Preparing for law school classes generally means reading cases. While avoiding a public shaming compliments of the Socratic Method is a great motivator, keeping up with your reading is truly worth the time and effort. Amongst the busyness of law school, reading assigned cases uniquely forces you to digest course material as it comes. But preparing effectively and efficiently is key to your law school success and your sanity.
Know The Court’s Jurisdiction
This seems simple, but knowing your jurisdiction can make all the difference. Note what jurisdiction you are in – is the case from a state or federal court? And what level is the court writing the opinion – is it a court of appeals or supreme court opinion? These factors are important in understanding the authority of the court writing the opinion and the scope of the decision. Particularly as you become more familiar with reading state and federal cases, you will begin to recognize the unique law and procedural aspects that can help you to avoid confusion and focus on the key holding of the case.
Pay Attention To The Party Names And Designations
Although it is easy to skip over it, read the party names and their party designations (e.g., petitioner, relator, respondent). Casebooks may give you less information on parties than a full opinion, but whatever party information you have is important. If you have party designations, make a quick margin note of which party is which to avoid wasting time sorting it out later. The court generally moves to either discussing the parties by name or by their designation, so it pays to get the parties straight up front.
Read The Procedural Posture Paragraph
Be sure to read the procedural posture that is usually provided in the first few paragraphs of a case. While dry, it is important to orient yourself procedurally – even if it is not reading for a procedure-based class. Is it an appeal from a final judgment or an interlocutory appeal? Is it an original proceeding in the appellate court? Each will elicit from the court different standards of review and types of analysis. If you catch this detail before trying to understand the opinion, you will be freer to focus on the substantive issue addressed.
Watch Out For Syllabuses, Concurrences, and Dissents
Watch out for concurring or dissenting opinions following the majority opinion. Class discussion will generally be driven by majority opinions, but your case might not do a good job of highlighting were the concurrences or dissents begin. As you read, highlight or make a large margin note that you will not miss to warn that you are leaving the majority opinion. In the heat of a cold call, you don’t want to start reading from a portion of the dissent without knowing it. This happens more often than you would think and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of that “teachable moment.”
Also, note casebook introductions and case syllabuses. These can provide helpful context, but remember these are not citable case law.
Footnotes can be key to understanding a case. Particularly if you are reading from a casebook, footnotes included will inevitably contain a hidden key to understanding a concept or at least provide fodder for a tough question in class. The return on investment from reading casebook footnotes is huge. Even outside of a casebook, if some aspect of a case is not making sense as you read, look for an explanatory footnote. Courts can be extremely helpful in explaining tricky concepts or odd procedural occurrences, but they are only helpful if you read them!
Distinguish Propositions Of Law, Propositions Of Fact, And Mixed Propositions
Keep in mind that not all propositions in a case are made equal. There are three primary kinds of case law propositions –
Propositions of Law – Propositions of law are universal statements of law provided by the court. These will not be mixed with facts of the case. Such propositions may be drawn from other case law or statutes, but they will state a rule of law. Within the jurisdiction, propositions of law will be just as true in one case as they will be in another.
Propositions of Fact – Propositions of fact are the factual circumstances that brought the legal question to the court. The facts are important, but don’t get lost in the facts. Especially in appellate opinions, you won’t get all of the facts, so, as they say, don’t fight the facts. Try to keep a quick summary of the facts in mind in case you are called on to recite the facts, but understanding how the propositions of law are applied is more important than memorizing every fact given in an opinion.
Mixed Propositions – Mixed propositions apply the law to the facts of the case. Including both facts and law, these propositions explain how the court is applying the law. Remember these propositions are bound to the facts of the case, so applying such conclusions to other cases has to be done by analogy.
When analyzing your case, making these distinctions as you go can help you to tease out the kernel of the law that the case is meant to teach without wasting time.
**Carefully reading your assigned cases and implementing a preparation strategy that works best for you is always advisable, but if you are a chronic skimmer or just find yourself in a time jam one day, following these tips is a great investment of your pre-class cramming time. They will at least inform your guessing and improve your odds of bluffing through a cold call.
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