6 essential law school cases: a 1L’s guide

1L legal studies

In the six major courses of your first year of law school, there’s bound to be a case you’ll never forget.  Each of the following cases lays down a foundational principle upon which the rest of a required 1L class will build.  

6 essential cases to know for 1L

1. Contracts: Hawkins v. McGee (New Hampshire, 1929) 

The infamous “Hairy Hand” case, made even more noteworthy by the famous scene in “The Paper Chase.”  

  • Facts: A boy burns his hand on electrical wire, a surgeon guarantees a “one hundred percent good hand,” the skin sprouts hair, and the rest is history!
  • Issue: It’s clear there was a breach… but what is the appropriate measure of damages to which the boy is entitled?
  • Significance: The court awarded the boy the difference between the value of the perfectly good hand he expected, and the hairy hand he got.  This solution, known as expectancy, is the very heart of contract law.

2. Civil Procedure: International Shoe Co. v. Washington (U.S. Supreme Court, 1945) 

The case doesn’t feel like much at first glance -- it’s about the tax obligations of commissioned shoe salesmen -- but by the end of the course you’ll be talking about the “Shoe Test” in your sleep.

  • Facts: A Missouri company maintained a staff of commissioned shoe salesmen in Washington State, but refused to submit to Washington state taxes, as it was not “situated” in the state.
  • Issue: How much of an operation must a business have in a particular state in order to be subject to a lawsuit in that state’s courts?
  • Significance: This case defined personal jurisdiction: a state court’s ability to haul out-of-state defendants in to face a lawsuit. A defendant needs to be subject to “minimum contacts” within the state, such that the exercise of jurisdiction “will not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.”  But what that really means is yours to find out.

3. Torts: Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. (New York, 1928)

If you don’t read this in your torts class, then your professor has clearly been negligent!  

  • Facts: Helen Palsgraf was minding her own business on a train platform when two railroad employees, in a misguided attempt to help a passenger onto his train, accidentally discharged a package of fireworks from the passenger’s hands.  An ensuing chain reaction ended up with a scale falling onto poor Ms. Palsgraf, who sued the railroad.  
  • Issue: Is the railroad liable for unforeseeable damages which occurred as a result of its employees’ actions?
  • Significance: Then-judge (and later-Justice) Cardozo ruled for the railroad, reasoning that the employees’ actions were not the “proximate cause” of Ms. Palsgraf’s injuries.  Fair hand of the law, or railroad apologist?  I’ll let you have that debate for yourself.

4. Criminal Law: R v. Dudley and Stephens (England, 1884)

This one I guarantee you’ll never forget.

  • Facts: An English ship wrecks in the middle of the ocean, and four survivors board a lifeboat.  After many days at sea, one becomes ill and the other three kill him, to feed themselves.
  • Issue: Did they commit murder?
  • Significance: The seamen claimed necessity, but the court denied that defense and sentenced them to death.  (Fortunately for them, the case gained wide public sympathy and their sentences were commuted.)  What crimes does necessity actually justify?  You’ll have to read the rest of the cases to find out…

5. Property: Pierson v. Post (New York, 1805) 

Property can be a dry subject, but this case is anything but.

  • Facts: Post, a fox hunter, chases a fox onto a vacant piece of property, where Pierson kills it.  
  • Issue: Has Pierson committed a trespass against Post’s property?
  • Significance: No law covers such a case, so the court turned to ancient precedent to determine that, no matter how rude Pierson was, merely chasing the wild fox had not given Post possession of it.  In my opinion, it’s about as exciting as property law gets, but you’ll be the judge of that.

6. Constitutional Law: Marbury v. Madison (U.S. Supreme Court, 1803)

Con Law is full of cases you might have learned about in a U.S. History class, and this is one of them.

  • Facts: John Adams makes several 11th-hour appointments, which Thomas Jefferson immediately tries to repeal.  The case makes its way to the Supreme Court.
  • Issue: Can the Supreme Court strike down an Act of Congress?
  • Significance: John Marshall, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, creates out of thin air the doctrine of judicial review -- giving the Court the authority to rule on the constitutionality of Acts of Congress -- and the entire field of constitutional law was born.  What a rich field it has become!

And now you might be asking: with those summaries, do I even need to go to law school?  Well, of course!  These are the highlights, but there’s much more where these came from. Enjoy it!

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