While reading cases for a research project I'm involved in, I had a sudden flashback to the very first time I ever read a law case. Like every other lawschool graduate/attorney out there, I've probably read hundreds upon hundreds of legal opinions written by the court.
During my research project, I realized how much reading case law is second nature to me. I can (and sometimes do) pick up a stack of cases and skim through it flippantly during my lunch break in search of something relevant to an issue I'm dealing with. I can even do this while scarfing down a bowl of raisin, date and walnut oatmeal, sipping Det Dr. Pepper, and catching up on my emails. Reading caselaw is just a routine part of my life.
BUT. To this day, I can STILL remember the very first time I ever read a legal opinion. Not just a nicely edited portion of an opinion conveniently printed in a caselaw book- but an actual case, printed in full from a legal report.
It's clear to me now that an essential part of lawschool is the hazing of not knowing what the hell you're doing. In this respect, lawschool totally prepares you for a shining career in the legal field. In fact, I think the motto of legal education across the country should be "if you think you know what you're doing, you're probably doing it wrong" or "if you have no clue what's going on, you're in the right place." Anyway, back to reading caselaw.... If you look up the definition of legal career, the words "on the job training" should be the first thing you read.
The first time a lawstudent reads an actual case is a major milestone, fundamental to the experience of becoming a lawyer. Or, at the very least, a definingly traumatic experience. For me, it was scary, exciting and adventurous. And I believe the accompanying feeling of utter confusion it brought may never be rivaled.
The first law case I ever read was Marbury v. Madison (boy, what a doozy for a first time caselaw reader). (Tangent: The second case I ever read was Pierson v. Post. Seriously? One person sued another person over a dead fox? Moral of the story-- "fox killers always prosper?"). The day before my first 1L lawschool class, I opened up and printed the case. And... I couldn't get past the first page without thinking I was reading something in code or foreign language.
The caption was intimidating and scary- what did it all mean? What is a plaintiff? What is a defendant. What are the justices saying? Are they writing in latin? Then I remember how amazed I was when my Professor unravelled the case for me, dissecting it piece by piece. I remember how awestruck I was to learn that just the name of a case tells you who was suing who and where and when. I was amazed to discover that the seemingly incoherent document I read the night before actually meant something, and it meant something rather significant in the field of law.
I clearly remember looking at the jibberish contained within that first case, reading it diligently all the way through and still not knowing who had "won" the suit? In fact, I can't tell you how many times I did this my first semester of law school.
"So a case is 'remanded'.... wait, who wins again?" (Sound familiar?)
Looking back at where I was before lawschool, before I was consumed by the strange requirement to read case law, it's not hard to be amazed at how much has become second nature and fundamental to what I do on a daily basis. Without remembering how far I've come, it's so easy to take for granted all the stuff that I've learned that lead me to where I am now.
Practicing law is such a wild, exhilarating ride. Or I could just be a total nerd.