September 20, 2010
Reading cases for more oomph
I have been doing a brisk business in appointments with 1L students who are overwhelmed by how long it is taking them to read/brief cases for class. In talking with them, it is apparent that some of their difficulties are linked to not understanding why we read cases and how they fit into overall learning and skills development.
They make better decisions about their reading strategies once they realize the significance of reading cases. Here are some tips that we discuss:
All cases are not equal in importance. Some cases are read for historical background only - the law will change by the last case on a sub-topic. Some cases are packed full of important essentials such as rules, policies, jurisdictional differences, important points of reasoning. Some cases are included for just one smaller essential: a definition or an exception.
Cases need to be read at two levels. What are the important aspects to understand about the individual case itself? This level of reading focuses on the parts within a case and the specifics one needs to understand the case. How does the case fit into a series of cases, into the sub-topic, and into the topic? This level of reading focuses on the synthesis of the case into the larger body of law that one is learning.
Cases are a starting point in the study of law rather than an ending point. Cases show us how judges think about the law. Cases teach us how to extrapolate the most important aspects from the full opinion. Cases provide us with "tools" for our toolkit so we can solve new legal problems. Cases become illustrations in outlines rather than the basis of outlines. Professors will not ask one to "recite everything you know about Case X" on their exams.
Cases are essential to the practice of law. Lawyers read and analyze cases every day. They are constantly searching for precedents that relate to their clients' cases. Thus, the time spent in law school on reading and briefing is not merely an "ivory tower" exercise. Students who become skilled at these tasks are making an investment in their future expertise. Students who use canned briefs or headnotes as substitutes for these tasks ultimately shortchange their professional growth.
Case reading and case briefing are important legal skills that take time to learn. The process becomes faster as the law student becomes more expert at analysis. It also becomes faster once the law student understands why we read cases. (Amy Jarmon)
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