Why You Should (Probably) Read the Cases in Law School

BooksNow that you’ve been in law school for a while, you’re probably wondering if it wouldn’t be easier to just learn law from a hornbook, or a commercial outline. Isn’t reading cases a total waste of time?

Here’s some sage advice from my law school friend:

What I learned too late: You will never get as much from commercial outlines as you will get from reading the opinions and briefing cases yourself.

My Friend’s Argument for Why You Should Read the Cases Yourself

Reading the opinions and briefing the cases yourself teaches you the questions that the judges asked in order to decide the holding.

I had little time, I felt, and rushed to read cases and barely got it. I was drowning always. So I relied on commercial outlines and frankly they were disembodied and had no significance because sometimes I hadn’t read the actual case closely enough.

Reading the opinion or the issues/questions resolved or the process behind the decision teaches you how to approach questions that you encounter on the exam. It teaches you a way of thinking. And I thought the outline was going to be something I could memorize and then apply.

In any case, what I learned after making too many mistakes was that a commercial outline is useful after you have briefed cases yourself. You can add anything you might have missed and look back at the case to see the supports for the point that you missed.

Commercial outlines are like the “answer code” to look at AFTER you have done a practice problem!

You know when you do math homework that writing down the answer from the answer key IS NOT GOING TO HELP YOU.

So when you do your law homework, you know that you need to practice engaging with the material.

Excellent points, yes?

Why I Think You Should Read the Cases (Most of the Time)

Expanding on my friend’s insights, here are a few more reasons you should generally read the cases you’re assigned:

  • You need to be fluent in legalese. To do well on an exam, or write a convincing brief as a lawyer, you need to become fluent in the language of the law, which, although it bears a passing resemblance to standard English, has its own vocabulary, rhythms, and conventions. Reading cases trains your brain to recognize the patterns of legal writing, and primes it to be able to reproduce these patterns on command. The more cases you read, the more familiar you’ll become with the language, and the faster and easier your reading will become. Skip this step, and you’ll find yourself struggling with legal research and writing even after you start practicing as an attorney.
  • Working with cases teaches you how courts function. The first time you read a federal appellate case, you’re likely to have no sense of how the decisionmaking in this court relates to decisions made in any other court. After you read ten appellate cases, and see that every single opinion says that issues of law are reviewed de novo, you’ll have a better understanding of the roles of the trial court and the appellate court, and how they relate to one another. Federalism makes the U.S. judicial system incredibly complicated, and to really understand how this complexity plays out, you have to get your hands dirty. Just looking at a chart of the different state and federal courts isn’t going to work.
  • Lawyers have to read cases, too. If you think things are bad in law school, consider what’s going to happen in practice, when the cases you read are unedited! Your casebook versions have been cut to the most salient sections, but real lawyers have to read entire opinions, which might be ten times as long. Acquiring the ability to rapidly review cases is critical for success as a lawyer. Yes, lawyers use hornbooks (a fancy name for commercial outlines), but it’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself printing out and highlighting real cases, too. Better to develop these skills now.
  • Class is less stressful when you’ve done the reading. This is no minor point, because it’s hard to focus on the class discussion when you’re nervous about being cold called. You might still be nervous if you’re prepared, but being unprepared adds another layer of unpleasantness to the whole experience. For me at least, avoiding the stress of being called on when I hadn’t done the reading was highly motivating!
Is It Ever Okay Not to Do the Reading?

Despite your best efforts, you’re probably going to have to make a choice at some point between doing the reading for a class and doing something else that’s important. Although I think you should generally try to get your reading done, there are situations where something else should take priority. These include, but are not limited to:

  • You have a graded assignment due. If it’s a choice between doing a good job on something that’s graded, and being fully prepared for class, skip the reading. You can always catch up later.
  • You’re spending so much time reading cases that you don’t have any clue what you’re supposed to be learning in the class. If you can’t see the forest for the trees, that’s a serious problem. Yes, reading the cases is important, but it’s not sufficient. You have to understand the larger picture, or you’re not going to be able to apply the law to new problems, which is the point of this entire exercise. There’s no gold star awarded for reading every case, so you’ve got to strike a balance between doing your reading and actually learning the material. If learning the class material means you don’t finish reading every single case, so be it.
  • The reading load is truly exorbitant. I had a Con Law professor who assigned an average of 50 pages or so per class. In a Torts class, this would have been a heavy, but feasible, reading load. With dense Con Law cases, it was completely impossible, so, as far as I could tell, no one did it. I can’t really recommend this course of action to you, but it might be your best option in a really extreme situation. You’ll just have to get a few good outlines (commercial and from prior students), skim the cases when you can, and take your chances on the exam.
But This is SO Boring!

Reading cases can be really boring, which is why it’s hard to do. I can’t make things more exciting, but I do have a couple of suggestions.

First, try to pretend that you’re interested in what you’re reading. Even if the opinion is super dull, think about what the issues are. Why would anyone care about this case coming out one way versus another? If you can make the legal reasoning more concrete (“The defendant wants the Court to hold that there’s no duty of care between X and Y, so that he won’t be liable for the damage from the exploding soda bottle.”), it’ll be more interesting.

Conveniently, if you act more interested, you’re likely to feel more interested. Act the way you want to feel.

Second, try to get the backstory. Most of the cases you read in law school are appellate cases, which means all the juicy facts are edited out. If you’re someone who likes a good yarn (and who’s not?), it’s interesting to read the story behind the legal theory, which these books can provide.

The Bottom Line

In the end, learning the law through cases is inefficient, no doubt. But you’re developing other important skills, so it’s not the waste of time it can appear to be.

Hey, why are you still reading this? Go get your casebook and get to work!

Read On:

If you insist on procrastinating, check out these articles on surviving law school:

Return to Surviving Law School 101.

Have tips on making case reading more entertaining? Leave questions in the comments!
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  1. Great post! I’ve been following for about a month now and just wanted to take the second to say I enjoy reading everything you post! Thank you!

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  1. […] are structured, how certain terms of art are used, and so on. Even if it’s a time-consuming drag, do the reading initially. You’ll thank me […]

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