In the legal system, a brief is a written document advising the court of the legal reasons for the lawsuit or other legal action. The legal grounds for the action must be spelled out according to the party’s reasoning, the facts of the case, and the laws and regulations that apply. In essence, a legal brief makes an argument as to why the party submitting the brief should prevail in the action. To explore this concept, consider the following definition of brief.

Definition of Brief


  1. A concise statement of points of fact or law used in a legal action
  2. A written argument submitted to a court of law
  3. A written outline of all the information and arguments on one side of a legal controversy


1250-1300       Middle English bref

What is the Purpose of a Brief

In a legal matter, a brief is a written statement of facts and the legal issues which form the basis of the lawsuit or other action. In the brief, the party, or attorney representing that party, submitting the document, attempts to convince the court to rule in its favor. Legal briefs, sometimes referred to as “points and authorities,” are generally required to be submitted in a certain format, as defined in the court’s rules, which are available from the clerk of the court in which the matter is filed.

Types of Legal Brief

Legal briefs are used in a variety of legal situations, and while many of them are written documents actually submitted to the court, some briefs are written to organize the information for an attorney or other legal professional working on the case. Commonly used legal briefs include:

  • Trial brief – a formal written statement presented to the court, outlining the party’s position in the case, whether a civil lawsuit, or criminal matter. A trial brief may also provide needed information to the judge, such as specialized terminology used, or procedures specific to the issue in a technical case.
  • Legal brief – statements presented to the court as part of a pre-trial motion, such as a motion questioning the admissibility of evidence or testimony.
  • Merit brief – also referred to as a “brief on the merits,” this brief is submitted to an appeals court, and explains the wrongs, or rights, of the prior decision on the case. A merit brief may also be submitted to the Supreme Court when appealing a decision of an appellate court. Such a brief explains why the decision of the prior court of appeals is flawed.
  • Amicus brief – amicus curiae, which translates literally to “friend of the court,” refers to a brief submitted to a Supreme Court by a party not directly involved in the case, but which has a strong interest in its outcome. An amicus curiae brief, commonly referred to simply as an amicus brief, advises the court of additional information or arguments that are very relevant to the case, and which the court might want to consider in making its decision. A party not involved in the case directly must request permission from the court to file an amicus brief.

For example:

ABC school district in California files a civil lawsuit against the federal government for enacting a system of fining districts whose students’ mandatory test scores fall below a certain level. These fines come in the form of decreased funding for the following school year. ABC school district is responsible for educating a large number of children of financially troubled families, many of which tend to have difficulty learning at the same pace as other children.

The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where ABC school district argues that the government’s system of punishing school districts in such a situation actually serves to deny the children the quality education they deserve.

Other school districts throughout the state of California, and many in other states, have monitored this situation as the lawsuit moved through the court system, as the policy has a broad effect considered to be harmful by many districts. Once the matter has been accepted by the Supreme Court, XYZ school district asks for, and is granted, permission to submit an amicus brief.

While XYZ school district is not directly involved in the lawsuit, it has gathered information and statistics from other schools near and far, which may be helpful for the court in reaching its decision on the matter. An amicus brief may be written in an attempt to sway the Court to either side of the issue, depending on the party’s point of view.

  • Appellate brief – a brief submitted to the court at the appeals level. The appellate brief advises the court of the basic circumstances of the case, and the legal basis on which the party is appealing the trial court’s decision, or why the court should disregard the party who is appealing that decision.

What is an IRAC Brief

An IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion) brief is usually an internal document prepared by a paralegal or junior attorney, and ultimately used by the primary attorney on a case to guide him in preparing and arguing the case. The acronym IRAC provides an organized method of researching and organizing information on a case. An IRAC brief is commonly a short, one-page review of the case, clearly outlining the answers to the questions:

  1. What is the issue or legal question at hand in the case?
  2. What rule of law applies to the issue?
  3. How are the rules stated in number two above applied to the specific facts of the issue?
  4. What is the conclusion to the legal issue when the rules are applied to the facts of the case? The conclusion of an IRAC may not introduce any new rules or applications.

When preparing an IRAC brief, the preparer must have access to all of the facts of the case, as these facts are fundamental to each step of the IRAC process. The issues of the case can only be divined from the facts of the case. Likewise, the facts bring to light the most pertinent rules of law that apply to the issues, and analyzing the case requires a competent interpretation of the facts and the rules of law.

Formatting of a Legal Brief

Although the term brief was likely intended to refer to a brief summary or statement of the case, one which would be shorter than an oral argument, modern times see briefs that are quite lengthy. This is because legal briefs of varying types are used to specifically outline the party’s position, the legal arguments, and to summarize case precedent. The correct formatting of a legal brief depends entirely on the rules of the court in which the brief is to be filed.

