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How to develop effective readings skills

One of the key skills that you will have to master as lawyers is the ability to digest large amounts of material in short time and under pressure. A typical task for a junior lawyer is basically to sift through masses of evidence or law with a view to finding some crucial nugget of information. Getting lost in the detail is a danger, but missing key details is also a risk. Generally good reading means that you both understand the big picture and see how it plays out in the many facets of a case. The same is true for those of you who work in policy. A highly valued skill for lawyers is the ability to then sum up and synthesize critically these vast amounts of information for concrete legal outcomes.

In that respect, the class preparation readings and subsequent exercises in class are there to help you train as lawyers , ensuring that you come as well prepared as you will have to be in your subsequent careers. The emphasis is on primary and secondary sources rather than textbooks because textbooks often provide a misleading sense of legal practice: in real life, there will be an abundance of sources to chose from and no one there to do it for you. The course already treats you as the lawyers in the making that you are, not merely as students (although obviously it also treats you as students). Remember that what matters is not that one "has done the readings" but what one "remembers from them." A judge will not be interested in knowing that you have "read a case" if you cannot extract an argument from it. By remember, therefore, I do not mean merely raw memorialization, but a deeper sense of having integrated, assimilated, "made one's own."

There are two things that you need to do whenever trying to digest complex amounts of legal information: (i) understand each reading on its own terms, (ii) understand readings in relation to each other. Both are important but both rely on slightly different skills. The former is more case specific, and the latter more systemic. You need to master both, and you need to master them simultaneously. 

You should assume that every case, statute, article that you read must be there for a reason. You need to ask yourself what that reason is. In real life, it will not always be the case that something is included for a reason. Sometimes many materials will be there for no other reason than they happened to be in a box... or because someone wanted to mislead you. But it is safe to assume that in a class environment, readings are there for a reason, i.e.: that they exemplify some larger proposition or are important in their own right. You thus need to read them with this basic question in mind: what does this reading mean for this session? How does it help answer it? This is not that different from what you will do as professionals. You will have little time for purely contemplative reading, and much reading will be instrumental: how does this help my client? how does this help me effect this reform?

Within every reading, however, there will be bits that provide context, or are merely peripheral, and bits that are central and decisive. Whenever reading a case, for example, your ability to spot the ratio decidendi, what is said obiter dictum, what is important and what is not is very important, will be crucial. You need to be careful to not get too bogged down in details, but at the same time to not be too general either. One thing about being a lawyer is it is important to be precise. If, after reading a case for example, the only thing you remember is that the case was "broadly about this or that issue", that is not sufficient. A judge asking you in court about a case you cite will expect you to know it inside out, or at least to know very clearly the crucial point made by the case that helps your argument.

At the same time, whenever you are reading you should keep a critical and open mind. This is difficult, but you must constantly be testing what you read against your own intuitions and ideas. You obviously do not have to agree with any particular law, judgement or article. One particularly useful way of doing this, especially in a legal case, is to read the facts first but not the judgement and try to work very summarily how you would have answered the case before you read what the judges had to say. This way at least you will know where your intuitions stand, uncontaminated by all the arguments that the parties then make or a knowledge of the outcome. Starting from the outcome is a bit like watching a movie after someone has spoiled the end for you or watching a replay of a match knowing the results already: not great. Generally though you should feel free to not read things sequentially and in the order in which they are written. Sometimes that will make sense, but at other times you may just want to read something backwards, from the conclusion to the beginning. You need to at least think about those things in order to maximize your time.

It is important to have a gut feeling, but part of being a lawyer is heavily working on that gut feeling to educate it. You may need to distinguish between what you intuitively think is the just outcome and what is the right legal outcome. This does not always come easy but it is gradually what will help you to function as lawyers. By this I do not mean that you need to sacrifice one for the other (after all, it is fine to think that there are many things that are wrong about the law), merely that you need to be highly aware that they are different things. If you mistake your sense of moral judgement for your professional expertise you will get into trouble as a lawyer because the two do not always coincide.

When reading a case, I would recommend reading the majority opinion first. Make sure you have established what that is, it is not always (confusingly) the first. As you read it, do not look for a quick resolution and statement of the law "as it is" but try to see this as a reasoning that happens to have obtained majority support, but which is like all reasoning (especially of the constitutional kind) susceptible to counter arguments. Maybe you can anticipate some of the arguments of the dissenters as you read the judgment of the majority.

I would then read the dissent judgments, and leave for the end once you have understood the central issues, the reasoning of inferior courts. The latter will provide a sense of how related arguments were made earlier, but sometimes starting with those can make the reading lengthy and tedious.

You should try to be aware not only of the outcome, but of its significance (in relation to previous outcomes, to the evolution of the law on that specific matter, or to the evolution of the law generally) and how it was reached. Sometimes a decision will be rendered on the basis of a series of arguments, but often there will be some issues that are clearly more central than others. You need to draw up a little hierarchy of  those in your mind. A small diagram outlining the reasoning can help (for example a decision tree, with various branches indicating possible reasoning and contrasting various judges). Also remember that most legal reasoning is iterative, it is part of a broader conversation that began before it and will continue beyond it.

Finally, a good practice to get into is to test yourself after readings. Close the book and ask yourself: "what did I just read?" Note down a summary and then go back to the reading to see how the two compare. This is a better method I would argue than simply taking notes as you go. The problem with the latter is that you cannot know until you have read the whole thing what is really important and what is secondary. Taking notes separately and after reading will rely on and develop your ability to mentally photograph a reading, and then figure out what was most important about it.