Structure of a Legal Opinion

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Structure of a Legal Opinion. Parts of the Opinion. Title and Heading Introduction Brief summary of decision Facts/Background Standard of Review Issues/Analysis Legal Reasoning Holding Conclusion. Title and Heading. Official Citation Court Name Plaintiffs and Defendants
Structure of a Legal Opinion

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Slide 1

Structure of a Legal Opinion

Slide 2

Parts of the Opinion

  • Title and Heading

  • Introduction

  • Brief summary of decision

  • Facts/Background

  • Standard of Review

  • Issues/Analysis

  • Legal Reasoning

  • Holding

  • Conclusion

Slide 3

Title and Heading

  • Official Citation

  • Court Name

  • Plaintiffs and Defendants

  • Docket Number

  • Date of Decision

  • Synopsis of Case

  • Brief disposition of case

Slide 4

Official Citation

  • Case Name (Plaintiffs and Defendants)

  • Volume Number of Reporter

  • Reporter

  • Beginning Page Number

  • Court Name

  • Year of Decision

    Example: NRDC v. Evans, 254 F.Supp.2d 434 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).

Slide 5


Often includes:


Procedural history

Resolution of case

Slide 6

Standard of Review

Often crucial to the outcome of the case!

The more deferential the standard of review, the more likely the defendant will prevail.

Slide 7


Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion

Slide 8


  • Issue: The legal question court is asked to solve.

  • Rule: The general legal rules governing the issue (statutes and common law)

  • Analysis: The court explains how the legal rules apply to the facts of this case

  • Conclusion: The court’s decision, or holding, on each issue presented

Slide 9

Elements of a Case Brief

1. Identification of the Case

2. Facts

3. Procedural History

4. Issue(s) and Holding(s)

5. Reasoning

6. Evaluation

Slide 10

Identification of Case

1. Name of case

2. Full citation

3. Optional: vote, author of opinion, legal topic classification, etc.


Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954).

Vote: 9-0.

Author: Warren, C.J.

Legal Topics: Const. Law; Civil Rights

Slide 11


1. Principal parties to the dispute

2. Relationships among those parties

3. Events that led to the dispute

Slide 12

Procedural History

Which party/parties initiated legal action against which others?

2. The legal claims and relief sought (but keep this short!)

3. The disposition(s) of lower courts, if any

4. The authoring court’s disposition

Slide 13

Issue Statement(a.k.a Question Presented)

A material question of fact or law that arises from the claims, defenses, and arguments of the parties

Hint: Try to state the issue as narrowly as possible, tailoring it to the crucial facts and legal rules of the case

Slide 14


BAD: “Did the trial court correctly grant summary judgment for the defendant?”

BETTER: “Is an employer liable in tort for discharging an at-will employee for a reason that violates public policy?”

Slide 15

BEST: “Is the employer liable in tort for discharging an at-will employee because of her refusal to participate in a public ‘mooning’, a discharge that contravened the public policy against indecent exposure reflected in a criminal statute?”

Slide 16

Holding: The court’s answer to the question presented in the issue

Simple answer: Yes or No

Detailed answer: Transform issue into a holding in the form of a statement


“Yes. By discharging the employee because she refused to participate in a public ‘mooning,’ the employer violated public policy reflected in a criminal statute prohibiting indecent exposure.”

Slide 17


1. Rule and Rationale

2. Distinguishing Dicta

Dicta: Statements in the opinion that help explain the court’s reasoning but address questions not squarely presented in the dispute before the court

Slide 18


1. Was the reasoning convincing?

2. Did the court apply the proper standard of review?

3. Did the court properly analyze the statute or constitutional provision?

4. Did the court put the proper amount of emphasis on equitable considerations?

Slide 19

Martin v. City of Seattle, 105 Wn.App. 1041 (2001)

Slide 20

Martin and other named plaintiffs appeal the trial court's dismissal on summary judgment of their class action lawsuit against the City of Seattle. The purported class consists of all persons who received parking tickets as a result of short-changing meters during a six-year period. Each parking ticket incurred a $20 fine.

We do not reach the merits of the claim because we conclude that this court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case. Under RCW 2.06.030, the appellate jurisdiction of this court does not extend to civil actions at law for the recovery of money or personal property when the original amount in controversy does not exceed the sum of $200. Appellants may not aggregate their claims against the City in order to reach the $200 limit so as to confer jurisdiction. [FN1] Therefore, we must dismiss the case.

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