Law School Survival Tips: Finding a case opinion’s punchline

September 8, 2014

Law School Survival Tips(Editor’s note: Law school got you feeling overwhelmed?  Allow us to help!  Over the next several weeks, we’ll be presenting law school “survival tips” to help get you through to graduation).

One of the most common activities in which you’ll find yourself immersed in law school is reading case opinions.  You’ll be reading them for nearly every course on substantive legal topics, and you’ll be reading them often.

Unfortunately, very few opinions are written to be easily accessible to anyone, even law students.  The text can be quite confusing, especially in those older cases, and it may not be readily apparent which legal concepts within the opinion should be given extra weight for the particular course for which you are doing the reading.

Fortunately, there are some shortcuts available to make digesting cases much faster and easier.  And it starts with comparing the opinion that you’re reading to a puzzle found on children’s placemats at restaurants: mazes.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve found that mazes are significantly easier to solve if you start at the end of the maze and work backwards.  Some naysayers may have told you that such a method is cheating.  And perhaps they’re correct.  But you know what?  It isn’t cheating to approach your case readings in law school using the same method.

In other words, instead of reading the case in the order in which it was written, you should locate the “beginning” and the “end” of the maze that is the opinion, and then work your way backwards from the latter to the former.

Here are some simple steps for doing that:

Identify the issues of the case expressed in the opinion

This is the “start” of the maze.  If you’re lucky, an opinion will spell out the issues that are before it at the outset.  Even if your case opinion doesn’t, you can almost always find the issues of the case immediately following the facts section of the opinion.

Identifying the case’s issues allows you to locate the “end” of the “maze” – the court’s resolution of these issues – by knowing what to look for later in the opinion.

Read the facts

Technically, the facts is the other “start” of the maze, but instead of it enabling you to find the maze’s end, it makes it possible to work your ways backwards to the “start” from the “end.”

After all, when you’re reading the court’s explanation on how it arrived at its conclusion, it’s helpful to know who “Respondent,” “Acme,” or “Johnson” are, and it’s next to impossible to make heads or tails of the court’s rationale if you are unfamiliar with the facts which are being referenced and relied upon throughout the opinion’s logic.

Find out how the court resolves the issues…

The opinion usually contains the “answer” to the question presented by the issues near the end of the “analysis” section – that is, the section that applies the law to the case’s particular set of facts.  The opinion often uses nearly identical language in discussing the issue in its conclusion as in its initial presentation, making the “answer” more easily identifiable.

The problem is that the “answer,” once found, doesn’t make a ton of sense without the context of the rationale that precedes it.

…then go back and read the rationales

Jurists often explore many different paths within the legal argument “maze” that turn out to be dead ends – that is, the opinion’s author may explore other rationales and arguments to disprove them.

Unfortunately, if you’re reading the opinion in the order that it’s written, you often don’t know that you’re heading towards a dead end until the author informs the reader of as much.  But by then, you may be confused as to the relevance of this “dead end” to how the court has actually resolved the issue.

Reading the “answer” first helps with that.  Even though it may not make perfect sense to you before reading the rationale, you still know where the court ends up when it’s winding down its various paths of logic.  You already know where the destination is going to be, so you have a much better view of how the court is getting there, even if it takes a detour that turns into a dead end (and you’re able to see the dead end for being a dead end).

This formula may not work for every single case without fail – particularly those that were written over 100 years ago.  But it does work for the vast majority of cases penned more recently.

And hopefully, it saves you time and energy and leads to a better understanding of the opinion and the legal concepts contained therein.