary UNLESS they are relatively connected to the outcome of the case. For the ISSUE, check on whether or not the topic of the case assigned is under a substantive or procedural discussion. Remember that the Supreme Court discusses these two aspects of a case. If the subject in which the case is assigned focuses on the substantive aspect of the law, then the issue of the case digest must focus on the same. If the subject in which the case is assigned focuses on the procedural aspect of the law, then the issue of the case digest must focus on the same. Do not include in your case digest issues not related to the topic. For the RULING, answer the issue you posited in the case digest.
For example, the issue is “Whether or not X is an employee of Y”
The decision or ruling should only discuss that issue. In answering the same, you must point out the elements of an employer-employee relationship, the relevant facts of the case, and the explanation of the Supreme Court in ruling the same. You do not have to include other circumstances not related to the issue you just wrote or included.
Avoid including irrelevant details
The essence of a case digest is that it is a shortened version of the actual decision. Refrain from including in your case digest irrelevant details such as the history of the case, backgrounders on the topics at hand, and matters not related to the main issue of the case.
A case digest is only effective if it summarizes the FACTS, ISSUES, and the RULING. By including irrelevant details, you will be destroying the purpose of a case digest which is to put into perspective the most important facets of the case assigned. The point of a case digest is to present in a concise manner what the case is all about and what should eventually be highlighted for a particular topic. Unless required by a professor, a law student should refrain from including in his work unnecessary words which would not only lengthen the digest but make it ineffective as well
Don’t change the text of the case
One of the common misconceptions in writing a digest is paraphrasing the decision. One must remember that the text of the case is binding. One misplaced word could change the very essence of the decision. Remember to write in verbatim what you want to include in your digest. Don’t take shortcuts. Don’t change the wordings of the Court.
In several cases decided by the Court, it was held that what is binding is not only the thought of the Supreme Court but the words written as well. If a law student tries to change or inadvertently deletes or adds a word, he or she is already committing a mistake. The word of the Supreme Court must be quoted as is where is every time there arises an opportunity to do so. In case digests, considering that these are shortened versions of the full-text decision, they must mirror the words the Supreme Court used.
One wrong word or punctuation mark could lead to an entire change in the decision. As discussed in several cases of Statutory Construction, these minute but important details must be given due attention so as to avoid altering what the Supreme Court means to discuss in a particular topic of the case.
Limit it to one or two pages
As mentioned earlier, the essence of writing a case digest is to shorten the actual decision of the Court. It would be contrary to the essence if you will be writing or producing a case digest with a lot of pages. Limiting your work to one or two pages would be appropriate not only for the professor reading your work but for you as well.
Do not listen to those who are saying that the longer the digest, the better. The essence of a case digest is to mirror the Supreme Court’s words as short as possible, without sacrificing the integrity of the case. If you really followed the steps mentioned before this last tip, then you will be able to streamline your reading assignment in a manner that it would not exceed two pages.
A better understanding of the case would lead to a short but effective case digest.
These are just some of the basic tips on how to effectively write a case digest. To all those law students who will be applying this strategy, may you all be able to grasp the essence of our means, and may this help you in your journey to become a lawyer.
For more tips, view more articles on Law School 101.