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This teaching idea comes to you from the directors of ILTL [1]


Précis is a French word, pronounced pray-see, that refers to a way of summarizing text to include the meaning of the original text but to be as concise as possible. It can be an effective tool to solidify understanding of a particular document, and it could be used a couple of different ways in a law school setting.

Often, in thinking about legal briefs or memos, experts talk about a topic sentence outline—making sure the topic sentence of each individual paragraph flows in a cohesive argument throughout the document.  The exercise of condensing each paragraph to just one topic sentence is a version of précis.

Students could use this technique to more deeply understand a case opinion as well.  Number the paragraphs of an assigned opinion, and have students create a précis.  Essentially, they will be writing a topic sentence for each paragraph of the judicial opinion in their own words, except when the words used by the court are terms of art, then they should use those terms of art.  The goal is to essentially create a topic sentence outline of the opinion that would allow the reader to follow the full course of reasoning.  It’s not a summary; students should write in the voice of the court.

Important pieces of a précis:  Who is the actor?  What is the function of the paragraph? What is the substantive content of the paragraph? And then focus on conciseness—use clear, simple language and eliminate unnecessary words.

For example, a précis of the equal protection discussion in Loving v. Virginia might look something like this:

1 The Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia upheld the constitutionality of the State’s ban against interracial marriages because (1) preserving the racial integrity of its citizens was deemed to be a legitimate governmental purpose and (2) marriage traditionally lies within the sphere of state regulation rather than federal regulation.
2 The State argues that (1) the Equal Protection Clause does not apply because it was meant only to prohibit differential punishment based on race and (2) as a result, the Court should apply deferential rational basis review to the laws.
3 The mere fact of equal application does not remove a law from equal protection scrutiny; laws containing racial classifications must meet a very heavy burden of justification.
4 The legislative history surrounding adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment does not clearly support the contention that it was meant to address only criminal laws that imposed differential punishment on the basis of race.
5 Precedent to the contrary has been repudiated.
6 Laws, like this one, that rely on distinctions based on race, must be shown to be necessary to the accomplishment of some permissible state objective other than race discrimination itself.
7 The law is supported by no overriding legitimate purpose outside of racial discrimination itself.
8 Anti-miscegenation laws also violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
9 Marriage is a fundamental right which cannot be infringed upon based on racial classifications.

[1] Hat tip: Susannah Pollvogt, Associate Dean of Student Success, University of Arkansas School of Law

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