How do I speed-read cases in law school?
It is imperative to read cases and properly prepare for class. Ideally, you would be able to read every word of every case closely and analytically. But sometimes you will not have time. Life, and other law school activities get in the way. And you will still want to effectively prepare for class (rather than not reading at all!).
In these instances, you should have a few objectives when you read cases. Your objectives should be to know the cases well enough so that
- you can follow along in class,
- you can provide a meaningful response if called on, and
- you understand the main point of the case.
If you accomplish these goals, then you should be ready for class. Remember that it is not important to memorize the facts of all your cases since hardly any professors test on the details of cases. And most professors will not ask you to recite a case name. (Exceptions include foundational legal cases—but there may be only 5–7 of these per class!)
Understand Why You Are Reading the Case
While it may be tempting to jump right into the material, it is important to first understand why you are reading the assigned case. Reviewing the table of contents or your professor’s syllabus should be your first step in reading a case. This will help you understand how each case fits into the larger picture and what you should take away from the case.
A quick, 30-second review of the table of contents will teach you that the purpose of Tuberville v. Savage is to understand the intentional tort of assault.
Read a case brief
A case brief will take very little time to read and it will summarize all the important points such as:
- The issue that the court is resolving
- The rule of law
- The court’s analysis
- The holding
This will provide you with everything you need to look for in the case.
So, case briefs can quickly help you understand the IRAC (issue, rule, analysis, and conclusion) in every case, which—for longer cases and/or cases with convoluted language especially—can dramatically cut down on your reading time while simultaneously increasing your comprehension. Case briefs specifically keyed to your textbook are available for sale, or you can generally find free case briefs online.
Reviewing a case brief ensures that you are focusing on the most important portions of the case.
Quickly Read the Case
Now you have a solid foundation (i.e., you understand why you are reading the case) and can easily identify the relevant parts.
In the above example, the issue is in green, the rule is in orange, the application/reasoning is in purple, and the holding is in blue. This is a briefing method called book briefing, and it is helpful for this demonstration (see separate part of the course for more information on this). However, we recommend taking very brief notes in the margins of your pages (e.g., write “I” for issue in the margin next to the issue), as opposed to memorizing and switching highlighters or taking lengthy notes on cases to prepare for class.
Note that reading cases closely is important and in some instances you may want to write case briefs if you find it helpful. (Do what works for you!) It is especially important now as some professors are complaining that students’ over-reliance on case briefs causes them to misread the facts on exams. Close analytical reading is one of the hallmarks of being a good lawyer! So don’t try to speed through all of your cases. But on the other hand, you will often find yourself short on time. And the last thing you want to do is not read for class! So oftentimes, an efficient approach outlined above is going to be the way you effectively prepare for class while still prioritizing other activities (outlining, learning the law, practice problems, legal writing assignments, homework, etc.).
Tips for Reading Cases
The following are a few things to keep in mind when trying to read cases efficiently in law school:
1. Read a case the day you cover it in class (or the night before).
Some students get in the bad habit of prereading cases over the weekend. The problem with prereading cases is that, with the amount of cases you are assigned, you will likely forget the case by the time you get to class!
It is a much better idea to read the cases as close to class as possible. So, read the assigned cases the day before class or even the day of class.
2. Don’t get hung up on every vocabulary word, procedural history, etc.
You do not have to look up every word you don’t know. There are some archaic words you will never see again in cases and they are not worth your time and energy to investigate. If you get the gist of the case, that is often enough. By the same token, unless you are in a procedural class (like Civil Procedure), the procedural portion of the case—e.g., what happened in the lower courts—is almost always irrelevant. Yes, it may be talked about in class (or may not), but it will likely not matter for exam purposes.
3. Use book-briefing as an effective way to closely read the cases.
Students find different strategies helpful. Some have complicated highlighter systems. Some label “IRAC” in their casebook. Book-briefing is a helpful way to read your cases in an engaging and effective way. And you may often find you do not have time to write full case briefs, so this is a fantastic alternative.
4. Be patient with yourself.
You are learning a new legal language! It might not come super quickly. Understand that this is a new undertaking and it might be difficult at times!
5. Limit the time you spend reading cases.
If you tend to find yourself spending a large part of your day reading cases, make it a point to prioritize. For example, maybe each day after class, you will outline from your class notes, review your class notes, complete a few practice problems, and then read cases. This way, you will still prepare for class appropriately, and can still read cases closely, but you will also be prioritizing activities that are most likely to lead to a high final exam score.
Go to the next topic, Why is it so important to go to class in law school (and pay attention!)?