How to Read a Case -- A Guide For New Law Students:
Some of you may recall my post a few months ago about wanting to create a free online guide for new law students to help them navigate their way through law school. I didn't get around to writing it this summer, but I have decided to post a short excerpt I did write a while back that I hope will some day be a part of the guide.

  The new document is How to Read a Judicial Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students (7 pages, .pdf). Here is the intro:
  This essay is designed to help entering law students understand how to read cases for class. It explains what judicial opinions are, how they are structured, and what you should look for when you read them. Part I explains the various ingredients found in a typical judicial opinion, and is the most essential section of the essay. Part II discusses what you should look for when you read an opinion for class. Part III concludes with a brief discussion of why law schools use the case method.
  I wrote the first draft of this in 2002, and distributed it to the students in my first-year criminal law class. Since then, legal writing instructors at a few schools have found out about it and distributed it to their first-year students. I'm not sure if students have found it useful, but in case they have I wanted to distribute it as widely as I could.

  Finally, if readers have any thoughts on how I could improve, change, shorten, or expand the document, please leave them in the comment thread. I'm not sure I'll have time to rework the document soon, but I would like to improve on the current version in the future. Thanks!
Mike Dimino (mail):
The essay is quite nice, and you've done a great service for entering law students. Perhaps you will find these suggestions helpful:

1. In the caption section, consider making mention of in rem cases and criminal cases that refer to the state as the "People." (A similar addition could be made at the top of page 3.)

2. For the same reason that concurrences and dissents should be read carefully, so should footnotes. Very often they will be discussed in class where they are excerpted in the casebook.

3. I think your essay would benefit greatly from a short discussion of the distinction between concurrences in the result/judgment and "regular" concurrences. This ties in with the importance of the lesson of vote-counting, but students should understand that (usually, at least with the modern Supreme Court), Justices signing concurrences signed onto the majority opinion, while Justices writing a concurrence in the judgment did not.

4. Finally, you might want to suggest that after students understand the holding of a case, they apply that holding to the facts of that very case. This underscores that courts face distinct tasks in deciding cases: developing the correct rule of law and applying it. It might also teach students that "analysis" is an important part of the IRAC exam (and opinion-writing) formula.
8.8.2005 11:21pm
Andrew E. Adel:
I liked the essay. If I had to make one suggestion, it would be to look over the essay with an eye to spotting the occasionally patronizing tone. I am thinking in particular of the sentence, "Other cases interpret statutes, which is a fancy name for written laws passed by legislative bodies such as Congress." Um, fancy? Your essay is directed toward college graduates, not second-graders.
8.9.2005 2:12am
Thanks, Andrew, that's a fair point. I think I was writing that essay in a voice that was directed to myself as an entering law student. I was completely clueless, and remember being lost at first by references to these mysterious "statutes." It may be that most entering law students have a better background than I did.
8.9.2005 2:46am
Craig Oren (mail):

I liked the piece. I actually liked the way you referred to statutes. The backgrounds of our students are quite varied, and many may not know what seems elementary to use. Congrats and thanks for putting this together.
8.9.2005 10:15am
NR (mail):
Great essay. For more on this subject, I highly recommend Reading Like a Lawyer, by Ruth McKinney at Carolina Law (complimentary professor copies available).
8.9.2005 10:44am
I should start out by saying that I am not a lawyer and have never been to law school. With that said I think the essay is very good and I especially liked the tone. The only suggestions I would make are these:

When there is a legal term that I don't know the meaning to or how to pronounce I go to for the simple fact that it gives me an actual pronunciation of the term as opposed to the dictionary pronunciation and it gives very good definitions of the terms. You might want to think about using the actual pronunciation of the terms in your essay instead of a comment like "appellee (accent on the last syllable, by the way)". I looked up "appellee" on and noticed that there is no actual pronunciation for the word so I for my example I am going to use the term stare decisis. The formatting here is different than the website and I have excluded the definition. Here is the example:
stare decisis : (stah-ree duh-sigh-sis)

Whenever I read court decisions the one spot that I have had some trouble with is determining the "Test" that the decision has. Now, this might be considered the holding but I remember reading some cases that actually spoke to the test in such and such a case. If in fact the "test" and the "holding" are the same I apologize in advance. I would also like to apologize for not having any specific examples of a "test" for you but I hope that you understand what I am trying to convey.

Thank You.
8.9.2005 10:59am
Keith Hilzendeger (mail):
Don't change anything. Beginning law school is intimidating enough - collge gradudates (and even law school graduates) deserve a simple and clear explanation when they first confront a process they'll have to deploy thousands of times over the course of their careers. This information may be practically be encoded in our DNA after a month or a year or a decade of doing it, but it's not so obvious for the novice.
8.9.2005 1:35pm

I would include a bit more (a few sentences or a paragraph) about the lawyer's ability to identify stated reasons given for by judges for their decisions in cases, and unstated reasons. And accompanying this, why it is important to be able to recognize what is *really* going on in a case and distinguish it from the formalistic dressing that sometimes accompanies decisions that do not in fact have have a firm basis in conventional legal materials. An important lesson of the first year of law school is the fallibility and sometime lack of candor of judges, and it is part of the critical thinking skills of any lawyer to recognize these. It has been said before that regardless of one's preferred jurisprudence, every lawyer in practice must be a bit of a legal realist.
8.9.2005 3:24pm
Dustin (mail) (www):
Thank you, sir - I'm starting 1L at SMU next week, and found this essay extremely helpful. I will keep an eye out for more material in the future (is that too broad a hint?).

8.9.2005 4:15pm
42USC1983 (mail):
This is very good. I didn't see anything about case posture, though, i.e., how the case ended up at the reviewing court. I think this needs to be said: The case posture is something you don't really need to worry about, but it's something professors like to trip you up with. Thus, if the case is an action for assumsit (sp?), the prof might say, "So, what's assumsit mean?" Learning the case posture is important - since appellate procedure is part of the langugae of the law. But it's something that the student should be concerned with only after understanding the facts/issue/analysis.
8.9.2005 8:15pm
amylr (mail):

First off, nice job on this guide. I really wish that I had had this guide last year when I was a 1L. I think it would have saved me some pain and head scratching. One thing that I would consider adding is for part II in What to Look for When You Read a Case is to also think of major cases that you have already read and discussed in class. Some of our professors (especially in Civ Pro) liked to dredge up a major case from earlier and ask the student on the hot seat how the court in this case would have ruled in that case (or vice versa).

Thanks again for this useful tool--I intend on sharing it with some new 1Ls.
8.10.2005 12:53am
Ssuan Freiman (mail):
Excellent. You might add what en banc is.

I find it helpful to read the facts, then skip to the end to find out who won. That helps me focus on the judge's reasoning without getting side-tracked by discussion of alternatives.
8.10.2005 1:22am