If you search the internet, you will find many sites, and blogs, which offer tips and advice on how to succeed in studying English law. Pieces of advice such as ‘take notes in class’, ‘prepare for class’, and ‘review what you do’ are all highly important and essential to success.
There are different approaches to studying law that work better for some people. However, whatever approach you take, I am going to suggest that the following five pieces of advice are indispensable if you want to achieve real success, both as a student of English law and also practising it.
1. Read Cases
If you have any interest in English law at all, you almost certainly know that England has a common law system. Many will also know that one of the main sources of English law is case law - the decisions of English judges in English courts.
There are many reasons why I urge anyone studying English law to read cases as soon as possible. For example, here are just four:
· they introduce you to practical, legal reasoning
· they introduce you to a practical understanding of how judicial precedent in the English legal system works
· they often introduce you to how English legislation is interpreted and give a practical understanding of this process
· they introduce you to the importance of, and the skill of, handling facts
It is possible to complete your English legal studies without ever reading a case from start to finish. You can buy casebooks in many legal subjects. These will give you extracts from the most important cases, together with some commentary about them. Casebooks are attractive and, I agree, very useful resources. However, they are no substitute for reading the full case report in the law reports.
Reading English cases can be challenging, especially to the non-native speaker. Some judgments are long and can use complex language. Rather than read a long English case, you may think it is better to spend the time reading a textbook. However, in my opinion this is false economy. You will learn far more of value from reading cases than if you take what seems to be the easier option.
However, it is essential to have a structured approach when you read a case. The next tip offers one approach that I highly recommend.
2. Brief Cases
A case brief is a short (perhaps one or two pages), analytical summary of the case you are reading. It gives you a structured, consistent approach when reading cases.
A case brief should contain at least the following:
· the name of the case
· the date the case was decided
· which court/judge(s) decided the case
· a summary of the relevant facts of the case
· a summary of the legal reasoning used by the judge or judges in the case
· what was decided
You can add to this. For example, you may include a section giving your own thoughts about the case, whether you think it was correctly decided and why. You may like to add a section referencing any academic articles/opinions on the case.
There are many good reasons to get into the habit of briefing a case.
· As stated above, it gives you a consistent, structured way of reading cases
· It focuses your mind on both the facts of the case and the legal reasoning applied to the facts
· It starts the process of asking focused questions about the case and the judgment and is a good basis for discussion of the case in class
· It is a useful resource for the future – for example, for exam revision purposes.
If you would like to have a template Case Brief, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will gladly send you one.
3. Know the Case Facts
If you read cases, you quickly understand how important it is to know the facts of a case well. Understanding this is important, both as an academic and a practising lawyer. Legal reasoning is applied to the particular facts of a case. The facts, of course, are never the same in two cases, even though they may be similar.
One of the advantages of reading cases is that you will learn to understand the importance of facts and how legal reasoning is applied to them in the English common law system. Under the system of judicial precedent, cases are ‘distinguished’, or ‘followed’, often on the basis that they have different, or similar, facts to other, previous cases. Reading cases introduces you to how to handle facts and start to think about how legal reasoning is applied to them.
However, as stated above, no two cases have exactly the same facts. What you need to know is how a court, in the future, might approach a case with different facts. So, the next tip is...
4. Change the Case Facts
When you read a case, and have briefed the case, it is always a good exercise to imagine the case has slightly different facts. You can then begin to think about whether the case would be decided differently on those new, imagined facts, and why.
Doing this helps you think about why a case was decided in the way that it was, and how a similar but different set of facts might change the outcome in future. As a practising lawyer, you can almost certainly guarantee that any case you do will not have exactly the same facts as a previous case. Getting into the habit of imagining different factual scenarios and deciding what you think a court would do in that situation, is a very useful skill to develop early.
5. Discuss Cases
It is possible to study alone, but you will develop your thoughts on cases – and the law – much better by discussing them with others. You will, of course, do this in class, tutorials, seminars, and so on. However, the more you discuss cases, the more your thoughts about them will be challenged with new information and ideas. This should, at least, make you ask whether your understanding of a case, a decision, legal reasoning, and so on, is correct.
One alternative here is to form a study or discussion group.
At the heart of all of this is reading English cases. The sooner you do this, the easier it will be to understand English law, English legal principles, and become a better academic and practising lawyer.
© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2020