OFF THE RECORD - Seton Hall Law

A Professor's Guide to Law School Class Preparation and Participation

Posted by Solangel Maldonado on 8/18/18 7:30 AM


Imagine this scenario.  You read all of the assigned cases for Contracts, highlighted the parts that seem important in different colors, and even skimmed the notes and questions following the cases.  That means you are prepared to effectively participate in class, right?  Not quite. 

Preparing for a law school class is a bit different (maybe quite different) from preparing for an English literature, political science, or history class.  Reading the cases is only the first step.  You must also brief each case.  Yes, briefing cases is time consuming but it is essential to class preparation.  Briefing ensures that you are not that student who when asked to state the procedural history or the relevant facts is frantically reading the case again in the hopes that the answer will magically jump off the page as the class waits and five hands go up at once.  You can avoid this unnecessary stress by having a clear case brief. 

I know you covered this in Lawyering but here’s a quick reminder of the essential parts of a case brief:

  • Procedural history
  • Relevant facts
  • Legal issue(s)—what questions was the court asked to decide
  • Rule(s) of law extracted from the case
  • Holding
  • Reasoning
  • Disposition
  • Concurrences, dissents

In addition, you should consider the policy implications of the court’s decision.  Was this a just outcome?  Did the court get it wrong?  What arguments would you have made if you were representing the plaintiff?  If you were representing the defendant? 

You should also consider how the case builds on the last case you read.  What are the similarities and differences between the two?  Consider the historical, social, political, and economic environment in which the case was brought.  Did they influence the outcome? 

You came to law school with vast amounts of knowledge.  Use this knowledge to make connections between the cases and other subjects you have studied.  Just as important, recognize the value of your experiences when thinking critically about the law.  As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.”    

We all learn from each other and class discussions are only as rich as your contributions.

You may be reading this post during your first week (or first day) of classes and wondering how you are supposed to make all of these connections when you are still trying to figure what the court decided.  This is where those notes and questions following the cases come in.  Do not skip or skim them.  Read them carefully and write out answers to the questions.  Your answers may not be the correct answers.  In fact, there is often no “correct” answer but by thinking about the issues you will have a better understanding of the big picture. 

If you need another incentive to ponder the notes and questions following the cases, you should know that professors often use them as the inspiration for their own questions in class.  Professors may even ask the note questions verbatim.

If class preparation (“prep” for short) seems like a lot of work, wait, there’s more.  Chances are you will not be familiar with every word or phrase you read.  What do “sua sponte”, “demurrer”, “parens patriae”, “dicta”, or “prima facie” mean?  Look it up in Black’s Law Dictionary.  It is difficult to participate effectively in class if you do not understand essential terminology. 

Similarly, if the case cites a statute or rule (such as a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure), be sure to read the statute or rule.  Otherwise, you may be halfway through Civil Procedure before you understand what a 12(b)(6) motion is.  Also, do not ignore the footnotes.  Cases generally have few footnotes so the ones that are there tend to be important. 

Now that I have completely stressed you out, I’ll share the most important requirement for effective class participation.  Relax.  Class prep does not require that you have all the answers.  Your professors don’t have all the answers.  No one does.  So come to class prepared to ask questions and to share your views with the rest of the class (voluntarily or otherwise).  We all learn from each other and class discussions are only as rich as your contributions.

Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash


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