The air is chill, the nights are longer and the warmth and fun of fresher’s week is a distant memory. I would also imagine that you are now deep into term one of law school and inevitably questioning at points why am I doing this and how did I even get here. All while resisting the siren calls of Netflix to ignore your problems for a little while longer with yet another episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race … at least that was my experience anyway.
One of the most challenging skills that took me a while to hone was the art of reading case law. Any law student will tell you that they completely understand why you might put off trying to decipher what the ratio versus the obiter in a given case might be. You might also be wondering, why is it such a huge issue? Here’s a clue, judges rarely ever say ok folks this sentence here is what I think the ratio is. It is, unfortunately, one of those areas where I might say there is no shortcut in law; it’s a skill you will have to practice and develop.
While there might not be a shortcut, there are ways to make this needle in a haystack process less … well, painful.
Here are some of the useful techniques that I developed over time:
- YOU DON’T NEED TO READ EVERY CASE.
Be selective about which cases you do choose to read in full and why. For example, most of the textbooks provide a fantastic summary of crucial passages within a given case, take advantage of this.
A good example of this was the EU and Tort law textbooks. Using this hack, I managed not to read a single case in full in my final year. Sometimes you have to force yourself to be time efficient. Using these techniques I did pretty well overall, and I was less stressed out in the end.
- KNOW YOUR WHY
If you are going to read a case in full, know why you are doing so. There is no point merely wasting time so that you can say you read the case. Instead, build the correct foundation by understanding what the problem in this area of law is first and then why that case was/was not essential to this problem.
Practice the skill of understanding the topic and themes that this particular case comes under. Approaching the reading in such a focused manner will help you save time and also help you to practice the skill of skim reading and picking out key packages. If you know what you are looking for and the themes, you will be able to pick up keywords and paragraphs much more easily as you read and not waste time reading every single word. Again this is a skill that takes a while to develop but saves you time in the end.
One of the ways I developed the art of knowing my why was through picking out key themes from past exam papers which allowed me to focus my reading. I found it useful to read cases if I was answering a particular essay question and would then skim read to try and identify alternative lines of argument I could explore in a potential essay answer.
- MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF AND LOOK FOR GOOD SUMMARIES.
Advice about reading cases can be mixed. But generally, I found that as long as I knew enough about; the background, the legal principle the case sought to address and how it applied, I could get by with just reading a summary, whether that be from the textbooks or e-law resources. There I said it.
Another useful and yet obvious source of summaries was from the lectures themselves. Lecturers usually give a pretty good synopsis on why a case is important, and I would always aim to expand on this by also adding to my notes during tutorials as well.
It sounds obvious but being present and paying attention in classes pays off in the long run.
STRUCTURING AND TAKING NOTES ON CASES
If you’ve never had to make notes on cases, this might be a bit difficult.
A general method that I used when reading a case was I would do a first round of reading armed with a sparingly used highlighter. This got easier over time as I learnt how to skim read and only focus on the crucial parts. Once I had done that first reading, I would go through the highlights and summarise those notes. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I love a good notebook and productivity hacks, but I never thought I would say that of a legally inspired notebook!
Recently, I came across the Ratio notebook by RAMA publishing which provides the perfect template to get you thinking about cases in a structured way. Not only that but it’s two birds with one stone as it allows you to build a practical collection of structured notes which will come in useful for revision later on in the academic year. The creator of the aptly named Ratio notebook is a fellow UCL LLM alumni who discovered that when mentoring undergraduate students, they often struggled with reading cases and taking notes on them effectively.
My favourite thing about this notebook is how simple it is and the clear formula it provides for actively reading and understanding cases. It contains a useful summary on how to use the notebook and ample pages after that for your own notes. It is definitely a notebook that I wish I had come across when I first started learning how to read cases.
What I like most about it though, is that it brings structure to the techniques that I mentioned earlier that you require when approaching reading cases.
• FACTS AND NOTHING BUT THE FACTS
The Ratio notebook forces you to constrain the details and only jot down the important stuff. The two page per case formula forces you to really think about the essential facts of the case by focusing your thinking towards trimming the frivolous details. This is a great skill to practice especially when approaching your revision in the run-up to exams. The examiner is looking for answers that demonstrate understanding and get to the point.
• STRUCTURED BUT FLEXIBLE
Although it is a templated notebook, it’s a relatively blank canvas and affords room for creativity. Why write what you can draw, for example, maybe a snail and ginger beer drink for Donohue v Stephenson. Over time this structure might also prove useful in helping you to develop a habit of effectively thinking about cases and concisely analysing them.
More importantly, it will provide you with easy and accessible notes for revision! And for any self-respecting lawblr out there it is a pretty and well-made notebook worthy of any instagram 😉