1) Look for the distraction – or as professors like to say, “spot the issue!”
Looking for the distraction is the opposite of issue spotting. The distraction will be the thing that makes you wonder if that is the issue but it really isn’t. When I do that thing, spot the issue, I prefer to start with asking myself after I read a “fact pattern”: What is the distraction? Sometimes, looking at the alternative helps me…this is what helps me.
2) Speaking of alternatives, think about what a case is NOT saying.
Sometimes it is easy to say what the case is saying…that’s easy. The professor will ask you “what is the ratio?” Note: ratio = rule but law folks like to be geeks and use special language that sometimes only other law folks understand.
3) So, use a dictionary.
I remember reading one case and seeing the word, “subterfuge.” I continued reading the case like a bad law student without understand what that word meant and as I continued reading, I didn’t really understand what was going on because I didn’t understand what subterfuge meant–okay I exaggerate, I knew a little bit about what what was happening. Anyways, subterfuge means “deceit used in order to achieve one’s goal.” It irked me to wonder why the judge didn’t just use deceit or deceitful or dishonest or whatever other word other than subterfuge.
Side note: And yeah, the language law folks use is an access to justice issue including professors who like to use other fancy words to mean something basic or cliches and idioms. Because if even I can’t understand some of the words, how do we expect the general public to understand?! Whatever, future law people…just use a dictionary or google, iphone app, whatever. And, call out the professor who uses such expressions of language (i.e., idioms and cliches); I guarantee you that someone else might not understand either. It’s like the “stupid question dilemma”–just ask.
4) Know what the case is saying.
Yeah, you still need to understand what the case stands for and why you are reading it. Otherwise, if it wasn’t important to read, your professor wouldn’t have you read it.
5) Form study groups.
For me, this is giving bad advice. I don’t study in study groups. It’s just me and my style. But it does help to attend class to hear what others might say about the case. And also, sometimes the amount of readings is overwhelming.
6) Attend class.
For me, this is also bad advice. I hate going to class. Class, sometimes and for me, is a waste of time. Sometimes, class is just about hearing the same people participate (i.e., the same hetero, white, cis males saying “I know this was already said but…”) and other times, it is about watching professors struggle with attempting to stimulate class participation—it’s awkward but thank god we have hetero, white, cis males… go team!
7) Participate in class.
Again, also, bad advice. I hate participating in class. I know, it’s strange, especially with my public speaking and stuff. But public speaking is different—I don’t get paid to go to class…but I get sometimes get paid to do that thing that thousands of other people dread: public speaking. Remember, thinking about what the case is not saying? This is good for participating in class.
8) Figure out what works for you.
It took me a while to understand what “the law” meant when professors kept talking about “the law” in a specific context. Truthfully, I didn’t understand how all the cases we read fit together to form “the law.” What help, though, were summaries: I saw how people fit together “the law” and suddenly it all clicked (so, don’t listen to professors when they say, “don’t use summaries” — I mean if that is the only thing you read all year, then you might want to listen to the professor).
9) With that being said, go and visit the professor.
Ask the professor how the cases fit together. Sure, you are supposed to figure it out on your own. So, at minimum, do the readings first and go prepared with questions. I rarely go visit professors because it’s just as awkward as watching them force class participation—it’s another awkward social interaction that I don’t really want to engage in but you know…for some people, they nailed this skill. I’m not one of those people.
10) Do what’s best for you.
Listen to other people. Or, don’t listen to other people (like me). But if you already know what works for you, do it! Just run with it!
And generally, a lot of this stuff is just common sense. Don’t be afraid to return to the basics that got you to this point in your life. Law isn’t fancy. Don’t make it fancy–or you can (with sparkles even). But, literally, you’ve done it! Everything you ever had in you to get you to this point, you already have within you. Remember that, when things get hard (because it will). You got this!
[Signed with a little bit of sarcasm].