Remembering Cases

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Jump to: navigation, search will I ever get all these cases in my brain?

"a mixture of sheer luck and repetitiveness"

Thanks to labguest via CC licence on Flickr

One of the biggest fears of law students is that, come exam period, every single case will fly from their mind. Indeed for many a larger problem is actually getting them there in the first place. There are certain cases that everyone remembers, usually because of the striking or unusual facts of the case. The snail and ginger beer of Donoghue v Stevenson [1892] EWCA Civ 1, the excruciating candle wax in R v Brown [1993] UKHL 19, and the conjoined twins necessity case in Re A (Children) (Conjoined Twins: Surgical Separation) [2000] EWCA Civ 254.

But how can you be in the situation of being able to recall twenty-odd cases for every question within an exam, and not just the case name but the legal principle inherent within?

A recent email from a student prompted me to think about this further:

"I would like to know what are the best methods/techniques for remembering cases. There are just so many and while I can remember the well emphasised cases from lectures and textbooks, I find that my memory lapses and I forget the other important cases..."

After replying to the student with a few thoughts I decided a more detailed piece might be helpful to all. For this I asked for input on Twitter and got some great tips from the many helpful lawyers and law students active there. Here are some thoughts to get you going:

Word association

Think of a way to link the case name to something familiar - lots of people said they used names of people they knew or celebs to remember the case name. They were undecided about how far this helps with cementing the facts in your memory aware it might only help for last-minute cramming.

@vegibruce gets this across well: "Pick quirk in the name + summarise facts eg. Datafin - judicial review of private body. Works well if u can give case a character". rebeccaaron speaks of "making up silly stories linking the names to the principle of the case", but warns it only works for short term memory though.

@ljanstis emphasises how the connection can work: "Sainsburys Supermakets -v- Hitt, imagine hitting a supermarket".

LawSchoolOnline has a great post 'Alliteration for learning in law' on how students recall cases via word association.

Get them down visually

"Turn them into cute cartoons. That's how I remembered the snails, flick knives and contract cases" @clareangela

@janeslaws echos the cartoon association..."having funny little points that made me smile helped me remember..."

Mind maps are another tremendous way of getting your brain to accept pieces of related information - you learn by the initial creation of them and then decorate your room with them to continue your learning! You can do this for an area of law and all the related authorities, but also for planning essay and problem questions before writing them properly - this helps with your structure hugely. For problem questions this means you make doubly sure you've got the right order of events.

Tony Buzan is the guru of mind maps, for a couple of useful blog posts on mind mapping in relation to the study of law see 'How to use mind maps for life and law' from Legaleagelmhm's blog and the 'How to study law using mindmaps' from Gavin Ward, find it on his blog: WardblawG. These are really useful articles which offer you some insight into how the technique can help you in your study.

Here's a very introductory slideshow about the basics of mindmapping from City University library (click on note-taking methods).

Caroline Anderson from New Zealand offers the following recommendations:

"If you are a visual leaner, you may find it useful to visualize the judge and the parties, etc. Give them real personalities and appearances. Sometimes you can find visual information about cases online that will be helpful aids to remembering facts of a case. Look at photographs of the judge(s) if you can find them on the Internet as that makes them more memorable and real. I think Wikipedia often has little pictures in information about famous cases, for example. Of course we all know to be careful when using Wikipedia, but this is just an example of where you can find visual aids that you might find helpful to recalling the facts of a case. Drawing a flow chart with the basic facts, the decision, the ratio decided I might work well for visual leaners too, perhaps colour-coding the facts, etc. might also help, e.g. Green for material facts, red for ratio, etc."

Use flash/cue cards

This is a very popular option - use one side for the case name and the other for facts/outcome/legal principle. This works really well; you learn by compiling it in the first place but then you've made a brilliant revision tool. Use them on the train/tube, in the bath (perhaps laminating required?!) and over lunch. I used to employ mine at the gym when I was stuck on an exercise bike trying to avoid MTV RnB which was the only channel they had on the TVs (not great for an indie kid).

These also make it easy for someone else to test you - alternating between testing you out with facts and case name. Tireless repetition will eventually make it stick, especially if you're combining it with other methods like the mind maps for essay practice.

Post-its were also mentioned - found a great quote in a student forum where iamorgan reflects: "I also do the post it note thing -but put them all over the place -in the fridge -in my bed -in my sock drawer etc. So I'm constantly just finding a random case to know! Only way it really goes in".

Talk to yourself...

Reading the case out loud might work for some! Caroline Anderson found when faced with something long that reading it out loud and talking to herself about it really worked. You can even read it to the cat or dog. It really does help, strange though it may sound.

Talk about the case with fellow students too. This will reinforce your learning. Quiz each another on the facts, the ratio, etc. Surely there's a drinking game begging to be invented here?

Look into my eyes, look into my eyes... give me £50... Thanks to rAmmoRRison via CC licence

A few people also mentioned the techniques of Derren Brown, with chapter 3 of his book Tricks of the Mind, focusing on training your memory with the example of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists (1953). I've not read but might be worth a glance? (Thanks @mrcivlib for the tip.)

A great resource for further reading is held on the Lawbore site; the author Nicolas McBride kindly allowed us to give students access to his chapter on Reading Case Law from his book Letters to a law student. This is from the first edition, second now in the shops!

Thanks to rAmmoRRison for the Eyes are the mirror of the soul image via CC licence on Flickr

Final thoughts

Whilst it is good to have a strategy for remembering cases, like all law, you can't view anything in isolation. You need to know how cases relate to each other too, so I can't emphasise enough that you need to be thinking of cases in the context of exam/essay questions too - plan out which cases you'd use to tackle many different questions/problems and get used to thinking in terms of this. The more you do it, the more chance there is that this will all splurge out exactly when you need it (May/June exam time would be nice, right?).

As shevvs states "instead of trying to remember names mechanically you need to know what detail makes it relevant and understand why". Don't become case-churning robots people!

Pace yourself and don't try to read too many cases on the same subject each day. The likelihood of muddling them up in your brain is high. Read them before you go to bed so that your subconscious can work on them overnight, then read them again in the morning.

Big thanks to everyone who generously gave their tips on Twitter: louisefk tealovinglawyer ces626 MissSup LexBeCreative MikeSmeaton NicolaLaver

If you have any other tips to add this piece, please contact the author, Emily Allbon, Senior law lecturer at The City Law School and creator of Lawbore.