Class Preparation and Case Reading - FAQ
Prof. Alan Chen & Prof. Celia Taylor
Things you might be wondering but don’t want to ask in class…
1. I studied zoology in college and I’ve never set foot in a law school, law firm, court room or any place remotely connected with the law before. Several of my classmates majored in legally related fields or worked in firms before coming here. Am I at a disadvantage?
No. Your performance in law school has very little to do with any prior substantive knowledge of the law. What matters is what you do once you are here.
2. I majored in political science in college, worked as a legislative aid and then spent some time in a law firm. I feel like I already know a lot of the basics. Can I skip the materials that cover things I already know?
No. Even if you come to law school with prior experience in legal fields, what you will do here is different in significant ways. Law school teaches substantive law, but also teaches skills of legal analysis and thinking. Even if some things seem repetitive, it never hurts to learn them more than once. Keep an open mind.
3. Am I supposed to read everything in the assigned pages? Do I have to read all the notes?
Yes. Your focus should be on the main cases assigned but the note materials following those cases are an invaluable source of additional information and will often help make the cases more understandable. Unless your professor says otherwise, you should read all pages assigned.
4. Am I supposed to pay attention to dissenting opinions? After all, they won’t be the holding of the case.
Yes. You should definitely pay attention to dissenting opinions, reading them as carefully as you read the majority. Dissents are included in the book for a reason. They will flesh out the majority and provide an alternative perspective on the issues in the case.
5. What about footnotes in the cases? Do they matter?
Yes. As with the dissents, notes can be an important source of information. You should read them.
6. Do I need to look up cases that the main case cites? What about those cited in the notes?
No. It is not usually worth your time to look up cases that are cited in the main case or in the notes unless your professor asks you to. Focus instead on what is included in the book and trust that if more information is needed, your professor will provide it to you.
7. What should I do if I really am not prepared for class? Should I still show up?
Yes. You should certainly still go to class! It is wise to talk to your professor before class begins if you are not prepared. Many professors will give you a pass for that day or at least be more tolerant if they know your situation beforehand. Just make sure not to make a regular practice of this!
8. Do I have to write up a full brief for every case? Can’t I just take notes in the book?
Everyone has an individual style when it comes to briefing. In the early stages of law school it is usually a good idea to write out a full brief just to be sure you are getting the hang of reading the cases and extracting the relevant information. As time goes on, many students will start to “book brief” or make much shorter notes. Do what works for you but make sure that when you walk into the class you are ready to answer whatever questions your professor may throw at you.
9. Everyone is using all these study guides. Which one should I buy?
Every professor has a different opinion about study guides. Usually, they will not be required reading. If your professor recommends one, you should certainly consider looking at it. Be aware however that even the best sources may contain errors and at times the information they present is only a superficial treatment of an issue. You should use them as a point of reference, not as a final source of authority.
10. This stuff seems to come easy for me. I get it after doing the reading. Do I still need to bother to go to class?
Yes. If you really are getting it after doing the reading that’s great. Share that knowledge with your classmates. Also, you should realize that a lot of what happens in the classroom involves things outside of the reading–hypotheticals, related issues etc. You’ll miss all of that if you aren’t there. If you need any more incentive, many professors use questions that come up in class as the basis of exam questions.
11. My professor puts things on the board that don’t seem very important to me. Should I bother writing them down?
Yes. Most professors put things on the board (or in a Powerpoint presentation etc.) because they feel it is important. It may not seem that way to you at the time, but it probably will later on. Also, things that are important to your professors tend to show up on exams.
12. Some of the cases we read deal with issues I work with every day in my job. I feel like I might know more than the professor does. Should I say anything about my knowledge in class?
Yes. But do so in a polite way! If you have personal knowledge that is relevant to the discussion it is a valuable contribution. Just be careful how you do it!
13. I keep hearing about how important class participation is but I’m too afraid of looking like an idiot to ever raise my hand. What should I do?
