The Catholic University of America

How to Read Cases Efficiently



Read with a purpose: practicing lawyers normally know the purpose for which they are reading a case


a.       When assigned to read a case within a casebook, the purpose might be:

                                                               i.      To read the case well enough to get an accurate picture of what happened;

                                                             ii.      To gather information about legal reasoning and how lawyer think, communicate, act, i.e., the kind of discourse that community of people uses;

                                                            iii.      To understand the “big picture” of this sub-topic of the course by reasoning inductively to see what this case adds in light of the information surrounding it in this section of the casebook;

                                                           iv.      Figure out the purpose for which the teacher assigned the case, understand what you are supposed to be able to do with the case, and become able to do that.


2.       Put the case into context


a.       “expert readers” noted the names of the parties, the date of the opinion, the court or judge deciding

b.      Even if you don’t know as much about particular courts or judges yet, you have ideas regarding periods in history, what an attitude of a particular party of the country might be

c.       In the context of the casebook and syllabus, under what topic heading does this appear? What was the case ahead of it about? Glance at the notes and see what questions they raise

d.      Did the Unit Package provide information?


3.       Vary your reading pace and strategy while reading. Reread selectively.


a.       Expert readers speed up and slow down, jump around in the text to find related ideas and key passages, look for important key words and transitions, e.g., “we hold,” “plaintiff argues,” “we fail to understand.”

b.      Suggested student case reading strategies: pre-read once “for understanding” and then go back to dissect or perhaps read carefully once and then reread looking for the “main idea.”

c.        For terms or ideas you don’t understand, consider whether it’s important to do so to understand the case. If so, can you figure it out from context? Is it important enough to stop and look up? If it isn’t really necessary to getting what you need from the cases, move on.


4.       Talk back to the text


a.       Expert readers think about whether they agree or disagree, what the consequences could be, how the case could be used (and misused)

b.      Can be useful to imagine an audience with whom you would talk about the case while reading, e.g.., how it would be discussed in class, what you would say about it to a friend, how you would apply it

c.       These are “problematizing” and “rhetorical” reading strategies using the terms of the Christensen study


5.       Concentrate on the “main idea” rather than just decoding the words


a.       Can be useful to visualize what’s happening so one has an actual picture of the conflict among the parties that brought them to the court and any conflict in the law that the court is resolving to apply this law to the parties’ dispute

b.      Back to the idea in #1 of figuring out why you were assigned this case and how you are supposed to make use of it in the future so you can figure out a “main idea” related to that purpose