Home » Case Law and Legal Strategy: Building a Winning Case

Case Law and Legal Strategy: Building a Winning Case

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

In the legal profession, success hinges on the ability to craft compelling arguments and develop robust strategies. At the core of these abilities lies the indispensable skill of solid case law research and application. Understanding and effectively using case law is fundamental to building successful legal strategies. This article will explore the importance of case law research, the methods and tools available for conducting it, and how to apply case law effectively to create winning legal strategies.

Case law, or judicial precedent, refers to the body of prior judicial decisions that guide courts in deciding future cases with similar issues or facts. The principle of stare decisis, meaning “to stand by things decided,” ensures that courts adhere to precedent, providing stability and predictability in the law. This principle underpins the common law system, predominant in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

Understanding case law is critical for several reasons:

Predictability and Consistency:

By adhering to precedents, courts ensure that similar cases are treated alike, promoting fairness and legal certainty. This predictability allows lawyers to advise their clients accurately on the likely outcomes of their cases.


Precedents provide a framework for resolving disputes without reinventing the wheel for every case. Lawyers can build on existing legal principles, saving time and resources.

Case law provides a rich source of legal reasoning and arguments that lawyers can draw upon. By studying how courts have interpreted and applied the law in previous cases, lawyers can develop persuasive arguments for their clients.

Conducting Effective Case Law Research

Effective case law research is the bedrock of successful legal strategies. Here are the key steps and tools for conducting thorough case law research:

Identifying Relevant Jurisdictions and Understanding Hierarchy

The first step in case law research is identifying the relevant jurisdictions. Legal precedents are binding only within their jurisdiction. For instance, a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States is binding on all federal and state courts within the U.S. However, a decision by a state supreme court is only binding within that state. Lawyers must ensure they are researching and citing case law from the appropriate jurisdiction.

Understanding the hierarchy of courts is essential for assessing relevance. In the United States, for example, the federal court system is hierarchical, with the U.S. Supreme Court at the top, followed by the Courts of Appeals and the District Courts. A decision by the Supreme Court carries more weight than a decision by a lower court. Similarly, in the state court system, decisions by the state supreme court carry more weight than those by appellate or trial courts.

Numerous legal research tools and databases are available to assist lawyers in finding relevant case law. Continuing Education of the Bar offers an all-in-one legal research solution with authoritative practice guides. OnLAW Pro is written by California lawyers for California lawyers. All practice guides are fully integrated with CEB’s primary law research tool, allowing you to research California, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and U.S. Supreme Court case law, as well as California statutes and the California Constitution. OnLAW also comes with TrueCite®, CEB’s powerful case law citator.

Analyzing Case Law

Once relevant cases are identified, the next step is to analyze them. This involves:

Reading Opinions: Carefully read the court’s opinion, including the majority opinion, concurring opinions, and dissenting opinions. This helps in understanding the court’s reasoning and the legal principles applied. The majority opinion explains the court’s decision and sets forth the legal rationale that will serve as binding precedent. Concurring opinions, while agreeing with the outcome, provide additional reasoning or emphasize different aspects of the law. Dissenting opinions, on the other hand, offer alternative perspectives and can be useful for predicting future legal trends or changes. 

Identifying Key Holdings: Identify the key holdings or rulings in the case. These are the legal principles that form the basis of the court’s decision and are binding precedent. The key holdings are the central points that the court’s decision hinges upon, and understanding these is critical for applying the case law accurately. This involves distinguishing between the court’s dicta, which are statements not essential to the decision, and the holdings, which are the authoritative principles that must be followed. 

Understanding the Facts: Pay close attention to the facts of the case. Precedents are often fact-specific, and understanding the factual context is crucial for applying the case law to your client’s situation. Each case is unique, and the specific details can significantly influence the court’s decision. By thoroughly understanding the facts, lawyers can draw parallels to their client’s case or highlight important differences. This detailed analysis helps in crafting arguments that are both precise and persuasive, ensuring that the precedent is applied appropriately and effectively.

Distinguishing Cases: Not all cases will be directly applicable. Lawyers must learn to distinguish unfavorable precedents by highlighting differences in facts or legal issues. This skill involves critically analyzing the precedent to identify aspects that do not align with the current case. By demonstrating that the circumstances or legal questions are sufficiently different, lawyers can argue that the unfavorable precedent should not control the outcome of their client’s case. 

