Tag Archives: reading cases

New Law Student Guide to the First Weeks of Class

Images courtesy of nuttakit at freeditigalphotos.net

Images courtesy of nuttakit at freeditigalphotos.net

It’s that time of year when law schools are preparing to welcome new students to Orientation and their first semester of classes. As a new law student, you have probably received numerous communications from your law school, providing a variety of instructions regarding your 1L year. You may have read some books which describe the law school experience, and you may have current or former law students giving you advice. There are a wealth of articles on this blog to help you during your transition to law school, but I thought that I would highlight some that may be particularly useful in the first few weeks. Here they are:

First, a couple of articles explaining one of the common approaches to the law school classroom, Socratic Method:

Here are some articles about reading and briefing cases for law school:

Next, a couple of articles about taking notes in your law school classes:

Finally, here’s an article about how to create a good study schedule while in law school:

 

More posts about how to be a successful law student coming in the future. In the meantime, does anyone have any specific questions or concerns about starting law school? Feel free to put your questions in the comments section for this post.

Leave a comment

Filed under General, Pre-Law, Study Tips

A New Culture, a New Language: Welcome to Law School!

I’ve talked about this subject previously, but it bears repeating as new students are getting ready to head off to law school for the first time this month. The first weeks of law school can be intimidating for new law students. For many students, it can be like you’ve been dropped into a foreign country–one where you don’t speak the language, don’t really understand the culture, and really wish you could figure out what happened to your tour guide. This experience can be stressful, but remember you are not alone in the process–many law students have traveled the path before you, and there really are many resources (the equivalent of guide books, foreign language dictionaries, and those tour guides) to help you along the way.

Image courtesy of bplanet at freedigitalphotos.net.

Image courtesy of bplanet at freedigitalphotos.net.

So what makes law school so different? First, you will most likely find the culture of law school very different from what you’ve experienced in undergrad and graduate school programs. There are new expectations for professional behavior, and you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to your education. Many of your classes will be taught using Socratic method, with the professor guiding your learning by asking you questions rather than lecturing. If you are not prepared for class, you will quickly be left behind. Second, class assignments will require more time and effort than you have had to put into your studies in the past. And especially in the first several weeks of the semester, as you read course assignments, there will be many words you don’t understand; much of the law that you will study has a context that you won’t have learned yet.

Like learning a foreign language, learning the language of law will require significant time and effort during your years in law school. You will read cases multiple times, learning to “translate” each case into usable information for class and exam purposes. You will look up countless legal words and phrases in your law dictionary. You may create flashcards to help you memorize the key vocabulary and legal tests (the “grammar” of law), much as you approached taking Spanish, French, or Chinese in high school and college.

Although it really isn’t possible to learn most of the language of law until you are immersed in it during your 1L year, it is possible to develop some of the context for that language now, during the summer before you begin your life as a law student. Sometimes your law school will provide specific suggestions of things you should read prior to your 1L year—check with your law school’s Admissions staff or Academic Support professionals for additional guidance. As I’ve described previously, there are a number of books out there that provide good information about what to expect in law school, and many of those books provide some context for the legal language you will learn. There are also books you can read “for fun” and still learn some legal language and context. There are also some great websites, such as the Federal Judicial Center’s “Inside the Federal Courts” website, created to educate federal court employees but useful for incoming law students as well. Other state and federal court websites may provide additional helpful information.

So what types of information would be helpful to know before the first day of law school? Here’s a nonexclusive list of suggested topics to learn more about this summer:

(1) the differences between civil law and criminal law;

(2) the meaning of words and phrases such as “case law,” “common law,” and “statutory law”;

(3) the federal court system and federal appellate process;

(4) the state court system and state appellate process for the state in which your law school is located in;

(5) how the U.S. Supreme Court functions and who the current Supreme Court Justices are; and

(6) basic information about the types of law you will be studying during your first year of law school, which, depending on the law school, might include subjects such as Torts, Property Law, Civil Procedure, Contracts, Criminal Law, and Constitutional Law.

Remember, you don’t have to be a legal expert before you go to law school; you are just creating a context for what you will learn as a 1L. You will have your equivalent of “tour guides” in law school–your professors, law school administrators and staff, Academic Support professionals, and upper level students who have gone through what you are going through. But a little research before the first day will make you feel less like a tourist wandering in a foreign land.

Image courtesy of keerati at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of keerati at freedigitalphotos.net

Stay tuned for more advice for new law students in the coming weeks! We will explore a number of topics, including Socratic Method, law school grades, reading and briefing cases, and numerous other subjects of interest to incoming students.

Leave a comment

Filed under Pre-Law, Study Tips

What are Dicta?

