September 8, 2012
Some basic tips for reading cases
Reading cases takes up major blocks of time in a student's schedule. Students want to become more efficient and effective in their reading, but often do not know how because they are missing some important bits of information about the task. Here are some things that I try to point out:
- Initially as 1Ls, students will take forever to read cases - even relatively short ones - because they do not have legal context, vocabulary, and awareness of what is important. By the end of the first month of law school, however, they should see their reading times begin to come down. By second semester, they should be faster still.
- There are two reasons for reading cases. One reason is to gain an in-depth understanding of the case itself. The second is to understand how the case relates to the topic and to other cases within the topic. Both aspects need to be completed if the reading time is going to be worthwhile.
- Cases are often edited for a specific use in a casebook. At times what is edited out may cause confusion for the student reader because they do not readily understand the remaining material because of a lack of context and legal experience. Consequently, three good reads should be the limit. Then put a question mark in the margin next to the confusing section and continue reading.
- Cases are written for legal professionals and not for law students. Attorneys have experience and legal context that make cases easier to understand. Some things will not make sense to the student reader until class discussion.
- Not all cases are equal in density or importance. One case may contain multiple rules plus definitions of elements plus policy arguments. Another case may contain an exception to a rule. Yet another case may contain a definition of an element. Although length often relates to complexity, even short cases can contain a great deal of law.
- Older cases may still be good law. Some older cases are assigned - even if the law is now outdated - to show how the law evolves over time. A law student has to learn how courts reason over time, how policy may change the law over time, and how the law today may be different in a few years.
Paying attention to class discussion and the professor's observations about cases helps the student learn what that professor considers important about cases. By being patient with themselves and not expecting competence immediately, new law students can improve their case understanding and decrease reading time over several weeks. (Amy Jarmon)
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