Tips on How to Read Case Law


Understanding case law is essential for legal practitioners, students, and anyone looking to use judicial decisions to support an argument. Here’s a basic guide on how to read and unpack a court opinion and how to use case law in your legal argument.


Identify the Citation


Start with the case citation, which provides the name of the case, the volume number, the reporter in which the case is published, the page on which the case starts, and the year of the decision. This citation is generally used when referencing the case in legal arguments and for finding the case in legal databases.


Understand the Procedural History


Identify the procedural history: which court or courts have previously decided the issue on appeal, that the current court is discussing in their opinion, and the overall history of the case. This context is important for understanding the decision's weight as a precedent.


Read the Syllabus (if applicable)


Some opinions, particularly those from the U.S. Supreme Court, include a syllabus at the beginning, which is a summary prepared by the reporter of decisions that is not part of the opinion. It can provide a quick overview of the case.


Determine the Issues


Look for the legal issues the court had to decide. The issue or issues are often stated near the beginning of the opinion and will guide your understanding of the case’s significance.


Analyze the Holding


The holding is the court's decision on the legal issues on appeal. It’s the most important part of the case for a legal argument. It's not just whether the court affirmed or reversed the lower court's decision, but why, i.e. what was the court's reasoning.


Understand the Court's Reasoning


Examine the court's reasoning, which explains the rationale behind the holding. This includes the facts of the case, legal principles applied, interpretations of statutes, and application of precedent.


Consider the Rule of Law


Identify the rule of law the court establishes or applies in the case. This rule can be extracted and used in legal arguments as applicable to similar facts.


Distinguish Between Ratio Decidendi and Obiter Dicta


Differentiate between the ratio decidendi – meaning, the legal principles that are the basis of the court’s decision – and obiter dicta, which are comments made by the judge that are not binding.


Look at the Concurring and Dissenting Opinions


Read any concurring and dissenting opinions, as they can provide alternative interpretations of the law and may become important if the legal landscape changes.


Review the Analysis


Check the analysis of the case in legal commentaries, treatises, and articles to see how it has been interpreted by other legal professionals.


Check Subsequent Treatment


Research how subsequent courts have treated the decision. Has it been followed, distinguished, overruled, or questioned?


Apply the Case to Your Argument


When using case law in your argument, apply the rule of law from the case to the facts of your situation. Be prepared to argue why the reasoning of the case should (or should not) apply to your case's circumstances.


Prepare for Counterarguments


Anticipate how the opposing party might distinguish your case from the precedent or might use other case law to counter your argument.


Legal Writing and Citations


Incorporate the case into your written legal argument using proper citation format, and ensure that your use of the case supports your overall argument structure.




Understanding and utilizing case law effectively requires careful reading and analysis of court opinions, a firm grasp of legal principles, and the ability to apply these principles logically to the facts at hand. By dissecting a court opinion methodically and extracting the pertinent elements, you may craft compelling arguments supported by judicial precedent.


For more on researching and using case law in legal arguments, check out the Self Rep Edge Video Series and Civil Litigation Workbook.