Law school has started back again, and one of the common questions that law students have been asking is how to identify dicta (singular form dictum) in the cases they are reading. Black’s Law Dictionary defines dictum as “[a] statement of opinion or belief considered authoritative because of the dignity of the person making it.” In a judicial opinion, dicta are the statements made by the court about the law that were not necessary for the court to decide the case.

As a new law student it can be difficult to identify dicta at first because so much seems new about everything you are reading. As you gain experience reading cases, it will become easier to separate out the court’s necessary statements regarding the law from those that are dicta. In the meantime, here are a few tips to get you started:

(1) Not every case will have dicta—but when it does, what you are looking for are the places where the court is describing something that is not necessary to decide the case.

(2) Look for places where the court talks about the history of a legal concept. That discussion may help put the law in context (and, in fact, you may find it valuable in your studies for that very reason!), but the history of a statute or common law rule isn’t necessary to decide the issues in a particular case.

(3) Look for places where the court’s discussion of the law and facts does not address the issues raised in the case. If it does not address the issues, that discussion is not necessary to decide the case and is likely dicta.

(4) Look for places where the court is discussing a hypothetical situation. Maybe the court talks about some facts that are not actually the facts of the case, and discusses what would happen if the law was applied to those hypothetical facts—this is a really good example of dicta. For example, in the first few weeks of most Torts classes, law students read the case of Vosburg v. Putney, 50 N.W. 403 (Wis. 1891). In this case, the court held that the defendant was liable for the tort of battery because he kicked (or maybe nudged) the plaintiff’s leg. The facts of the case show that the incident took place in the classroom, after the teacher had called the class to order. The court talks about what would have happened if the kick had taken place on the playground instead of in the classroom. Because the kick did not take place on the playground, this discussion was not necessary to the court’s decision and any legal statements about the hypothetical are dicta.

(5) I always look for dicta last—if you identify the issue(s), holding, and rationale behind the court’s holding first, you will be able to more efficiently identify things that were not necessary to the court’s resolution of the issue(s).

Leave a comment

Filed under General, Study Tips

Reading Cases: A Short Explanation of Different Types of Judicial Opinions

This week we’ve spent some time exploring some tips for reading and briefing cases in law school. In many of the cases you will read, all of the judges in the case will agree with the court’s holding and reasoning. In some cases, however, the judges are not in agreement. A case where the judges have reached different conclusions regarding the holding and the reasoning will have multiple judicial opinions. Today’s post explores the various types of judicial opinions that may be written when the judges are not all in agreement. Click on the short animated video below for more information:

Leave a comment

Filed under General, Pre-Law, Study Tips

Key Components of a Case Brief

Now that we’ve explored how to approach reading cases in law school, let’s focus on what should be included in your case brief: the key components of the case.

The Parties: First, look at the preliminary information found above the case and ask: Who are the parties? One way to identify the parties is by their names. Thus, in the case Smith v. Jones, the parties would be “Smith” and “Jones.” But the parties are also given titles, based upon their roles in the case. At the trial level, parties are usually known as “plaintiff” and “defendant.” In an appellate case, the parties may be known as “appellant” and “appellee,” or “petitioner” and “respondent,” depending on the court. (At the trial level, the plaintiff is the party who brought the case into court. At the appellate level, the appellant or petitioner brought the case into court.) Your brief should note both the names of the parties and their roles in the case.

The Court: The preliminary information also tells you which court heard the case. Sometimes the court is a state court, and other times it is a federal court. It may be a supreme court, or an intermediate appellate court. Include the court that decided the case in your case brief.

The Citation: The preliminary information tells you where the case was published, in other words, the citation. The cases in your casebook were originally published in bound volumes known as reporters. The citation creates a quick way of finding that original version of the case. For example, one citation might be 347 U.S. 483. The case would be found in the United States Reporter, which publishes U.S. Supreme Court opinions. The volume number would be 347, and the first page of the case would be page 483. (Don’t panic if you don’t always know what the citation means at this point—you will learn a lot more about citations in your legal research and writing classes.)

The Date: The final important piece of preliminary information is the date, which is found in parentheses after the citation. It’s important to make note of the date that the case was decided. In many classes, you will trace how legal issues developed over time, and the dates will help you relate multiple cases to each other.

Now that we’ve covered the preliminary information, let’s take a look at the various components found in the text of the case.

Procedural History: The procedural history is the history of the case. Include in the procedural history (1) what courts the case has traveled through, (2) what happened in previous court proceedings, and (3) how the case ended up in the current court.

The Issues: One way to find the issues is to ask: “What are the big legal questions that the court is considering? What has to be resolved or answered?” Sometimes the court states explicitly what the issues are. The court may say something like, “On appeal, the appellant asks us to consider whether . . . ” Or, the court may say, “The first issue is whether . . . ” In other cases, the court may not be as explicit—you’ll have to dig a little deeper to identify the issues. Keep in mind that issues are related to the law. If you’re having a hard time figuring out what the issues are, you can often use the casebook’s Table of Contents, Chapter and Section headings, case introductions, and case notes (located after the case) to help identify the issues.

