3.3 – The Importance of Reading Attentively


Importance of Reading Cases Attentively

Let's talk about how to read cases in law school. I'm going to give you some bad news first, which is that reading cases is hard. It's going to take you a lot more time to read a case the right way than it took you to read certain kinds of things you might have read in college. Reading a case is not like reading a novel. Ten pages of casebook reading might take you a lot more time than ten pages of other kinds of reading depending on what your undergrad major was. You can't just skim a case. You can't just let your eyes roll across it. You need to read it carefully and you need to read it actively, and we're going to talk a little bit about how to do that.

The more cases you read, the better you're going to get at it.

The good news, though, is that it's going to get a lot easier and it's going to get a lot easier quickly. The more cases you read, the better you're going to get at figuring out, "Okay, here's what's going on on this case. Here's what all the moving pieces are. Here's what this case is really about at its essence." That's something that takes a long time to develop, but the more cases you read, the faster you're going to do it. More importantly, the following lessons are designed to short-circuit that process a little bit. I'm going to try to tell you what the different pieces of a case are so you know what to look for. It speeds up that process of really getting fast at reading and distilling cases.

We’re going to dive into those components in the following lessons, the different components of a case. Before we do that, I want to offer some more general thoughts about how to read cases.

(1) Must complete reading the case, not summaries, (2) read actively by making notes in margins, briefing cases, Googling

First thought is you do actually need to do the reading. As I said already, you can't look for things that are substitutes for the reading. Don’t look for things that are like CliffsNotes of the cases that are just going to summarize the cases for you.

That is not going to help you. It's not going to help you develop the skills you need to be a lawyer. Oftentimes, those things are going to mislead you. You might find something that summarizes the case, but maybe it summarizes a different edited version of the case than the one that you were actually assigned, and so you might actually miss some important details.

Second, when you're doing the reading, read actively. You’re not just taking in information. You're actually working as you read to understand the information. There's different ways you can do that. One way is taking notes as you go. Sometimes people like to take notes in the margins of the book if they bought the book and haven't rented it. Sometimes people have this complicated system of highlighters where they highlight different components of the case in different colors.

A lot of people like to do what they call "briefing cases." We have a separate document where you take notes and you really write out, "Here are the different pieces of the case. Here's my summary of it." You won't do that probably all the way through law school. You will figure out shortcuts, but at the beginning, I think maybe briefing cases could be really, really valuable. Again, it's going to take more time, but it will really help you understand and it will help you understand how to read more quickly in a few months.

Being an attentive reader also means really working to understand things that you don't understand. Is there, let's say, a Latin phrase in the opinion that you've never seen before? Don't just say, "I'm not going to know what that means." Look it up, Google it, get on Black's Law Dictionary. There's lots of ways you can just do a little bit of work that are going to help you understand what's going on. I'm often surprised at how rarely students do that. I think the students who do choose to do that, who put in that just little bit of extra work to understand before they walk into class rather than waiting for the professor to explain everything, are going to have a really big advantage.

Role of Footnotes

Look at every part of the case, look at footnotes. Cases often have footnotes. Casebook editors often edit out most of the footnotes, but maybe they'll leave in the ones that are important. Footnotes are actually, can be sometimes where a lot of the action is in a case. The court might explain, "Here's why we're discussing this issue, or here's why we're not discussing this other issue." Looking at those footnotes and looking at maybe sometimes things that the court wanted to bury or didn't want to emphasize as much can be very, very telling. Related to that, realize that opinions are works of advocacy.

Oftentimes, the court that's writing them or the judge that's writing them, let's say there's a majority, there's a dissent, they're really trying to write them in a way that's persuasive. Maybe the result that the court is reaching is controversial or challenging in some way. You shouldn't assume that the court is always being 100% transparent about what it's doing, so read skeptically. Is there something that the court says, some assertion the court makes that actually doesn't strike you as true? Flag that, remember that, because that might come up in class.

Is there some issue about the case that seems really hard, the court is really sweeping under the rug? Be aware of that. Don’t assume that appellate courts are always being totally transparent. Look at what the court is assuming. A student who can be aware of that, who can read for those things, is going to have a big advantage in discussing the case in class.

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