Taking an Intentional Approach to Reading in Law School

Image courtesy of Surachai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Surachai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Here is a common scenario in law school: Classes are over for the day, and you head to the law school library to get started on your assigned reading for tomorrow. You set down with the casebook and pull out the class syllabus to find out what you need to read. Next to tomorrow’s date, the syllabus states, “Read Casebook pp. 243-97.” You open the casebook to page 243 and begin to read, highlighting as you go and jotting a few notes in the margin. Two or three hours later you repeat this process with the next class’s assignment, and then again with your third class. You go into class the next day having read the assigned readings but not remembering exactly what you read and why you’ve read it (beyond the fear of being unprepared if you are called on in class!).

So what is the problem with this scenario? Law students are often not intentional in how they prepare for class. Don’t get me wrong—you may be doing the assigned reading and make some effort to brief the cases for class (even if briefing only involves highlighting and making notes in the margins). But you may not be thinking about why you are reading the assignment. Instead, you are just trying to get assignments done so that you can cross them off your list and move on to the next thing. But when you approach your reading in this way you are not receiving the full benefit of your efforts. You may not see the connections between cases you’ve read on different days, and you may not anticipate the types of questions your professor will ask during class. You haven’t started the process of synthesizing material to make outlining more productive and efficient in the future.

A better approach to reading is to make intentional choices about how you read and how you connect each reading assignment to what came before and what will come after. Here are some suggestions for how you can take an intentional approach to your law school reading:

  • Identify the legal topic prior to doing the reading assignment. Look for clues in the Course Syllabus, the casebook Table of Contents, and any headings that come before the cases. Ask yourself: are you starting a new topic in this reading, or is this a continuation of a topic that you’ve previously explored in other readings? The answer to this question can start to create a context for the case.
  • Ask yourself as you read: Why this case now? Situate each case in the context of what came before and what may be coming after it. If it’s the first assignment for a new topic, the cases may be setting out the foundational rules for that new legal issue. If the previous reading has already set out those rules, you want to ask how this new case relates to that earlier reading—in other words, does it provide a definition or other further explanation of one of the elements of a legal test? Does it set up a competing rule, such as a minority jurisdiction approach to that issue? Maybe the new case introduces an exception to the general rule. Or it may demonstrate how competing public policy considerations affect a court’s application of the rule. The casebook editors were very deliberate about why they chose that particular case for inclusion in their book, and they often leave clues regarding their motives. Headings, subheadings, introductory paragraphs and even notes after cases can help you determine why you’re reading this particular case.
  • Make a few quick notes about any relationships you see among cases in the reading. Professors often ask students to compare different cases that they’ve read, or explain why the outcomes in two cases are different. If you’ve already started thinking about the relationships between those cases, you will be able to anticipate those types of questions. This type of notes will also be helpful later, once your class has finished covering that particular legal issue and you sit down to start working on that part of your outline. Your notes will help you organize your outline so that the relationships between the cases (more particularly, the relationships between the legal rules and explanations of those rules explored in those cases) are the main focus.

Taking an intentional approach to each day’s reading helps you to get more out of the cases. Your reading will more effectively prepare you for class discussions, and you will also have a stronger foundation for outlining and studying for exams.

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