Review: Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond

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By Jane Bloom Grisé, University of Kentucky College of Law

Scott Turow, the bestselling author of One L, compared reading cases to “stirring concrete with my eyelashes.” Reading cases is challenging for many law students, but critical reading skills are incredibly important for success in law school and legal practice. Empirical research shows that lawyers read cases differently than non-lawyers. In addition, top law students use different reading strategies than lower performing students. While expert legal readers read cases to solve client problems, novices often read to memorize facts. Higher performing law students use an arsenal of different reading strategies depending upon the complexity of the case, but novices tend to indiscriminately highlight large quantities of text. Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond was written to teach students the skills utilized by lawyers and higher performing law students. This book introduces students to a series of critical reading strategies so that they can become effective readers and move on to be successful in law school and law practice.

The Critical Reading program is premised on two ideas. First, it is based on the idea that critical reading should be taught. While it is often assumed that students enter law school fully equipped to read and understand cases and statutes, there is no evidence to support this assumption. One student in a focus group conducted in connection with the Critical Reading program indicated that reading a case was like looking for a purple dinosaur without knowing what a dinosaur was or what the color purple looked like. Critical reading strategies can be taught, and it is important to explain to students, as adult learners, how these strategies will improve their ultimate performance.

Second, Critical Reading is based on the idea that strategies should be presented in a sequential manner. As Bloom’s taxonomy suggests, students must master the lower level skill of understanding before they can be expected to engage in higher level skills, such as analysis and synthesis. For this reason, Critical Reading starts by examining the purpose for reading cases—to solve problems. Students are also introduced to the structure of cases so that they can understand different sections of cases. Critical Reading then presents information about civil and criminal procedure so that students can understand some of the commonly used terminology found in cases.

Then the program teaches students pre-reading strategies such as understanding the context of cases and doing case overviews before reading more carefully. After students master these foundational skills, they are introduced to techniques for reading facts and understanding complicated text. Rather than simply providing a template for a case brief, the program examines the components of a case such as the issue, holding, and dictum, and provides techniques to understand the main ideas in the case. Higher level skills such as finding rules, synthesizing cases, and evaluating cases are addressed at the end of the book.

These strategies can be introduced and incorporated into all classrooms in a few ways. First, students can be advised that they should read cases to identify rules and concepts that will be used to solve client problems or hypotheticals on a final exam. Students should be explicitly told that they do not need to memorize most cases.

Second, students can be instructed to read actively and pretend that they are either one of the parties in the case or the judge. Studies have found that higher performing students read actively in this way. Professors who ask students how they would decide the case or how one of the parties would argue in the case are encouraging students to adopt this active reading strategy. Finally, professors can take one sentence from an opinion and model good comprehension techniques such as paying attention to conjunctions, noticing repeated words, and shortening long sentences by inserting periods.

Critical Reading describes these and other strategies that can be introduced in the fall and/or spring semesters. As you are planning the spring semester, consider incorporating critical reading strategies into your courses. If you would like to discuss how you can introduce these strategies to your students, please feel free to contact me at jane.grise@uky.edu.

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