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The Right Way to Read Cases

Law students can expect to read many case studies. Now, however, a law professor is making the case that there is a wrong way and a right way to study case studies.
Above The Law recently published an article by LawProfBlawg an anonymous professor at a top-100 law school — detailing how law students are reading case studies wrong.

One of the mishaps students make when reading case studies, according to LawProfBlawg, is skipping to the end.
“I find myself feeling sad as different versions of casebooks reduce and reduce the case lengths over the years, sometimes to the point where I totally get why students don’t understand the case,” LawProfBlawg writes. “There’s nothing left in the casebook that allows for understanding.”
Another aspect of case studies that students tend to look over, LawProfBlawg says, is the dissent. “The dissent today may be tomorrow’s majority, planting the very seeds of the majority of tomorrow,” LawProfBlawg states.
According to John Passmore, an author at Law School Toolbox, a law student resource site, a case study’s dissent is something law students should look out for.
“Class discussion will generally be driven by majority opinions,” Passmore writes. “As you read, highlight or make a large margin note that you will not miss to warn that you are leaving the majority opinion. In the heat of a cold call, you don’t want to start reading from a portion of the dissent without knowing it.”

LawProfBlawg writes that students don’t pay enough attention to the consequences of a decision. Here are some key questions they should ask themselves:

  • “What’s the effect of the decision?
  • “What ramifications will be felt throughout the legal community or the economy?”
  • “Will the decision cause private businesses to recoil somehow?”
  • “Is this a decision that firms can contract around?”

Once you read a case, it’s best to remember it. Often, law students read cases once and forget about them. Yet LawProfBlawg says this isn’t an effective practice.
“As I have the pleasure of reading cases over and over again each year, I’ve learned some new things about them as I reread them,” LawProfBlawg says. “I rethink my opinion about the decision. Every so often, I go back and read the full decisions after years of teaching the excerpts.”

So how will reading a case more than once benefit you in the future? Julie Novkov, a professor of political science and women’s studies at the University at Albany, SUNY, says students should understand how one case study might fit in relation to another. “The final task for you once you’ve analyzed the case thoroughly is to figure out how the case fits in with other cases you have read,” Novkov says. “This will help you to get a sense of how legal doctrine develops and changes over time.”
Novkov recommends students ask themselves the following questions when comparing cases:

  • In what way does this case address issues that I’ve seen before? Of what other cases do the facts in this case remind me? Of what cases do the legal issues in this case remind me?
  • To what extent does this case extend or modify legal reasoning that was employed in earlier cases? Can I tell a story about the development of case law in this area that takes into account changes in legal tests over time?
  • What issues does this case leave unresolved? What kinds of questions do I expect to arise in the next case dealing with this doctrinal area?

LawProfBlawg compares this practice, of reading case studies more than once, to wine tasting.
“Savor the flavor of each case you read,” LawProfBlawg writes. “You’ll note different flavors. And just like with wine, some have a smooth finish, while others do not.”
Sources: Above The Law, Law School Toolbox, Julie Novkov

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