The long and short of it is that many people beginning law school don’t have existing strategies to teach themselves something from written sources. And that’s okay, because that is a skill that can be learned and practiced and developed fairly easily in the grand scheme of all things law school.
This post is intended to provide new law students with a process to begin that journey in the domain of law.
Spend a few seconds categorizing the thing you’re reading.
- Is it a judicial opinion?
- Is it a statute?
- Is it an explanatory section of the casebook?
- Is it a treatise or encyclopedia article?
- Is it a hypothetical problem to be solved?
- Is it a model rule offered to the world at large for adoption such as a restatement or the uniform commercial code?
- Is it something else altogether?
Granted, if you’re working through a homework assignment in a casebook, it’s entirely possible you will hit each and every one of those different things in a single assignment. But other times, you’ll be asked to focus on one thing or another and can practice your strategies for that type of material.
Is there a special attribute based on the document’s category that will guide you to a starting point other than the first word?
For example, if you’re reading a judicial opinion, it would probably be a good idea to jump to the end of the opinion and review the holding before you spend a bunch of time figuring out the briefing parts.
Reading a judicial opinion is not a leisurely journey through a whodunit mystery where you want to be surprised at the end. Generally speaking, if you’re surprised when you get to the end of a judicial opinion, something has gone very wrong either on the author’s end or the reader’s end or both.
If you’re reading a statute, you probably want to spend a couple of minutes surveying the table of contents for the relevant portion of the code to see where the provision lives in the overall structure of the statutes pertaining to that topic area.
Reading statutes also requires a lot of cross-referencing since provision can and do incorporate by reference the contents of other provisions.
Expository reference material
If you’re reading an explanatory section of a casebook or a treatise segment, you might want to start at the beginning and plan to focus on building your vocabulary and extracting a skeletal outline of the topic area that you can collate future case briefs and worked out hypotheticals into for illustrating how rules work in different factual contexts.
If it’s a model rule, you might want to treat it like a statute and spend a little time seeing how the authors’ thought this particular rule fit into the overarching structure of the area of law.
Hypotheticals or Practice Problems
If it’s a hypothetical problem, you might want to jump to the last sentence or paragraph and discover the “call of” the question you’re being asked to answer by working through the application of rules to these facts.
Survey the surrounding context of the reading task and materials you’re using to formulate questions and establish your purpose in reading the thing you’ve categorized and identified specialized reading strategies for.
Please accept my assurances here that a purpose in reading of “because my professor told me too” is a missed opportunity and a waste of your time and energy. Let me offer a few templates for reading purposes that might help as you’re figuring out how to set a purpose for reading:
- I am reading this case to figure out how jurisdiction Y treats [legal concept] differently than jurisdiction X.
- I am reading this statute to see what the legislature mandates as the basic requirements of [legal concept].
- I am reading this explainer on [legal concept] to learn key vocabulary and the basic structure of the concept.
- I am reading this model rule and its comments to better understand some of the policy considerations that are implicated by framing different rules for [legal concept].
- I am using these hypotheticals/practice problems to better understand how the rules for [legal concept] lead to different outcomes and what key facts are to produce those different outcomes.
As you can see, each of the offered templates includes the phrase [legal concept]. To determine the relevant [legal concept], you’ll use your course syllabus, your instructor’s introductory lecture, email, or CMS explanation, and the TOC for your case book to help you figure out what words belong in the space [legal concept] in the templates.
For example, in Torts your purpose would be something like, “I am reading Wagner v. State to see how Utah treats [intent in tortious battery] differently than Colorado did in White v. Muniz.” You have to collate several different pieces of information in order to identify that purpose. The case names and jurisdictions come from the citations/heading in the casebook while the concept “intent in tortious battery” was pulled together by noting these two cases are both in the section “Taking a closer look at ‘Intent’” within the section on “Battery” in the unit for “Intentional Torts” (See Dobbs et. Al TORTS AND COMPENSATION).
