For a litigator, reading cases is part of everyday life. But for the uninitiated, legal texts can seem dense and impenetrable. Reading cases is a skill that gets better with practice, and it is a big step in the direction of “thinking like a lawyer.”
For those about to embark on law school, I would recommend reading Professor Orin Kerr’s article “How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students,” which explains the structure of a legal opinion as well as some basic legal terminology. Professor Kerr also offers good advice for reading opinions that are vague or ambiguous:
Rather than trying to fill in the ambiguity with false certainty, try embracing the ambiguity instead. One of the skills of top-flight lawyers is that they know what they don’t know: they know when the law is unclear. Indeed, this skill of identifying when a problem is easy and when it is hard (in the sense of being unsettled or unresolved by the courts) is one of the keys to doing very well in law school. The best law students are the ones who recognize and identify these unsettled issues without pretending that they are easy.
In my experience, preparing thorough case briefs prior to class is a good way to teach yourself to read like a lawyer; writing about the cases clarifies what you know and what you do not. Reading carefully, thinking through the cases on your own, and paying attention to class discussions will prepare you for exams and, more importantly, develop the lawyering skills that are crucial to success throughout your career.