Law students are no strangers to case studies. This ubiquitous law school exercise is a particularly effective strategy for law students to bring the law to life at their teaching sites.
Street Law, Inc. offers scores of case study materials on both recent and landmark Supreme Court cases.
Case studies can take many forms: legal cases based on written opinions of courts; hypothetical situations involving some conflict or dilemma; and real‑life situations drawn from newspapers, magazines, books, or other sources.
Case studies usually include the following elements:
- a description of the FACTS
- a statement of the ISSUE or problem posed by the case
- a reference to the ARGUMENTS or various positions that can be taken on the issue
- a DECISION or a result on the issue presented
- an explanation of the REASONING behind the decision
The case study method is an inquiry‑oriented technique. It is designed to help participants apply legal rules to real‑life situations. By doing more than simply providing the law as it applies to a particular problem, participants are forced to explore their own ideas and conclusions. This process helps arouse participant interest and develop participants' skills in logic, independent analysis, critical thinking, and decision-making.
1. Understanding the Facts of the Case
Participants should read, listen to, or view a description of the facts of the case. One useful and efficient method for ensuring that participants understand the facts is to put them in pairs and have one participant recount the important facts. The question, "What happened in this case?" is a good prompt.
Another technique involves having participants work on the following series of questions:
- What happened in this case?
- Who are the people, organizations, or companies involved?
- What are the possible motives to explain why the people involved acted the way they did?
- Which facts are important?
- Which facts are not included that you would like to know?
As a general rule, it is important to check for participant understanding of the facts before the participants work on the other elements. A quick class discussion of the facts can clear up misunderstandings and reinforce the work that the participants did in pairs/groups.
2. Identify the Issue
Participants should clearly pinpoint and discuss the issues or problems presented by the case. The legal issue is the question of law on which the decision in the case turns. An issue should be posed in the form of a question. It is often very difficult for the participants to frame the issue of the case they are studying. You may decide to simply tell them. While most cases revolve around a legal issue, participants should also consider issues of public policy, ethics, and practical application.
3. Discuss the Arguments
After the participants have focused on the issues, they should develop and discuss the arguments that can be made for and against each point of view. One issue, clearly stated, should be identified for discussion. If time allows, you may wish to present other issues. When discussing the arguments, participants should consider questions such as:
- What are the arguments in favor of and against each point of view?
- Which arguments are most persuasive? Least persuasive? Why?
- What might be the consequences of each course of action? To the parties involved? To society?
- Are there any alternatives?
In discussing the various arguments, it is important to foster a climate of acceptance and openness. Participants must know that all opinions are welcome and that their ideas will receive a fair hearing and analysis, no matter how controversial or touchy the issue. In other words, participants should be encouraged to consider and evaluate all points of view.
4. Reaching and Reasoning Behind a Decision
A decision is the answer to the issue or issues posed by a case. When participants are given the decision, as in a court case, they should be asked to evaluate it. Do they agree or disagree with it? What will the decision mean for the parties involved? For society? In some cases, the decision will not be given, and participants should reach their own decisions. For example, the teacher may ask participants how they would decide a case and why. After the participants have reached their own conclusions, the teacher can tell them the actual result or holding in the case, and participants can compare their own decision to that of the court.
When conducting a case study, the teacher may wish to try one of the following variations on the case study method:
- Giving Participants an Entire Case: Using this approach, participants must decide what are the facts, issues and arguments, decision, and reasoning in a given case. They then must evaluate the decision and the reasoning behind it.
- Giving Participants Unmarked Opinions: Give participants the facts, issues, and arguments in unmarked judicial opinions. Participants are not told which of the court opinions is the actual decision in the case. Rather, they are asked to select the opinion with which they agree and to explain why. Later, they can be given the actual decision and asked to compare their reasoning and result against the court's.
- Having Participants Write Opinions: Using this approach, participants are given the facts, issues, and arguments and are asked to develop a decision (judicial opinion) with reasons. Yet another variation involves giving participants the facts and issues and then asking them to work together in small groups to develop and present arguments for each side. Once the arguments have been presnted, participants can write judicial opinions. Again, the court's actual opinion can be provided and studied after the student‑centered activities have been completed.
Download the Elements of a Case Study handout.