In your contracts class, your purpose for reading might be something like, “I am reading Hamer v. Sidway to better understand how family relationships affect the application of [consideration as a basis of contractual enforcement].” This hypothetical purpose is pulled together from the casebook’s Table of Contents since the case comes immediately after the section heading “Family Contracts” within the section “Consideration as a Basis of Enforcement.” (See Farnsworth et. Al. CONTRACTS CASES AND MATERIALS).
PLEASE NOTE: It’s okay if the purpose you establish prior to reading turns out to be wrong and you realize the case stands for something else entirely over the course of reading, or attending class, or outlining. This is complex work and as you learn more your understanding of early content will evolve and grow and gain nuance.
After surveying and establishing a purpose, articulate a few questions that you can reasonably expect to answer with this reading material.
Pulling from the torts example above your questions might look like:
- What is the definition of intent?
- What is the definition of battery?
- What are the elements of battery?
- Do different jurisdictions have different definitions for intent and battery?
- What kind of facts are necessary to establish intent?
- What kind of facts are necessary to establish battery?
Now it’s time to begin reading. As you read, try to anticipate what is going to happen next and hypothesize what the answers to the questions you’ve posed are. As you read, you’ll either be confirming your hypothesis or disputing it. Both are valuable experiences for learning.
If your postulated answer is confirmed as being correct, then your brain is ready to incorporate this knowledge into your internal schema.
If your postulated answer is disputed, then your schema is undergoing revision, which will also help your brain recall the information in the future.
While it is possible to do all of these steps internally, for the first few weeks, you might want to write out your questions and the answers you discover. These notes, in combination with the case briefs you generate for each case you read will come together to form much of the content in your outlines and attack sheets as you begin preparing for final exams.
Once you’ve completed reading the document, assignment, provision, or whatever, take a few minutes to review and to make sure you answered all the questions generated before you began reading. If you didn’t answer a question, spend some time analyzing whether it was left unanswered because it was a flawed question due to lack of prior knowledge, or if you simply lost track or attention while reading.
Finally, after you’ve categorized the document, selected your strategies, established a purpose, set questions to answer, and reviewed whether you accomplished the tasks you set for yourself by setting your purpose and framing questions, spend a couple of minutes writing down the key takeaways you can recall from what you just read.
Eighth: Transition from reading to class discussion
Part of the process described above suggested that you frame questions to attempt to answer from the reading assignments, but it’s entirely possible that you’ll get to the end of the reading assignment without *feeling* like you’ve understood what you just read. To the best of your ability, identify the thing you are feeling least secure in your understanding of and write out the questions you have. When you go to your class, use those questions to help you stay in the moment of class and try to get them answered** before the class ends.
**NOT LITERALLY, don’t raise your hand and go down your laundry list of questions demanding answers from your professor in class.**
Instead, use your powers of observation and inference to follow the class conversation and find the answers from that conversation. Then, if after class and your good-faith attempt at self-help in finding the answers in secondary sources doesn’t work, go to your professor’s office hours and ask some of those questions.
In the next post, I’ll share some information about creating case briefs to help distill the essential pieces of information you need to retain from the judicial opinions you read.
This post was an amalgamation of a dozen of years of reading, talking, and learning about the skill of reading as applied to the legal domain, so any omissions are probably my faulty memory and not an attempt to omit a colleague’s valuable contribution to my knowledge. I will update this list to rectify my mistakes as I discover them.
- Reading Like a Lawyer by Ruth Ann McKinney (Amazon affiliate link)
- Leah Christensen’s works
- Legal Reading and Success in Law School: An Empirical Study
- The Paradox of Legal Expertise: A Study of Experts and Novices Reading the Law
- “One-L of a Year: How to Maximize Your Success in Law School” (Amazon affiliate link)
- Learning Outside the Box: A Handbook for Law Students Who Learn Differently (Amazon affiliate link)
- How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler (Amazon affiliate link)
- SQRRR — a reading method
- “How to read a legal opinion: A guide for new law students” by Orin Kerr
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[…] a case (aka a judicial opinion or legal opinion), and as mentioned in the previous post, “Reading strategies for law students” some people are able to do the work needed entirely in their heads. But until you are secure […]