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Frame of Mind Legal Reasoning 3 Class Time Create an Outline Pre-Write Your Exam Test Yourself! Sample Answers
Get Smart About the Case Method

Speed Reading a Case
Speed v. Comprehension
Pre-reading Strategy
Taking Notes While Reading
Cases and Casebooks - a Brief History
The Structure of a Casebook
Why Brief a Case?

How to Brief a Case
Sample Case and Brief
Beyond the Casebook: Study Tools
Legal Dictionary
Commercial Outlines
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2Ls and 3Ls
Practice Exams and Model Answers

Speed Reading a Case

Reading your first case is like reading a foreign language you know only slightly. You might recognize the words, but you have to translate the concepts into English. You haven't begun to think in the foreign language yet.

Like a foreign language, case law contains terms not familiar to the first year law student. Cases are written by lawyers for lawyers, consequently the writing contains technical legal jargon and is structured for the legal mind instead of the layperson. To make it even more difficult, judges often use awkward syntax or complex words where simple ones would suffice. It doesn't help that law professors typically dish out a difficult-to-understand case in the first week of law school as a rite of passage to separate the serious students from the laggards.

Typically, the average first year law student reads only three pages an hour in their first month of law school. By the end of the first semester, most students read ten pages an hour and keep at that pace until the end of their second year. However, with the right techniques, you can start at ten pages an hour and leap to twenty or thirty pages within your first semester.

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Speed v. Comprehension

There are two ways to measure effective reading - speed and comprehension. Generally, the more speed you have, the lower your comprehension. However, if you are familiar with the subject matter or know the author well, then you can generally pick up the pace of the reading without sacrificing comprehension. Pre-reading is a strategy that achieves that goal.

For most people, comprehension falls off sharply the more quickly a person reads. Assuming all other factors are constant, a student has to put in a certain amount of hours reading in order to get a B average.

Pre-reading gives you an edge by building comprehension into the equation. Thus you start out knowing a few things about the case before actually reading, thereby allowing you to read faster and retain more information. In math terms, the curve shifts before falling off. With pre-reading, the same student as above can put in fewer hours and still maintain his B average.

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Pre-reading Strategy

By pre-reading the case, you can decide whether to skim, skip or read a section. This dramatically reduces the time you spend reading unnecessary material.


Step 1: Pre-read a case.
-> Read the topic sentence of every paragraph.
-> Spend 2 minutes for every 10 pages.
Step 2: Based on pre-reading, choose the most effective strategy to read each paragraph.
-> Skimming
-> Skipping
-> Reading

Step 1: Pre-reading

Pre-reading gives you the gist of the case to determine whether to skim, skip or thoroughly read a case. Pre-reading is not skimming. Skimming is a more thorough reading of the material than pre-reading. You should resist the impulse to skim the entire case as you pre-read. Think of pre-reading as a superficial skimming of the material.

Pre-reading a 10-page long case in the typical casebook should take no longer than two to three minutes. However, that scant three minutes will take a three page-an-hour reader to ten pages-an-hour almost immediately. A ten page-an-hour reader can leap to twenty pages-an-hour with a little practice.


Pre-reading consists of the following steps.

Step 1: Read the case name.

Step 2: Read the first paragraph or two to understand who the parties are and the issue that brought them to court.

Most cases will give the procedural history, parties and issues in the first two paragraphs.

Step 3: Read the first sentence of each paragraph.

By reading every topic sentence of every paragraph you should get an idea of the structure and general direction that the case is going towards.

Step 4: Read the last paragraph or two so that you understand the holding and disposition of the case.

Not every holding will be given in the last two paragraphs, but the author usually will sum up the ideas of the case as a conclusion in the final paragraphs.

The overview all comes down to getting the big picture sooner. Once you have an overview of a case, you know enough of the contents to read the case quickly and easily. There are four things that you identify as you pre-read.

  1. Outcome
  2. Elements of the Case
  3. Legal Concepts
  4. Evolution of Reasoning

Outcome: By knowing the outcome, you have a ready context for the reasoning. Although the suspense is gone, you know where the judge is going with his or her application of the rule.

Elements of the case: You've identified where the judge actually talks about the procedural history, facts, statement of rule, reasoning, holding, etc. See Chapter ___ for more detail on the structure or elements of a case. You should have an easier time going straight to a particular section in order to mentally brief a case.

Legal concepts: Instead of having each legal concept revealed to you one by one, you have the big picture ahead of time. A typical Contracts case, for example, might discuss many different rules all in the context of one issue. By knowing that three distinct rules come into play, you pinpoint the most relevant rule ahead of time.

Evolution of Reasoning: Typically, a judge will step through a case such that he or she cites the development of a rule from the common law through the debates in the legislature when the current law was originally passed. Some of this is superfluous for your purposes.

Step 2: Skimming, Skipping or Reading

Skipping: As a result of pre-reading, you can determine which paragraphs you can skip altogether. Judges often trace the development of a rule from the common law beginnings to its passage by the legislature. Since the casebook usually groups similar cases together, you will find yourself going through the same historical beginnings many times over. At some point, you can just skip this material altogether.

Although it sounds counter-intuitive, skipping can actually increase overall comprehension. Typically, students become bored when they keep rereading the same material. By skipping through material that is already familiar, you keep the pace fresh so that your mind doesn't wander.

Here are some typical paragraphs that you can skip:

Skimming: Skimming is different from pre-reading. Skimming means you are reading everything lightly - giving it the once over. In skimming, you don't read every word, but you do scan every sentence. Instead of reading words as a single element, you read phrases. You use skimming when you are basically familiar with the material but need more information than what you got out of the overview.

Reading: Reading doesn't mean that you have to read every word. For most people, the mind is quicker than the eye. The mind typically gets bored if you read every word. By training your eyes to go quickly over each sentence, you can learn to read faster. It takes practice, and it's beyond the scope of this book to offer exercises in speed reading cases. There are many fine speed-reading books available. It pays to learn and practice speed-reading the summer before law school. Once the semester starts, you will be hard pressed to read every assignment during your first semester. However, if you haven't taken the time to learn how to speed-read, then you can still benefit from the easy to learn pre-reading strategy.

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Taking Notes While Reading

One pitfall that most students fall into is highlighting nearly everything in a case. It's common in the first year to think that everything is relevant. The trick is to pre-read without highlighting anything! This can be tough because as you pre-read you get a sense of what is important and naturally want to note it. However, you can never really know what is important until you read an entire piece.

By not highlighting anything on your first pass, you also save time in the long run when you outline. When you outline, you return to a case a few weeks after you first read it. With unnecessary highlighting, you end up spending a lot of time rereading to find out what is relevant in a given case.

On your second pass through the case, identify the relevant sections and highlight the issue, rule, facts, analysis, policy, procedural history and other elements. Identify the elements with a notation in the margin. Some students use different colored highlighters to identify different elements. One color is used for the rule, another for the issue, and so on. This usually works well only for highly visual people. For myself, I find that different colors slow you down and only add to the confusion of too much highlighting.

As in all things, if it works for you and adds to your productivity and efficiency, then do it. Otherwise, eliminating the clutter will speed you along your way.

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