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10 tips for reading and summarizing cases

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The practice of law is all about understanding how prior courts have considered your fact situation, applied the law, and ruled upon it. At any given time in any busy law practice, lawyers, paralegals, and law clerks alike will be asked to read and summarize cases pertaining to a particular client situation. These summaries help determine strategy, identify precedent, and highlight potential weaknesses.

Every individual undoubtedly finds their own method for best understanding cases. We’ve assembled a list of the top 10 things legal professionals can do to maximize their efforts when faced with this important task.

#1: Understand where the case comes from

Knowing which court decided the case you are summarizing is a critical step in case analysis. Let’s say, for example, that you’re working on an issue pertaining to California law. You find a case that is perfectly on point, but was decided by a Texas Appellate Court. While that case may still be useful for you to illustrate how other courts have handled your particular issue, it is unlikely the case will be binding on the court you’re practicing in.

To add another layer of complexity, you need to understand whether either case involves state or federal law. These issues can be extremely complicated. When in doubt, it’s good to have a primer on hand to help you decide if the case you’re reading is binding on your court.

#2: Wrap your head around the parties

At first glance, it seems easy to understand who the parties are to a case. After all, their names appear at the very top of the page. The plaintiff is listed first, then the defendant, right? Be careful, that is not necessarily true.

In fact, most published cases come from appellate courts. The parties are thus listed as the “Appellant” (i.e., the party that lost in a lower court and is now appealing) and the “Respondent” (i.e., the party fighting the appeal). The appellant may have been the defendant in the underlying proceeding. A few quick checks can confirm who’s who in any case, just make sure that you do so before you start reading the opinion.

#3: Don’t skip the headings and subheadings

Think of the headings and subheadings as a roadmap to the case. Rather than skipping over them, you’d be wise to read them first, then go back and read the entirety of the case. Not only will this help you understand the opinion, it will also make you a better legal writer when you begin summarizing cases in writing.

#4: Know how to determine if the case is “good law”

Finding the perfect case — one that directly corresponds to your client’s facts and legal issues — can feel like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Don’t get too excited until you check to make sure that case is still good law. If a later court has overturned the ultimate ruling, you’ll be misleading your reader (a partner, client, opposing counsel, or the judge) if you rely on that case to support your proposition.

Every case search tool has its own cite-checking tool. Google Scholar, for example, has a link in the upper, left-hand corner of every case that reads “How Cited.” Click on that and you’ll get links to all the other cases that have cited your case, along with flags if the case has been overturned or received other negative treatment.

#5: Read the cases within the case

Sometimes, you read a case and find that while the holding is good for you, the underlying facts are just not quite right for your situation. Don’t give up. Most appellate decisions will cite multiple other opinions to support its thesis. Go read those other cases and see if they apply more directly to the issue you’re working on.

#6: Don’t forget the footnotes

Many people who are new to analyzing cases are tempted to skip over the footnotes. After all, if the court puts a notation in a footnote, that content must be an unimportant afterthought, right? Not so fast.

One of the most important principles in Constitutional jurisprudence was dropped in a footnote by Justice Harlan Stone in United States v. Carolene Products Company, 304 U.S. 144 (1938). Reams of analysis have been written about that decision. Suffice to say here, however, than in the now-infamous “Footnote 4,” Justice Stone announced a Constitutional standard of review known as “strict scrutiny.”

If a young legal professional had missed that footnote when later analyzing a law thought to violate the Constitution, the analysis would be completely off base.

#7: Don’t forget your highlighter

This is an issue of personal preference, of course, but sometimes highlighters can be a very useful case reading tool. For example, you can highlight key facts in one color and key legal principles in another. Then, when you go back to do your summary, you can easily find the parts of the case that matter most. Just be sure to avoid common highlighting pitfalls.

#8: Pay attention to the facts

Ultimately, you’ll want to understand the material facts that led the court to make its decision. A material fact is one that pertains directly to the law being applied. For example, if you are dealing with a criminal statute for burglary, it will generally prohibit one person entering the dwelling of another with the intent to commit a crime.

One material fact a court will have to deal with in that scenario is whether the criminal defendant entered a “dwelling.” What if a person breaks into a shed in a park? Is that a “dwelling” under the statute? Once you understand which material facts are at issue in the case you are reading, you can begin to compare them to the facts of the case you’re working on.

#9: Understand the disposition

Typically at the end of an opinion, the court will announce the disposition of the case. It may say something as simple as “trial court ruling affirmed,” or “appeal denied.” It is critical to understand the disposition of a case. This is because your goal is to find cases with similar facts and law that were decided in the way you want your client’s case to ultimately be decided.

If a case appears to be on point but reaches an opposite disposition from than the one you want, then you’ll need to be able to distinguish that case from yours. If it reaches the result you desire, you’ll want to be able to make your case seem similar.

Here’s a thorough primer on understanding all aspects of a case, including the disposition.

#10: Study the case until you can explain it to your grandmother

This is a tip that I, like most law students, received in the first week of law school. Case opinions can be long and incredibly complex. Sometimes, especially when you’re new to reading cases, you won’t really understand an opinion until you study it several times. How do you know when you finally “get it”?

Well, law school professors warn that you should “be able to explain the case to your grandmother.” Simply put: until you can understand all the key components to the case (parties, facts, law, ruling) well enough that you can explain it in plain English. Master that, and you’ll be well on your way to a successful legal career.

What are your favorite tips for reading and summarizing cases? Leave them in the comments section, below.

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