Facts: There are really two types of important facts: “necessary” facts and “context” facts. Necessary facts are facts that are legally relevant—in other words, facts that the court relied upon in resolving the case’s legal issues. In contrast, context facts are facts that aid our understanding of the necessary facts—they’re not essential to the court’s decision but give a more complete picture of what’s going on in the case. Not every fact mentioned in a case is necessary or provides context. Most cases also contain extra facts that can distract you from what’s really important in the case. This is why you should sift through the facts before creating your case brief.

The Holding: The holding is the answer to the question, “How did the court resolve the issue(s)?” In other words, it is the answer to the legal questions that were asked in the case. Sometimes courts will label something as the “holding” in the case. Be cautious about these types of labels. Often, what the court calls the “holding” is actually the judgment in the case—in other words, what the court did as a result of its holding.

The Reasoning: The most important component of your case brief is the court’s reasoning, or its rationale, for the holding. To determine what the court’s reasoning was, ask: “How did the court arrive at the holding? How did the court explain the answer to the legal questions asked in the case?” You can identify the court’s reasoning by looking for the places where the court is applying law (statutes, regulations, or other cases) to the facts. In your case brief, make note of the law that the court used to answer the legal question(s). Put this law into your own words rather than writing it out word for word—you will understand and remember it better in the future. After identifying the relevant law from the case, look closer at how the court applied that law to the facts. Were there particular facts that the court viewed as important to its analysis? Were there other facts that the court said were not important?

Sometimes the court also applies policies in their analysis of the law and facts. When a court considers policy arguments, it is weighing the potential effects on society of different approaches to the issues. If the court discusses policy arguments in its reasoning, you should note those policies and how the court applied them.

The Judgment: Finally, make note of the judgment in the case—in other words, what the court did as a result of the holding. The judgment refers to how the appellate court resolved the case on appeal, and it may provide instructions to the trial court. Look for words such as “affirmed,” “reversed,” or “reversed and remanded.”

1 Comment

Filed under General, Pre-Law, Study Tips

A 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases in Law School

Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday I explained what a case brief is and why case briefing helps you to be: (1) prepared for class; (2) organized and focused on the important law for legal writing assignments; and (3) prepared for later synthesis and outlining of course materials. The first step to briefing a case is reading the case. As we’ve talked about before, law school reading is generally very different from most students’ previous reading experiences. This is because the focus is on critical reading. Often, students are used to being able to read class assignments quickly, skimming to identify what’s important. In contrast, cases are very dense in terms of information, and they require focused reading and attention to detail to unpack everything that’s important. A quick read will leave you without important information that you’ll need for class and on the exam.

With that in mind, here is my 3-Step Approach to Reading Cases for Law School:

(1) Read the case. I know, I know. This seems obvious. But bear with me here—there is a method to my madness. The first time that you read a case, you should just read through it without taking any notes about what the case is about. It is during this first read-through that you should look up any legal terms you don’t understand and make notes to yourself about their meanings. One of the reasons why it takes so much time to read a case, especially in your first semester of law school, is because of the new legal language that may trip you up in your reading. When you come across legal words and phrases that you do not understand, you should stop, look them up, and make note of their definitions. Black’s Law Dictionary is a good resource for law students. You can access Black’s Law Dictionary on Westlaw, and it is also available in print form and as an app for iPhones and iPads.

(2) Read the case again, this time marking important points and taking some notes. Once you have read through the case once, start reading through the case a second time. It is at this point that you should begin to mark important parts of the case and take notes. Some students first underline important aspects of the case in pencil or pen and make notations in the margins of the case book. Visual learners often use highlighters—they may even use a different color to signal each part of the case.

You should also begin taking notes at this point—your notes will become your case brief. Tomorrow, I’ll explain more about what should be included in the case brief. Right now, I want to focus on the note-taking process though. Some students hand-write their case briefs, while others type them. Whichever form you choose to use, you want to make sure that these notes are organized and easy to read, as you’ll refer to them in class and as you begin synthesizing and outlining information in preparation for your exams.

(3) Reread the case yet again. After you’ve completed the process I described above, you’ll realize that there are some things about the case that you still do not understand. At this point, you should go back and reread the case yet again, focusing specifically on the things that you need to work through. You may reread some parts of the case multiple times, in fact. As you continue to work through the case, you will add to your Case Brief until it is completed.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll begin to explore what you should include in your case briefs. In the meantime, start reading!

Leave a comment

Filed under General, Pre-Law, Study Tips