Effective application of case law is where the art of legal practice meets the science of legal research. Here are key strategies for applying case law:

Developing Persuasive Arguments

Case law serves as the backbone of persuasive legal arguments. By citing relevant precedents, skilled lawyers can demonstrate that their position is supported by established legal principles. This not only strengthens their case but also shows the court that their arguments are grounded in existing law.

For example, in a personal injury case, a lawyer might cite previous cases with similar facts where the court awarded damages to the plaintiff. By highlighting these precedents, the lawyer can argue that the court should follow the same reasoning and award damages in the current case. This involves:

Analogizing: Drawing parallels between your client’s case and favorable precedents. Highlighting similar facts and legal issues can strengthen your argument that the same legal principles should apply.

Distinguishing: Differentiating your client’s case from unfavorable precedents. Pointing out significant differences in facts or legal issues can undermine the applicability of adverse case law.

Using Dicta: While only the holding of a case is binding, dicta (statements in a judicial opinion not essential to the decision) can be persuasive. Citing favorable dicta can bolster your argument, especially if it comes from a respected court or judge.

Anticipating Counterarguments

Effective lawyers don’t just make the best affirmative arguments–they also anticipate and address potential counterarguments. This involves:

Identifying Adverse Precedents: Conduct thorough research to identify case law that opposing counsel may cite. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of adverse precedents allows you to prepare counterarguments.

Preemptively Addressing Weaknesses: Addressing potential weaknesses in your case upfront demonstrates thoroughness and credibility. Explain why unfavorable precedents should not apply or why their reasoning is flawed.

Crafting Clear and Concise Briefs

Clear and concise legal writing is essential for persuading judges and opposing counsel. When citing case law in briefs:

Be Precise: Accurately cite cases, including the correct jurisdiction, court, and relevant page numbers. Misquoting or misrepresenting case law can undermine your credibility.

Provide Context: Briefly summarize the facts and holding of cited cases. This helps the reader understand the relevance and application of the precedent.

Use Quotations Sparingly: While quoting key passages can be powerful, over-reliance on lengthy quotations can make briefs cumbersome. Paraphrase where appropriate and focus on the most impactful language.

Formulating Case Strategy

The best lawyers ensure that case law research informs every aspect of case strategy, from initial pleadings to trial tactics. For example, during pre-trial motions, a lawyer might use case law to support a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment. During trial, case law can guide the presentation of evidence and the examination of witnesses. In appellate practice, understanding how higher courts have ruled on similar issues is essential for crafting effective appellate briefs.

Practical Tips for Effective Case Law Research and Application

To excel in case law research and application, consider the following practical tips:

Start Early:

Begin your case law research as early as possible to allow ample time for thorough analysis and strategy development.

Use Multiple Sources:

Rely on a variety of cases and secondary sources to ensure comprehensive research. Legal encyclopedias, treatises, and law review articles can provide valuable context and insights into how case law has evolved.

Stay Organized:

Keep detailed notes and organize cases by legal issue, jurisdiction, and relevance. OnLAW Pro’s citation tools and notes can help manage your research.

Seek Guidance:

Don’t hesitate to seek guidance from colleagues, mentors, or legal research experts. Collaborative research can uncover insights you might have missed. CEB’s Practitioner Tool offers a vast array of case law, statutes, and practical guides across various legal fields. All Practitioner resources are written by California lawyers, for California lawyers. 

Practice Critical Thinking:

Evaluate the relevance and authority of each case critically. Not all precedents are equally persuasive, and understanding their nuances is key.

Keep Learning:

The legal field is always evolving. CEB’s MCLE solutions, including CLE Passport and CEB’s CLE Compliance Package, help you stay current with new developments and research techniques. Designed for convenience and flexibility, the programs are available online, allowing attorneys to access high-quality, accredited educational content anytime, anywhere. CEB’s MCLE Solutions are an ideal blend of practicality and expertise, ensuring legal professionals stay informed, compliant, and at the forefront of their field.

Stay Up-to-date with Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB)

Successful legal strategies are built on the foundation of solid case law research and application. Integrating CEB’s innovative tools into your work will enable you to master effective research techniques and apply precedents thoughtfully. Visit our website to explore these resources and begin transforming your approach to legal challenges. Empower yourself with the expertise and tools needed to excel in the dynamic legal realm. Stay informed and stay ahead with CEB.