3.2 – Understanding the Case Method


Understanding the Case Method

In the following lessons, we're going to dive into how to read cases carefully and how to digest them, and how to figure out what the legal rules they stand for are. Before we do that, I want you to understand something about law school. Law school is typically taught using the case method. Your doctrinal classes are going to be taught using the case method. What do we mean by that? You'll sometimes see that in other areas, people talk about the case method in business school. It actually means something very different outside of the law context.

Most of your reading in law school is cases.

In the law context, what it means is that law school courses typically use mostly or even exclusively cases, that is, legal opinions, to teach the law. You're going to take a law school class, and your assigned reading will be what we call a casebook, which is a thick volume that's going to be full of usually somewhat edited opinions by judges and courts. Some casebooks, that's all it is, there's not even going to be any explanatory text that tries to put things in context or any notes after the case, it'll just be case, case, case, case, case. Some newer casebooks have a little bit more in the way of text to try to tell you what the rules are, contextualize things. Nonetheless, 95% of the reading remains cases. Your job is to read them, understand them, and digest them.

Important to understand and figure out case laws on your own

The reason law school is structured this way is because of what I talked about in the previous lesson. Part of being a lawyer in our legal system is being able to read cases and use them to figure out what the law is. Law school really just throws you into that task. It's going to give you a lot of cases because there's no other way to really learn how to become a lawyer in our system, other than by reading a ton of cases.

You are going to be expected to look at cases and figure out what the rules of law are using those cases. It's going to look very different if you compare other ways in which you can learn the rules. If you ever get like a treatise, which is some kind of a volume, sometimes it can be a short volume, sometimes it can be a thick multi-volume treatise that's really designed to explain what the law is in any particular area or a particular jurisdiction. It's not going to just have a bunch of cases, it's actually going to try to tell you, here's what the treatise writer thinks the rules are.

By contrast, most of the time, you're not going to just be spoon-fed the rules when you're a law student. You're going to be expected to figure them out from the cases. To really succeed in law school, you're going to need to learn how to read cases carefully, how to understand them, better digest them, and how to really figure out how they fit into the larger context of your class. It won't always be obvious when you start reading a case. Cases can sometimes be subtle, they're not always clearly written. Sometimes important things are hidden or not explained clearly.

You also can't just wait for class to explain things, because you might get called on in class and be asked to explain the case and be asked questions about the case. Some professors don't really like to really explain things, they like to, as they say, hide the ball. You're going to have to figure out how to do the work to go from a case to really understanding, how does this tell me what the law is? How can I get the law out of this sometimes opaque case? That's what we're going to be focusing on in the following lessons.

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