Experts’ Tips on Efficiently Reading & Summarising Legal Cases

Experts’ Tips on Efficiently Reading & Summarizing Legal Cases
Last updated: 25 Mar, 2021

The practice of law revolves around determining how courts have previously considered a situation similar to your case, how they applied the law and ruled upon it. In any law practice, lawyers and law clerks need to read and summarize cases. These summaries help lawyers determine appropriate strategies, identify precedent, and point out potential weaknesses. Many times, especially when the caseload increases, many lawyers take help from legal research services to ease their workload and focus on other essential tasks.

However, while each legal professional will have their own method for understanding cases, here are some experts’ opinions about reading and summarizing cases. Let’s read what they say.

Therefore, let’s read what experts say about reading and summarizing cases.

1. Case Fragmentation

Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor, Director at Net Lawman

It’s important to understand all parties involved and keep the facts straight. Use a highlighter when going through notes – different colours for different concepts that should be remembered ideally. These key organizational skills are important, certainly. 

 Furthermore, I suggest fragmenting the case into small plots so that they can be understood exactly for what they are. Often there are cases within a case that you need to keep separated in order to understand the real story. 

2. Technique for Reading and Summarizing Legal Cases

Eric Holguin

Eric Holguin, Marketing Director at Herrman & Herrman, P.L.L.C.

As a rule, I begin by reviewing the law for the case, especially when providing a legal opinion on the topic. I will review the relevant statutes and/or provisions involved, all documentation such as police reports, legal correspondences, etc., and begin drafting my opinion.

I review prior cases and opinions I have done to see how that may apply and review any new case law or legislative law updates to ensure my opinions are most up to date and on point. I study the facts of the case and how the relevant law applies and finalize my opinion. I ensure my opinion is not overly vague or too complicated for my audience and directly responds to the presented case.

3. Be Focused

Elizabeth Ricci

Elizabeth Ricci, Immigration law expert at Rambana & Ricci, PLLC

I am an immigration attorney and am a Federal Litigation Eleventh Circuit Newsletter Team Volunteer Case Summarizer. 

My tips for reading and summarizing legal cases are to do so without distractions and with a highlighter. Read carefully, highlight only what is most important, then relay what you remember to another person. If they have questions, you summarized too much. If they understood what you summarized, you likely did it just right. 

It is amazing how much of the written word is not necessary. I recently summarized 54 pages of cases into 1.5 pages!

4. Understand Important Points

Scott Kimberly

Scott Kimberly, Attorney at Law at MurfreesboroLawyer.com 

I am an attorney in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I graduated from Seattle University School of Law, which has a nationally recognized legal writing program, cum laude, including honours recognition in multiple legal research and legal writing courses. 

 One of the most basic pieces of advice for non-lawyers reading legal opinions is to understand the difference between the majority opinion, concurring opinions, and dissenting opinions. I once found myself in a heated argument in which someone told me, “well, the Supreme Court has ruled (something that was the opposite of current law),” including a citation to the case. When I read the case, he had quoted the dissenting opinion’s jaded summary of the majority opinion. 

 Once you understand which part of the opinion in which, another important and much more difficult to grasp distinction is between a holding and what courts call “dicta.” A holding is the ruling of the court, which may be cited and relied upon as enforceable law. Dicta, on the other hand, includes other statements and commentary that may not be controlling law. It’s critical to understand and quote a holding if you wish to understand the controlling law issued by a case. 

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5. Case Reading and Summarizing Tips

Blake Hardwick

Blake Hardwick, Marketing Manager at Greenberg & Stein, PC

The first tip I have for those who will be reading and summarizing a case is to gain an understanding of where the case is coming from. Where the case comes from can have a big impact on whether or not it is binding on the court you’re practising in, so it’s a very important step to take.  

My second tip is to read the cases within the case you’re reading and summarizing. Sometimes, you might find that the underlying facts of a case don’t suit your situation, but the cited opinions can support it. Reading them will help you to gain more insight and information which can be applied more directly to your issue.

6. Top Suggestions for Summarizing Cases

Robert Bird

Robert Bird, a business law professor at Univ. of Connecticut

I am a business law professor who has taught business law and employment law for over twenty years. Summarizing cases is a staple of what I teach my students. My top three suggestions are: 

1) Let others do the work for you. If you find a trusted website that has already summarized the case, let that site be your starting point for a summary. Don’t just rely on other sites because then you don’t learn how to do it on your own. Read good summaries, and see what writers emphasize. 

2) Most cases have a summary at the beginning of the end of the case. I skim the beginning and the end of judicial opinions first if I want a quick and general idea of what the case was about. 

3) Use the tried and true IRAC method (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion) to guide your summary. Follow this step by step, and you will be less likely to be distracted by minute details.

7. Digest the Case Effectively

Jacob Sapochnick

Jacob Sapochnick, Founder at Sapochnick Law Firm

1) Flow chart – make a diagram of all the facts as a summary of the case as you go through the information. This is important to make sure that you understand the relevant facts of the main issue of the case. You should be on top of your facts to understand the legal reasoning that was decided in that situation. 

2) Purpose – ask yourself what you need to get from the case. Are you interested in the main legal reasoning, arbiter, or; both. 

3) Summary – summarize the rationale in 1-2 sentences. Keep it short in order to make sure that you understand the case. Also, it will be helpful if you make a short note on the key arguments after reading each judgment.

8. The 3 Keys: Issue, Rule, & Holding

Jordan Peagler

Jordan Peagler, Partner at MKP Law Group, LLP

There are three key things to look for and analyze when reading legal 

cases: the issue, the rule, and the holding (or decision). 

1) The Issue: Most cases are similarly structured in that they start with the background, factual information about the case and the parties involved. Then they get into the more nitty-gritty: the actual dispute or the issue that is being decided by the court. 

2) The Rule: Once the issue is identified, then the court discusses the rule, or rather the laws or prior cases (a.k.a legal precedent) that has bearing on the issue in dispute. 

 3) The Holding: The rules guide the court in issuing its final ruling or holding. 

 Those three elements make up the crux of any case, but there are sometimes additional elements that come into play for further analysis of the issue, such as dissents and concurrence.  

Dissent: The dissent will provide reasoning as to why the holding is incorrect or the rule was wrongly applied to the issue in dispute. 

Concurrence: A concurrence is the part of a legal case that agrees with the ultimate holding found by the court but disagrees with the reasoning by the decision. The concurrence can offer new cases that were not discussed in the main body but that are insightful in other ways. 

Conclusion

Instead of spending the entire night summarizing your cases before a court hearing, you should do it week by week to make them more useful. You might want to add or delete critical points, insert more relevant cross-references, and work on your summaries every day. This will not only help you determine the most important information for your case but also you will have your summaries’ best version possible to present in the court. 

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