The Granularity of Holdings

My instinct coming into law school was to treat the law as revealed by cases as something that could be distilled from a case after you boil away the facts and procedure.

It’s actually not possible to do this. Particularly in common law focused 1L classes, where there’s no statute to interpret, nothing stands behind the cases, and everything in the cases except for the holding is dicta.

Probably the most important realization I had as a 1L was that a court’s explanation of its decision, apart from the narrow aspect of what facts it recognizes, is no different from any other digression. If this sounds incorrect, you can look at the way the Supreme Court will sometimes avoid “overruling” precedent by reinterpreting it under a theory consistent with the facts and results in each case but inconsistent with the precedent logic.

It is very difficult to get around inconvenient facts, but courts will readily ignore the precedent logic if it’s inconsistent with the result they believe is correct in the instant case.

For a 1L, this has important implications for studying and “briefing” best practices.

If you undertake to brief cases (which might be helpful by probably has diminishing returns), the goal should not be a detail mapping of the court’s analysis, by a short and snappy crystallization of the opinion’s relevant holdings. I don’t mean that “rules of law” are unimportant, because they are exceptionally important for law exams, but these are readily obtainable without effort through any number of supplements (E&E’s are my preference).

Your casebook however is very useful for putting these rules in context.

For example, assume the (simplified) rule of law that there is no liability for negligently caused injury without breach of a duty.

The exam will test your ability to apply this rule to a set of novel facts, which is very difficult to do without other examples for context. Holdings from your casebook provide this context (some but not all professors will award points for analogizing to cases you read in class as well).

This means that your exam-ready takeaway from a negligence case should be something like: Common carrier railroad had duty to passenger as a matter of law. [Special rules apply to common carriers.]

Contrast this with: Passerby who undertook to rescue accident victim and told other bystanders that he had situation under control undertook duty to complete rescue.

These may remind you of Westlaw headnotes, which is the idea.

Practice doing this with cases and you will have useful fodder for Getting to Maybe on your exams and a good start toward thinking like a lawyer.

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