To get good grades, do you have to read the cases? How much should I use law school subject outlines? These are questions that many law students wonder.
Curious about these questions, I did an informal poll among my friends on law review, other law students, and successful attorneys. Please note, this survey is about as unscientific as it gets, but the results might still be of some value as you consider your own situation.
First, students with grade in the top 1-3% of our class consistently read all the assigned cases, and often used outlines, study aids, or hornbooks when they didn’t understand an area.
Above Average Law Students
Law students who did above average often did not read all the cases. Instead, they adopted a strategy that worked for their lifestyle or a particular class. In particular, they focused on the goal of knowing the material, using law outlines or study aids to learn some courses rather than reading all the cases.
The Problem of Focusing Solely on Cases
Some students “miss the forest for the trees.” That is, some students focus so much on the cases, they forget that the cases are merely vehicles to learn legal doctrines. Students may understand the blackletter law in cases, but not understand how each rule fits into the larger context of the legal doctrine.
Rather than merely reading cases, many successful students review an outline first. This outline explains the basic legal concepts and how they fit together. Once the student has an understanding of the general concepts, reading cases puts “meat on the bones,” as they say. In other words, the cases provide illustrations of the concepts that the law student already generally understands. The cases also provide more details for the concepts.
The point here is that students who focus on understanding the legal subjects tend to do better than those who merely read the cases.
Why Law Students Skip Reading Cases
Law students often have interruptions in their law school education. These interruptions might be from illness, family or friend relationships, a job, or self-initiated breaks for mental sanity. Whatever the reason, time is limited so law students may have to choose between reading all the cases for class or reading only some of the cases and reading some outlines.
How to Skip Cases
If you are going to skip some cases, here are some things to consider.
1. You can still get an “A” grade if you skip cases—its been done many times—but your odds of getting an “A” grade are probably reduced. Still, skipping cases and gaining some extra time might be smarter for you when considering the broader issues of your life.
2. Do not skip cases in a course if the exam in that course will require knowledge of many case names. If you haven’t read the cases, you may have a hard time learning the case names later and remembering the facts or concepts of the cases. Fortunately, final exams rarely require knowledge of many case names (with exceptions for Criminal Procedure and a few other classes). Normally, if law students need to know the names of cases, law students only need to know a few case names. For example, you will need to know International Shoe in Civil Procedure.
3. Think about what information you will need in each course’s final exam. If you primarily need to know the blackletter law, you can skip through some cases and highlight the blackletter law for later. If you don’t understand the blackletter law, read more of the case so you do understand it.
If you are in a rules-based course, like Civil Procedure or Tax, make sure you understand the rules and how they apply. You may be able to skip other stuff in a case.
4. Pay attention to the casebook’s table of contents. From this, law students can often determine the main concept in a case. If law students don’t have time to read the entire case, they can at least review a study aid explaining the concept before arriving at class.
5. If you skip a case, read a summary of it in a law school study aid or outline, so at least you know the main points.
6. Sometimes, the law school professor teaches from a hornbook rather than the casebook. In these rare situations, you are probably better off buying the hornbook and skipping the casebook. How do you know what a professor does? Talk to upper-level law students who have taken the course.
7. Sometimes a law school professor tells you everything you need to know for the exam during his lectures. In fact, you may not have to read the casebook at all. I had one class like this; I read only three cases, listened to Sum & Substance, took excellent notes in class, and received an “A” grade. I’m not recommending you do this for all your classes, but for me, it worked for this class, and the time I saved allowed me to spend more time reading cases and outlines for other classes.
These tips are not intended to encourage law students to skip their assigned law school readings. Rather, these tips are a part of a much broader strategy in law school: since you have limited time, focus on what counts, learning the best way for your individual style, even if it isn’t the standard approach.
Find the methods of learning that work best for you, whether it is focusing on study aids or cases, study groups or studying alone, studying 16 hours a day or 8 hours a day, etc. Also, find the methods of learning that work best for the final exam in each of your classes—your approach to each class should be customized to that class’s final exam.