4.1 – Notes after the Case


Notes after the Case

We've talked about how to read one case. In this class, I want to expand the lens a little bit and talk about how to put cases in context. How to understand the cases you're reading in relation to the larger things you're supposed to be getting out of the class. There's a lot of different things to think about, but first, in this lesson, in particular, I want to talk a little bit about how to approach the notes in your casebook that might come after the case that you've been assigned to read.

Now, different casebooks are going to look different. Some just have case, case, case, case, case, no text in between, no notes. In those kind of books, it's really just up to you to figure out the context and figure out why you're reading the cases, and try to distill those cases into rules and so forth, but a lot of casebooks, and especially newer casebooks, tend to include some amount of notes surrounding the case. Those are going to look different depending on the casebook.

Role of Questions/Notes/Problems in Casebook

Sometimes there will be questions. There'll be a case and there'll just be a list of questions without answers, and sometimes those questions can be fairly open-ended. In that situation, think about those questions, think about why the casebook author chose to include those questions. What do those questions get at? Are they really focusing on something important? They may be cluing you into something that's a really important feature of the case. You might get asked those questions in class. Imagine if you were cold called tomorrow and the professor said, "Well, what about this question? What did you think about that?" Have some working answer in your mind.

Maybe those questions are going to be the basis for class discussion. Sometimes these questions are asked because there really is an answer, and it's something that you need to figure out to really understand the case. Sometimes those questions are asked because there is no clear answer and you're really just poking on a really tricky spot about the law or about the case. Either way, you want to think about them and think about, why is this question being asked?

Sometimes notes will elaborate on a legal issue. It'll say, okay, this case laid out this rule, many jurisdictions follow this rule, or many jurisdictions follow some other rules. Maybe it'll explain that the rule that you just read is actually the minority rule, or maybe it's the majority rule. If the notes are telling you there's other possible rules, think about that. That's something that you should really be thinking about maybe that should go into your outline when the time comes. That, hey, I got rule A from this case, but then the notes also said a bunch of other jurisdictions follow rule B.

Sometimes there will be problems. There'll be a little summaries of fact patterns and then questions, and often these are going to be based on real cases, and the idea is you're supposed to work through these on your own. Sometimes it'll tell you the answer. Sometimes they won't, and here again, this is something you could be asked to deal with in class. You could be put on the spot and a professor could say, "What about the problem in note three? What's the answer to that situation? Does the rule apply this way or does it apply that way?"

Again, these are really designed to help you maybe to understand the contours of the rule, maybe to understand where the rule clearly applies or where it clearly doesn't, or maybe to understand how the rule has some uncertainty and some gray areas. In any event, you want to really think about these. Sometimes they will cite a case and not necessarily give you the answer. You could look up those cases. You've got access probably to Westlaw or at least to Google Scholar, something like that, and just plug in that citation and look it up if you don't get an answer.

Treat notes as clues, don't just skim over them.

I'm often surprised at how rarely students do that. But treat the notes as clues. Your job when reading your law school reading is to really figure out, not just understand the rules, but really put them in this larger context of why am I learning what I'm learning? How does this fit in? What are the moving pieces here? The notes can really help you understand that. They can really put something in context and make you understand why you're reading what you're reading. In that way, they're very valuable.

Don't just skim over them. I think some students just read the cases carefully and then they just kind of skim the notes, and then often I get questions from students. "Oh, do you actually want us to know the stuff that's in the notes?" The answer is usually yes, the notes are there for a reason. They're there because there's something in them that the professor really hopes that you'll learn and that you understand. You should approach those really the same way you approach reading the principal cases in your casebook.

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