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Law Students Can't Read Cases Either

Case Sigh.

On Friday, we talked about the perception, revealed at a roundtable discussion among law school deans, that law students were not learning/not being properly taught effective legal writing

Yesterday, on the Law School Academic Support Blog, Amy Jarmon, Assistant Dean for Academic Success Programs at Texas Tech Law School (sorry about the game Saturday, Dean Jarmon; Hook 'Em!), threw up a blurb about the influx of panicked 1Ls freaking out about how long they're spending reading and briefing cases for class.

I think it's perfectly legit for 1Ls, a month into their law school experience, to be a little thrown by the whole "casebook method" of teaching. Many of their concerns, Jarmon says, "are linked to not understanding why we read cases and how they fit into overall learning and skills development." Again, makes sense.

Jarmon reproduces four tidbits of advice that she gives to these students (below, verbatim):

  • All cases are not equal in importance.  Some cases are read for historical background only - the law will change by the last case on a subtopic.  Some cases are packed full of important essentials such as rules, policies, jurisdictional differences, important points of reasoning.  Some cases are included for just one smaller essential: a definition or an exception.
  • Cases need to be read at two levels. What are the important aspects to understand about the individual case itself? This level of reading focuses on the parts within a case and the specifics one needs to understand the case.  How does the case fit into a series of cases, into the subtopic, and into the topic?  This level of reading focuses on the synthesis of the case into the larger body of law that one is learning. 
  • Cases are a starting point in the study of law rather than an ending point. Cases show us how judges think about the law.  Cases teach us how to extrapolate the most important aspects from the full opinion.  Cases provide us with "tools" for our toolkit so we can solve new legal problems.  Cases become illustrations in outlines rather than the basis of outlines.  Professors will not ask one to "recite everything you know about Case X" on their exams.
  • Cases are essential to the practice of law.  Lawyers read and analyze cases every day.  They are constantly searching for precedents that relate to their clients' cases.  Thus, the time spent in law school on reading and briefing is not merely an "ivory tower" exercise.  Students who become skilled at these tasks are making an investment in their future expertise.  Students who use canned briefs or headnotes as substitutes for these tasks ultimately shortchange their professional growth.

I worry a bit about the last two pieces of advice. Indulge my stream of consciousness here. Is it true that, for purposes of law school, as opposed to the practice of law, cases are only a starting point? If it is true, is there a disconnect between the last two points? How does all of this play if you're not going to be a litigator?

I don't have answers to these questions, but welcome your thoughts in the comments. I look forward to finding a post somewhere in the blogosphere criticizing the ability of law students or recent graduates to do simple math, and then the trifecta will be complete.

Posted by Eric Lipman on September 21, 2010 at 11:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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