Legal education in the common law world revolves around reading cases. Perhaps a little less than in the past, but still. But why? And why should students spend time on reading cases in full, instead of finding short summaries? Especially now that (unlike, say, 100 or perhaps even 50 years ago) there are great textbooks that summarise whole areas of the law, and (unlike, say, 20 or perhaps even 10 years ago) online sources, some of them quite good, that summarise individual cases, and indeed short and sometimes plain-language summaries produced by the courts themselves?
Before I explain why, I mention a fundamental fact which students at the outset of their legal careers probably don’t think much about, understandably: your legal career, if that’s the one you choose, may well extend for 40 or even 50 years, and during this time the law will change a lot. Think about what the law was like in 1972, and what it is like now. How many statutes and even cases from back then are you encountering in your classes? Some, no doubt; perhaps quite a few if your lecturers are more historically-minded. But still. For lawyers who graduated in 1972 or 1982, almost all of the law they are applying now was made after they left law school.
In a superficial sense, law school cannot prepare you for this, because we don’t have time machines and cannot really guess what the law of the future will look like. So how do the lawyers who graduated in 1972 and 1982 manage? It’s because law school doesn’t only or even mainly teach you what the law happens to be at the moment in time when you go there. Instead, it teaches you the skills you need to understand the law as it develops over the course of your career. This is why law school is not just a trade school, but part of a university: it is doesn’t just teach you how to do something, but how to think.
Reading cases is one such skill, for (at least) three categories of reasons. The first has to do with learning what the law is; the second, with expressing oneself in the law’s language; the third, with solving problems like a lawyer. All of these, it is worth noting, apply across all areas of law ― nothing in what I will say here is specific to public law.
To begin with, you need to read cases to know what the law is because many of the most important legal rules and principles are not recorded in legislation, and are only given form, however imperfect, in judicial decisions. Moreover, even legislation seldom stands by itself. You need to know how it is interpreted and applied by the courts. Of course, you can pick up a lot about the cases decided in the past from the abovementioned sources ― textbooks, online summaries, etc. Maybe, from this perspective, you could get away with not reading cases in law school, though it’s not a good idea. These sources may be wrong, or, even more likely, they may be incomplete or slanted in one way or another. You want, as much as possible, to be able to judge for yourself.
And then, what happens when you graduate, and new cases keep getting decided? Suppose the Supreme Court decides a case that bears on an ongoing issue you are helping a client with. You cannot very well tell them to wait for a few months or even years until someone else does the work for you. You need to know how to read the case for yourself and update your advice to your client accordingly. Practicing to read and understand cases in law school is how you prepare for that.
Next, you need to read cases to write and speak like a lawyer. Like any profession, law has its own jargon. It can be peculiar. To be sure, law has become less attached to some of the more archaic English or even Latin words and phrases it used to be fond of ― though of course you may still need to be comfortable with them to understand older cases. But that doesn’t mean that lawyers now speak like any other educated persons. You need to know, for example, that you can have a claim at common law, or in equity, and not in common law or at equity. Why? I’m not sure there’s a reason. It certainly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But you need to know these things to establish a common language with your fellow lawyers and with the judges, without which you cannot be a full member of the legal community ― or an effective representative of your clients’ interests.
Reading cases is the most obvious way in which you will acquire this peculiar language. Textbooks and summaries often abstract it away in the process of distilling the cases’ holdings to single sentences or short paragraphs. They might help a little, but they won’t be enough. I suppose you might read statutes, but I’m not sure that’ll be as effective, and I’m certain it will be boring. (You should sometimes read statutes too, to know what they are like. But you don’t need to do it as much as with cases.)
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to read cases to understand how lawyers and judges solve problems. In his famous report of Prohibitions del Roy, Coke CJ claims that he told James I that the King could not decide cases himself, instead of letting his courts do it, because
His Majesty was not learned in the laws of his realm of England, and causes which concern the life, or inheritance, or goods, or fortunes of his subjects, are not to be decided by natural reason but by the artificial reason and judgment of law, which law is an act which requires long study and experience, before that a man can attain to the cognizance of it.
While a lot in that report was made up, this idea was true in 1607, and it remains true today. The law has its own way of thinking through difficult questions, and being a smart person, which you are if you have made it to law school, isn’t enough to grasp it. In sports, you probably won’t be picked for a high-level team without some natural gifts. But you still need to train to become a great athlete, and not just someone who could have been one. It’s the same in law.
The cases are where you absorb legal reasoning. Textbooks and summaries focus on giving you the outcome, and not the step-by-step reasoning of the judges. Nor do they usually tell you which arguments the court found unpersuasive, or spend much time unpacking judicial rhetoric, which can be very useful if you are going to persuade judges: giving them ready-made arguments they can re-use will make them more likely to side with you. Lectures may go into such details from time to time, but they are too short to do it much.
Ultimately, there is no substitute for taking your own time and working your own way through judgments. Even if someone could learn all the legal rules that exist when they graduate law school without acquiring ― through long study and experience ― the skills that reading cases gives you, they would be useless to their clients within 10 years. And they’d still have 80% of their career ahead of them. You don’t want to be that person. The good news is that cases are often fun to read. They are stories, often interesting and sometimes well-told. The more you get use to reading them, the more attuned you become to the smaller details that can make them fascinating. And the sooner you start, the better you will be at it.