Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Minimizing Confusion When You Read Cases

Reading and analyzing cases are mainstays of daily life as a lawyer. Competence in these areas is critical. Law school is the place to learn these skills well. Students who only read when they will be called on or depend on canned briefs are short-changing themselves as lawyers and their clients.

Here are some tips for getting more out of cases:

  • Before you begin reading the entire case, build a framework of knowledge within which to read. Do not skim the entire case, but instead ascertain key information quickly. By knowing these items, you will avoid confusion as the court lays out its reasoning.
  1. What court are you in? Federal/state and what level.
  2. What are the categories of the parties? Buyer and seller or landlord and tenant.
  3. What is the basic dispute? Widgets never delivered.
  4. What legal authorities will you be dealing with? Cases or statutes or both.
  5. What is the holding? Drop to the bottom of the case and find the holding which gives you the answer to the issue - the whodunit for the case.
  6. What is the judgment? Affirmed, reversed, etc.
  • Chunk the case into natural pieces and deal with one chunk thoroughly before moving on. Read actively by focusing on a chunk and asking yourself questions about it after you read. Then write margin notes that capture the most important points for that chunk. Some of the natural chunks in a case are:
  1. Fact paragraphs
  2. Procedural history paragraphs
  3. Paragraphs about the same precedent
  4. Paragraphs about the same statutory language
  5. Paragraphs about the same policy
  6. Paragraphs giving the holding
  7. Judgment paragraph or sentence
  8. A separate concurrence
  9. A separate dissent
  • At the end of reading the entire case, review all of your margin notes and synthesize them into the points that are most important about the case. Include the most important points in your brief.
  1. Some margin notes will "fall out" because of the court's preference for later discussion in the opinion.
  2. Or the court may have introduced a  change in policy that affects the importance of earlier discussion in the opinion.
  • Always think beyond the individual case that you read.
  1. Why did I have to read this case?
  2. How does this case interrelate with the other cases that I read for today?
  3. What does this case tell me about the subtopic/topic I am studying?
  • Remember that judicial opinions are written for lawyers and casebook opinions are often edited. Lawyers read opinions with a great deal of legal knowledge and experience that you have not yet gained. The editor of the casebook may have edited out something that would help you in understanding.
  1. Give a paragraph three good-faith reads. If you still cannot understand it, put a question mark in the margin and move on.
  2. Something later in the case may help you understand the confusing paragraph. If so, go back and re-read the paragraph again.
  3. If you still do not understand the paragraph at the end, make a note to chat with a classmate about it. Listen carefully to class discussion for clarification. Ask the professor about it if you still do not understand and think it is an important part of the case.
  • Realize that not all cases are created equal. Some cases are very dense and contain multiple issues, rules, definitions of elements, statutory interpretation, policy and more. Other cases are very narrow and contain just one brief point for you to take away.
  1. Editors may focus on just one aspect that they want you to pull from the case and edit out other material extraneous to that focus.
  2. Cases often build on one another. A series of cases may give the common law rule, definitions of several elements, exceptions to the main rule, etc. The cases work together to explain an area of law.
  3. Cases may build on one another to show the historical evolution of the law. If you know how the law changes over time, you learn how to argue for modifications and use policy arguments to support change.

By learning to analyze cases on two levels, you become more adept in the skills you need as a lawyer. Read for depth of understanding of the individual case. Then think about how that case can be used more broadly for understanding the legal specialty and to solve new legal problems. (Amy Jarmon)







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