Reading and Briefing Cases in Law School

In my first semester of law school, a very smart friend came to visit me for a few days. I handed her a case from my legal writing problem set and asked her to read the case. She could barely make any of it out. I felt significantly better about myself, for I had been wondering if I had forgotten how to read.

I think this feeling is common in the first few weeks or months of law school. Reading the law for the first time can be disorienting for several reasons, including the foreign terminology, the new structure of the cases, and the lack of context. Translating the written text into something that makes sense and then being able to communicate that material orally in class is a difficult skill to master for new law students.

If reading and briefing cases are skills that a student would like to strengthen, I recommend Ruth Ann McKinney’s book Reading Like a Lawyer: Time-Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert. The book starts with the premise that being an “expert reader” is a pre-requisite to excelling in law school and in the practice of law. The book goes on to tackle both reading and briefing cases with concrete strategies for both.

One strength of the book is that it provides context for a new law student. It explains, for instance, concepts like deductive reasoning (based on the classical syllogism and “the heart and soul of clear legal thinking,” McKinney notes) and reasoning by analogy (comparing similarities to draw conclusions). McKinney gives a roadmap to a student of what the student is expected to do when studying the law.

Another strength is that the book, although packed with useful and easy-to-implement strategies, is a short read. I also like that the book provides guidance on time management, which is important when considering the volume of reading required in law school.

Finally, for me, as a legal writing professor, I especially appreciate McKinney’s definitions of the major points a student must draw from a case. She defines what a holding is and how a holding differs from a court’s reasoning. In legal writing, a student must be able to articulate the holding and the court’s reasoning or rationale to explain the rules of law and to draw analogies.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Joseph Hylton

    I agree with Prof. Greipp the skills involved in reading and briefing legal cases are critical for success in law school and in the profession.

    I would add, however, that the ability to read and brief statutes is also quite important. My impression as a teacher of statute-based upper level cases is that law students finish the first year of law school far more skilled in reading cases than statutes.

    Of course, given the “common law” nature of most first year courses, this is understandable. We probably need to do more than we currently do in upper level courses to teach the comparably important skill of reading and briefing statutes.

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