4.2 – Understanding Why the Case Was Assigned


Understanding Why Case Was Assigned

A big part of understanding cases and putting them in a larger context is trying to really understand why you read the case. Why was it assigned? Why did the casebook author put it in the book, and why did your law school professor ask you to read this portion of the casebook? Just understanding the case on its own, just reading the case, being able to pull a rule out of the case, is really just the first step to the understanding that you need. You want to really figure out, “How does this case fit in, what is the thing I'm supposed to take away?” You can't really understand that until you answer this question, “Why was it assigned?”

Case is assigined in a context and set syllabus

The case itself will not necessarily explain that. You need to look at it in the context, context of the book, context of law professor's syllabus, and context of the class as a whole. The case itself won't necessarily reveal why it's in the casebook. You need to look at the larger context. You need to look at your syllabus. You need to look at where the case is in the book, and the surrounding material in the book. You need to think about the class as a whole. Look at some clues. What are the cases surrounding the case? Was it immediately followed by or preceded by a case that seems to follow a very different rule?

Well, in that case, maybe this case is meant to illustrate some alternate rules, maybe in this doctrine that you're learning, there's two alternate rules. Some jurisdictions follow rule A, some follow rule B. The reason that you read this case is to really show you what rule A looks like and that's a very common reason that a case is assigned. Sometimes a case will be assigned to show you the exception to a rule.

The case will state a rule, and then if you maybe read the notes after the case, the notes will say, “This is actually a very unusual approach. Most jurisdictions don't allow this challenge at all,” or “Most jurisdictions follow the opposite rule.” What you take away from that is going to look very different than a case that is maybe meant to illustrate the majority rule.

Let's say it's a case that you're assigned and then the notes say, “This is the rule that applies in every jurisdiction.” Well, then, you know that's the rule. Often, cases are included just to show you how the rule works in practice. Maybe the rule has already been laid out, and this is just another case to give you more practice. Different books are going to do things differently. Some books have lots of cases that have been edited to be really short, so you're just reading case after case. They're really just showing you more examples.

Other books have much longer excerpts from cases. They do less editing down, and so for those books, each case is really meant to illustrate something different, and you want to get a feel for your book and how it handles things. Look at some other clues, look at the table of contents in your book, look at the section headings, look at any introductory text, where, let's say, the section heading is, “The different rules for the law of attempt.”

Well, you read a case that lays out one rule, that's a pretty good clue that maybe you're reading that, because that's one rule among many that jurisdictions follow. I really want you to think of this as a key step, really the kind of most important last step whenever you read a case. Even if you get to the point where you think, “Oh, gosh, I really understand this case. I understand the facts.

I understand the procedural posture. I understand the reasoning. I understand the rule.” If you can't answer this question about, “Why was it included in your book? What is the takeaway?” You haven't really completed your understanding. You should ask this every time, and you should get to a place where you feel comfortable. Now, it's okay if it doesn't seem immediately obvious.

You might not understand this, until you've gone through class, until you've really heard the kind of questions the professor is answering, seen what the professor is focusing on. Does the professor keep drawing comparisons between this case and some other case? Well, again, maybe that's a clue that the point of the case is to illustrate a difference between rules. It won't necessarily come to you right away, but you're going to need to figure this out because in any law school class, there's a lot of material.

There's often a thousand pages or more of material, and you're going to need to figure out how to distill all that material into the stuff that's really important for an exam. Understanding why you're reading a case is really critical to understanding, “What do I need to take away from the case, and what needs to go into my notes and outlines so that I can apply the critical information about this case to a fact pattern on an exam?” One other final thing to note that sometimes students get a little confused by in the class. I teach two 1Ls, which is criminal law.

Criminal law is a statutory class. Most criminal law cases involve courts, reading statutes, and applying rules, and figuring out what those statutes mean, and so forth. This can be a little confusing because in criminal law, the way I teach it, you're not just learning the law of one state. You're just learning more of the general principles that are followed by a lot of jurisdictions all over the country. For those reasons, students can sometimes struggle with, “Well, how do I apply the insights from this case we read, which is really interpreting the Illinois statute, to the general principles of criminal law?”

If I'm in another jurisdiction, let's say, in California, well, even there, even though each jurisdiction is really ostensibly reading its own statutes, there still are going to be some general principles and they're still going to look to other jurisdictions to try to figure out, “What are the general principles of the criminal law, and how do we apply those to our own statutory code?”

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