Class participation is important. Try answering a few questions that are “gimmes” to get comfortable. Or go speak with your professor about your concerns and see if he or she can work with you to get you past that initial panic. Also, know that everyone in that classroom is having the same feelings you are. Part of legal education is learning how to speak when you are less than 100% confident in yourself. Might as well practice in the classroom before you hit the courtroom or conference room!
14. I have the world’s stupidest question about some things we’ve been doing about in class. There’s no way I want to ask it out loud in class but it’s really bugging me. What can I do?
Your professor will usually say there is no such thing as a stupid question (as long as you have done the reading). If you are really worried, you might go to your professor’s office and ask. If you don’t even feel comfortable going to your professor, you might try posting your question on the course discussion board if there is one or asking some of your classmates what their thoughts are.
15. There is a loud mouthed person who always sticks a hand up whenever the prof asks a question. I’m tired of hearing it! What can I do?
Nothing! It’s your professors’ job to monitor who is speaking in class. They are trying to maintain an appropriate balance between covering the necessary material, encouraging questions and addressing concerns. Sometimes the balance swings more in one direction than another. Also, what might not seem immediately relevant or helpful to you may actually be adding great value to the class discussion. Let your professor handle the situation.
16. I pay attention better when I multi-task. Will my professor care if I sit in the back and do a crossword puzzle as long as I can still answer questions?
Yes. Your professor will care! You’d be amazed what can be observed from the front of the classroom. Hiding out in the back is a strategy sure to backfire. Even if you think you can do two things at once, it is essential to listen carefully to everything that is said in the classroom. Instead of doing a non-class related activity, try to engage in the class process. Stick your hand up and get involved!
17. There are some things in the cases themselves that I don’t get:
a. What does it mean when they “remand” a case? How am I supposed to know who wins?
A case is remanded so that a lower court can either enter a judgement based on direction from the higher court or can re-engage in the fact-finding process based on further instructions contained in the upper court decision. You don’t necessarily know who “wins” when a case is remanded. A case on remand is not yet finally decided.
b. I don’t get this appellant/appellee, petitioner/respondent stuff. Who are these people? How can I keep them straight when I’m reading the case? What should I call them when I’m called on in class?
It is very important to understand who is who and which party is taking what action in every case you read, and it can be very confusing at times. Follow your professor’s lead in class. Some won’t care whether you call them appellant and appellee, but will care that you understand the reality of who is in what position. Others will want you to use the technical terms. For your own purposes, do what works best. It is often helpful to just use the parties’ real names.
c. What’s with all these foreign phrases in the cases? I’ve never heard of “res ipsa loquitur,” “de minimis non curat lex,” etc. before. How am I supposed to know what they mean? Are they really important?
Yes. You may have heard that learning the law is like learning a new language. Part of the process is becoming familiar with legal terms–terms which may be in Latin-since that is the root of our language. These terms are important and you should certainly know what they mean when you walk into class. A legal dictionary such as Black’s is a good source. By the way “res ispa loquitur” means “the thing speaks for itself” and “de minimis non curat lex” means the law does not concern itself with trifles.
18. When I went into class I thought I understood the materials but after listening to my professor and my classmates I’m hopelessly confused. What can I do?
First, you should remember that what happens in the classroom is part of a process. Your professor may be working within grey areas of the law in order to show that there are often no certain answers to legal questions. Once you are more comfortable with the many different ways of conceptualizing rules of law, you may start being more comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty. You might try going back over the materials again with the background of class discussion in mind and see if you can understand the purpose approach used by your professor. If you are still at sea, talk to your classmates and approach your professor for additional guidance.
19. Ok, I’ve done everything suggested to get ready, and I still don’t get it. What should I do?
Don’t panic. Different theories gel for people at different times. You might want to look at some outside sources, i.e., general treatises on the subject (your professor can recommend good ones) or go talk with your professor about what is confusing you.