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Cases make up the bulk of your assigned law school reading. Unlike undergrad, professors will expect you draw the law out of cases, rather than presenting you with a neat summary of the law. Honing your case reading skills takes time, but mastering the fundamental skill of interpreting opinions will pay great dividends in law school and beyond.
This post will hopefully give you a nuts and bolts approach to reading a case. Remember that it is only an approach. The trick is developing a system that helps you to efficiently and effectively digest cases. The key is to not read passively. You are not reading a novel; you are reading cases for a purpose. Stay actively engaged and make the most out of your reading time. Try attacking your next assigned case with the steps below.
1. Acknowledge Course Context
The beauty of cases assigned in law school is that they come with a great deal of context. Use this to your advantage. Think about what unit of the syllabus you are in. Read any introductory material your case book or professor may provide.
2. Recognize Case Format
Is your case edited (i.e., abridged for case book purposes) or unedited (i.e., a raw, full opinion)? This distinction is basic but powerful. If your case is abridged, the editors have reduced some of the chaff and have presented you at least relatively on-point parts of the case. If your case is unedited, you will have to be much more judicious with how you read and what you focus on. For example, if you are in torts, and you are doing a unit on trespass, a lengthy discussion on the court’s jurisdiction will almost surely not be something you need to spend much time struggling through.
3. Analyze Case Type
Orient yourself procedurally before you start reading. What jurisdiction are you in? What level court issued the opinion? Who are the parties and how are they designated? What is the procedural posture of the case (e.g., interlocutory appeal, appeal of final judgment, extraordinary writ)? All of these details will impact how the court approaches the law and how you should understand the case. It is often tempting to skip over the procedural aspects, but any of these factors can impact how a court analyzes the issue. For example, standards of review, burdens of proof, or presumptions applied could be based on these seemingly peripheral factors.
4. 1st Pass – Read for Context
First, take a quick pass through the opinion to get a sense of where the case is going. Grasping the basics and seeing the case as a whole helps to make a second pass far more effective and purposeful. Don’t worry about highlighting or taking notes yet. Just relax and start to get your head in the case.
Read the facts to learn what is going on and which party is which, but don’t get bogged down. Especially for an unedited opinion, the court may give facts for reasons irrelevant to your interest in the case. Maybe a fact is crucial to a jurisdictional argument, but has no bearing on your tort element argument. You can go back and pick out the key facts later. For now, just try to keep moving.
Goal: Know the parties and what happened. Make a margin note of party names and designations, e.g., Petitioner = Smith; Defendant = Jones.
Similar to the facts, try to move through the legal analysis of the court rather quickly on this pass. Don’t let a complex legal argument daunt you. If some aspect of the law is unclear, hold out hope that in an analysis section the court backs up and defines terms, quotes some statutes, or otherwise helps fill the gaps.
Goal: Know what law is at play and crystalize the issue before the court.
Usually courts will not hide their conclusion (even if they hide some of the steps they take to get there). Look for the golden words like “We hold…”, “So, …”, and “In conclusion, …”.
Goal: Find the holding, know which party “won,” and, at least basically, why.
5. 2nd Pass – Read With Purpose
With a basic case framework in mind, knowing the question, and knowing which side the court sides with, the second read should be slower and more purposeful. Hopefully this is where things begin to come into focus. The second focused read is the time to connect the dots and follow the court as it explains its logical progressions. This is where you can start intelligently highlighting if you like. With the holding in mind from the first pass, you can focus your attention on the key facts and arguments.
Knowing the legal question you are looking at, and the court’s holding, look at the facts again. Bear down on the facts that are going to be key to the court’s holding you care about.
Goal: Highlight or jot down those facts that play a key role in the court’s legal analysis.
Reread the legal analysis of the court with a sense of context. Once you know the court’s holding, you know the end of the court’s legal-analysis journey. On the focused read, work to understand the law and how the facts are being applied to reach that conclusion.
Goal: Get a handle on the legal arguments on both sides and hone in on the winning argument that the court is about to apply to reach its holding.
With a better grasp on the relevant facts and law, reread the court’s holding. Does it make more sense this time through?
Goal: Move from understanding who “won” to why the court held as it did. Try to define the objective legal propositions you see at play in the decision. In other words, what rules could you take from this case and apply to a similar set of facts in another case?
6. After Reading, Don’t Overthink It
Once you finish the steps above, what if it still doesn’t make sense? It is tempting to try to figure out too much as you go. You may want to google a case summary, find a black letter summary of the law, ask a friend, or give up. The approach of learning the law through reading cases intentionally forces you to embrace the intentionally inefficient process and struggle to draw out the law. Here are some tips —
Try to discipline yourself to work through the steps above even if things are initially hazy. The court may explain itself. Although sometimes hard to believe, the court is trying to use its opinion to explain the law and explain how they applied the facts to that law, so the opinion really is the best resource for understanding the law at play.
Read the other cases
Finish your entire reading assignment before moving mountains to understand a particular case. Your assigned cases will generally be related in some way. Maybe the second court will explain the concept in a way that make more sense.
Refresh your context
Revisit any introductory material provided to refresh you sense of course context. It can be easy to get distracted while you are in the thick of a case and forget exactly why you are reading this. Reorienting yourself can help to jumpstart your brain and refresh your reading of the case.
Limit follow-up research
If you are still confused, some limited research beyond the case can be useful. Keep in mind that you likely have plenty more to read, and you don’t have time to do extensive research – and you shouldn’t need to extensively research your assigned reading. So, try to limit any further digging to three resources: (1) Black’s Law Dictionary, (2) cited cases, and (3) cited statutes and rules.
– Black’s Law Dictionary – A copy of Black’s Law Dictionary can go a long way to helping you decode a case. Usually confusion is, at least in part, about a term or two. Whether you prefer the trusty hard copy version or the app, limiting yourself to Black’s Law will keep you off Google and limit you to relevant, authoritative answers.
– Cited Cases – If a particular part of the opinion is still confusing, use those in-line citations we all learn so well to unconsciously skip over. They are there for a reason. If your opinion has distilled a case or two into a proposition that has you stumped, pull the cited cases for a more complete explanation. Those cases will likely take on that the assertion the proposition makes head on.
– Cited Statutes & Rules – If your case is interpreting or applying a statute or rule, try pulling that statute or rule for a quick read. If the case is talking around a statute without reciting or quoting it, what the statute actually says could surprise you and that could throw the whole case into focus.
7. Avoid Shortcuts
If you have put in effort reading the case, it is okay to head to class a little confused. You wouldn’t need a professor if you could do it all by yourself. Using shortcuts like case summaries is the undergrad approach to learning. In law school, you aren’t merely trying to learn answers. You are trying to develop your legal mind and professional skills. Even for the short-term pragmatist, you may fake it through a class with a good canned case write-up, but you won’t learn the material in a way that you will remember or be able to apply come exam season. As Law School Toolbox co-founder Lee Burgess accurately writes –
“Some students regularly Google cases before reading them in order to make the reading go faster. I know this is tempting, but you are cheating yourself out of the opportunity to struggle with the material. And struggling with the material is how you learn and get better at it. Know a nasty secret? When you start practicing law, the cases you will read will not likely have canned briefs online. You are going to need to figure them out for yourself. So why not start doing that now! After struggling with a case, if you still can’t figure it out, you may want a little help. But start out by trying to understand the material. Who knows, you might learn something.” (Googling cases was Lee’s #2 mistake students make in preparing for class – see the others — Top 5 Mistakes Students Make Preparing for Class.)
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