How should one read the "reasoning" section of an opinion?

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How should one read the "reasoning" section of an opinion?

Postby PunkedbyReality » Tue Oct 01, 2013 1:38 pm

As many have said, and as TLS wisdom reflects, doing well on exams is more about knowing how to apply the law than it is about knowing the law itself. Among many other ways, engaging the "reasoning" section for assigned case readings appears (I am only a 1L in my fest semester) to be a good way to understand how to apply the relevant law to a fact set. But that being said, I still often find that I did not grasp a court's reasoning at the level I could have as the professor addresses it in class.

I understand that the professors' understanding of the substantive law and the way the cases/law connect enables them to draw more from the reasoning of a court than a student could. But, I also feel as though I could continue to improve the way I approach the reasoning section of assigned cases so that I may gain a deeper understanding of the way the court reasoned, and thus, how law is applied to facts.

So, here's my question: How should a 1L student approach the "reasoning" section of an assigned case? Are there any techniques (trying to generate my own hypos, asking myself certain questions, etc.) which allow one to draw the most from the "reasoning" section?

Any insight would be much appreciated.

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Re: How should one read the "reasoning" section of an opinion?

Postby thesealocust » Tue Oct 01, 2013 2:01 pm

The law is nothing more than policy writ specific. I think I'm plagarizing that phrase from somewhere but I can't remember.

"The law" is always going to be something that leaves ambiguities when confronted with specific facts, and policy/rationales/etc. are what you marshal to resolve those on ambiguities come exam day.

Example: Learning the law might mean learning that no vicarious liability exists for employers when their employees are engaged in frolic or detour. That's a really easy law to learn (it's like, one sentence!) but your 1L class will approach "teaching" it to you with a variety of cases and source materials, some of which are shitty or purposefully designed to show you bad precedents. Some exceptions or twists might be examined in squib or highlight cases, and the prof might inexplicably love talking about the procedural history of a case used to teach it to you. You might get cold called for 20 minutes on random facts that occurred in the dissent of a side case.

Basically, learning the law as a 1L involves digging through pages of cases and hours of class to find the occasional kernels of "law" which you can actually then apply.

To do that applying, you'll have to have an awareness of why the law is the law. Again - the law is a policy written specific. Here, broadly, the policy is that employers should be responsible for harm caused by their employees when conducting business, but shouldn't if the employee is faffing about off the clock.

Inevitably, the exam will have a fact pattern that's maddeningly "grey area." Ex.: a municipal park employee will be planning a surprise party for his boss, drive two states over to purchase the Vodka for the party, stop on the way to grab a new shovel that the boss asked him to order via mail, during his lunch break, wearing his government uniform, and mow down a pedestrian in a vehicle which the government gave him a discounted loan to purchase and which is intended to be partially for work and partially for personal use.

WHAT RESULT???!!111~~~~~~~~~~~ WHERE DO WE DRAW THE LINE~~~~~~~~~~ bzzzzzzzz law law law ~~

Your job is then to take a very simple rule and start walking through how it would (or wouldn't!) apply to all of the facts, which will require constant cross-reference to policy rationales and reasoning.

If you're good at what you do, you can take a single one sentence law and a single paragraph fact pattern like the above and go hog-wild for pages talking about the various arguments for and against liability, cross referencing the facts and the various policy rationales for the law. Creativity encouraged!

You don't really need the SPECIFIC "rationale" sections from cases, but you should treat your constant exposure to them as constant opportunities to watch and learn from other professionals engaging in the art of crafting arguments and defending positions. You won't have to quote the Andrews dissent from Palsgraff, but being aware of the reasons cases were decided is the only way to have the mastery necessary to apply those laws to novel fact patterns.

And, as hopefully I'm making clear, class is never designed to just teach you the law and send you on your way. It's designed to... not to be trite... help you learn how to think like a lawyer, by repeated exposure to the exercise of thinking like a lawyer and reading about others who are engaged in thinking like lawyers.

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