Because the courts receive mountains of legal documents and legal briefs, requiring them to be organized and formatted in a specific manner helps the judge quickly identify pertinent information at any point in the process. Most briefs organize the voluminous information under various headings, such as:

  • Facts of the case – an outline of the facts, and reference to where those facts are more specifically detailed.
  • Procedural history – a statement of the events that have already occurred within the court system, which have ultimately brought the case before the present court.
  • Judgment – a statement of how the previous court, usually the trial court, decided the case.
  • Analysis – a review of the rationale given by the court for its decision, or by the parties for their positions on appeal.
  • Dicta – the opinions or reasoning given by the previous court, which are to be considered authoritative, but not binding.

A brief filed with the appellate or Supreme Court should be well-organized and include a table of contents, as well as an index if necessary to aid those reading it to find pertinent information easily. It is commonplace for legal briefs, especially lengthy briefs, to include footnotes and other annotations.

The rules of the court in which the brief is to be filed spell out the actual formatting of all briefs to be submitted. These rules include such formatting issues as font face and size, line spacing, page size, and margins. Correct formatting must also observe the rules about the type and color of section dividers, the inclusion of tables of contents and indices, how many holes should be punched in each brief, and where they should be located, as well as whether the brief should be stapled or bound by a spiral device.

Briefs having to do with different areas of law or legal issues are often required to have a cover of a specific color, for the purpose of aiding the court staff to keep the high volume of briefs organized. Finally, the court’s rules specify how many copies of the brief, all formatted and bound as outlined, must be submitted to the court. The number of copies depends on how many judges sit on the panel that will review the case. Each judge or justice must receive a copy of every brief, and the court will not make additional copies.

In most courts, if a brief is submitted without the proper formatting, proper cover color and binding, or without enough copies, it will be rejected. The party will then need to correct the errors and make another attempt to file. There are strict time limitations on filing such documents, and this can become a problem if the proper format is not discovered until filing time.

Tips for Writing a Successful Legal Brief

While any case can be eloquently outlined with every conceivable point of law and precedent, providing the court with all of the information that could possibly aid in its decision, there is a lot to be said for submitting a brief brief. In law, as in many areas of life, less may be more in these situations. Professional educators in the legal field have offered tips to writing a successful legal brief, or one which is more likely to be read from cover to cover.

  1. Choose a Format – this refers to the format in which the information inside the brief is organized. While there are a number of ways the information can be presented, it is important to choose a format that best illustrates the merits of, or problems with, the specific case.
  2. Choose an Appropriate Caption – every brief should begin with the case name, the court in which it was tried, the year it was decided, and the page on which it is listed in the casebook. The court may have other requirements for brief captions.
  3. Identify the Facts of the Case – identify each fact of the case in an outline format for easier reading. In an appeals brief, discuss only the facts that are relevant legally to the appeal. Relevant facts are those that directly impacted the outcome of the case.
  4. Outline the Procedural History – this section should identify all of the legal events that have taken place so far in the case. These include all court actions, including motions, hearings, and trial, that have occurred leading up to the case being brought to the court in which the brief is being filed.
  5. Specify the Issues in Question – describe in detail the issues and legal questions for which the case is being brought before the current court. In this section, it is a good idea to break down these issues into their most basic parts, discussing how the law or rules apply to each.
  6. Answer each Issue Concisely – provide a brief answer to each issue brought to the current court. This is best done with a yes or no answer, followed by a couple of sentences stating the legal principle relied on by the court to reach its decision on that issue.
  7. State the Prior Court’s Rationale – for each decision, or “holding,” made by the lower court, discuss the rationale given by the court. To do this coherently, describe each step of the court’s reasoning for each issue, one at a time.
  8. Describe the Final Disposition of the Case – Specify what the court decided, and any orders that came of the decision. If the prior court was an appellate court, state whether the court affirmed or overturned the trial court’s decision, and what other instructions the court has issued.
  9. List any Concurring or Dissenting Opinions – While it is necessary to discuss the prior court’s final decision, as well as its reasoning for that decision, a brief submitted to an appellate or Supreme Court may make use of other opinions given in the case. These include both concurring and dissenting opinions of members of the panel of judges that reviewed the case. These opinions often help the higher court, as well as the parties, see the court’s decision from a different angle.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Concurring Opinion – A written opinion by a judge which agrees with the overall decision made by a panel of judges, but which has different, or additional reasons for his decision.
  • Dissenting Opinion – A written opinion by a judge who disagrees with the majority opinion of the panel of judges, giving his reasoning for dissent.

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