1L Question of the Day: Do I Really Have to Read the Cases?

Do the ReadingNow that you’re a few weeks into law school, you’re probably wondering one thing — Do you really have to read the cases?

Let’s face it, reading cases is time-consuming and not necessarily all that exciting. Sometimes rumors circulate that all you really need is a good outline, or the right supplement or set of canned briefs, and you can ace your exams without doing any of the reading. Is this true?

Sadly, probably not.

While I’m not going to argue that everything you need to know is in the cases (your law professor might tell you this, but it’s not generally true), there are very good reasons to read the cases, particularly your first semester.

Why Should 1Ls Read the Cases?

Here are four reasons to prioritize the reading in the early days of law school:

  1. If you don’t read the cases in the beginning, you’ll never get any faster. Most 1Ls take a fairly light load first semester. Three classes + legal writing is pretty standard (compared to four, or even five, classes per semester later). You’re taking fewer classes to give you time to get accustomed to law school, and a big part of this process is learning to read a case efficiently. Yes, reading cases initially takes forever. But — as you improve your skills — you’ll get faster. If you skip the reading first semester, you won’t develop the efficiency you need to keep up with a heavier reading load later.
  2. You’ll learn a lot by osmosis. I recently argued that the first semester of law school is like being immersed in a foreign language and culture. Just like you’ll learn a lot of Spanish simply by sitting in a cafe in Madrid, you’ll learn a lot of legal “culture” by reading cases. How are arguments structured? What words are used in different situations? Even if you don’t understand everything you read, you’re absorbing the structure and rhythm of legal arguments. Where does this come in handy? When you have to structure a legal argument yourself — on an exam!
  3. It allows you to relax a bit more in class. New law students sometimes go overboard with their class prep. (Hint: If you’ve got 10 pages of reading notes for 10 pages of reading, that’s too much.) Your job is to make a good-faith effort to read and understand the material before class. If you don’t do the reading, you’re not making that good-faith effort. The result? You spend most of class stressed out and worried about being called on. At least for me, avoiding the guilt and anxiety of being called on when I hadn’t done the reading was a strong motivator! It was easier just to do it and know that I’d made the necessary effort. That way, even if I said something wrong, I could feel confident that I’d made a valiant effort. And, really, that’s all anyone can ask of you (or you can ask of yourself). Perfection isn’t required, but a good-faith attempt is.
  4. It builds character. This might be an antiquated notion, but doing the work you’re assigned in law school shows that you’re becoming a responsible professional. Do lots of lawyers cut corners? Sure, and most of them are lousy lawyers. If you want to be a well-respected lawyer, start building your reputation now (even if it’s only in your own head). Would you show up to court unprepared? I hope not! So don’t show up to class unprepared. You’re building habits now that you’ll carry throughout your legal career. Make sure they’re good ones!

Are you convinced? Share your thoughts in the comments! You can leave questions, too, and we’ll answer them for you.

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About Alison Monahan

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School, which helps law students and prospective law students get in to law school, get through, and stay true to themselves. Alison is a graduate of Columbia Law School, where she was a member of the Columbia Law Review and served as a Civ Pro teaching assistant. You can find her on Twitter at @GirlsGuideToLS.

Comments

  1. #5: The underlying stories are absurdly enriching (and interesting). This is the heart of human conflict right here — people suing each other over unimaginable disputes! They are inherently interesting as a portrait of the human condition (as reinterpreted and filtered by lawyers, the trial process, appellate courts and case book editors).

    Not buying that? Then maybe you’re not interested enough in humanity and its discontents to be in this profession that’s pretty much all about, well, humanity and its discontents.

    • Alison Monahan says:

      That’s a very interesting point! Part of the reason law school cases are so dry, I think, is that they’re appellate cases with a lot of the humanity edited out.

      I was a district court clerk, and all kinds of crazy stuff went on there! But most of it wouldn’t have been included in the appellate opinion (or it would have been edited out of the casebook version, at least).

      If you’re a law student and you want more of the back story, there’s a series of books that might be of interest. [Blank] Stories… So Corporate Law Stories, Constitutional Law Stories, etc. I never actually read these, but one of my law school friends swears by them!

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