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Law School Tips: Week 4

Reading Cases: Why am I Doing this, Anyway?

Week 4: Reading Cases: Why Am I Doing This Anyway?

Many of your first-year courses will involve a significant amount of common-law (case law) instruction. Learning what that law is from reading a lot of cases is like looking for numbers in those color-blindness tests that have all of those dots in them, or those darn Magic Eye 3D images. Some people are better at weeding out unnecessary parts of the case than others are, and reading cases is a skill that gets better with practice.

The point of learning law through cases is to see how a court applies a rule of law (or applies an exception to the rule) to a particular set of facts. No rule is 100 percent easy to apply, because there are always holes in drafting a rule. Take, for example, the speed limit on an urban street. If the speed limit on the street is 35 miles per hour, that’s the “rule”.

But what if the weather’s really awful? Then 35 miles per hour would be unreasonably fast, and an exception to the rule (“Drive 35 unless the weather makes driving 35 unreasonable”) would kick in. On the other hand, what if you’d sliced your hand open while making a sandwich and needed to get to an emergency room in a hurry? Then keeping to a 35-mile-per-hour speed limit would be potentially detrimental to your health, and another exception to the speed limit would be “except in an emergency”.

So if you were a judge, faced with determining whether someone should be convicted of violating the speed limit, you’d have the rule (35 MPH) and two very different exceptions to the rule to apply. Moreover, you wouldn’t know all of the facts—just the ones that the lawyers on either side of the case chose to present to you. Therefore, you opinion would be based on your application of the rule to the particular facts that you (or the jury) found, based on the evidence presented in that particular case.

Now you can see why the same rule of law might produce different results in different cases. The facts might be different, or the lawyers might simply have argued them differently (or argued for different rules to apply).

Excerpted from: The Law Student’s Pocket Mentor: From Surviving to Thriving, by Ann L. Iijima

Coming next week: Briefing 101 (part 1)

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