Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2024


When the Pinball Wizard asked his well-timed question, he not only lit up the 1L classroom with a cacophony of opinions but also illuminated deep confusion about the meaning of, and distinctions between, “rules” and “holdings.”

The practice of both oversimplifying and conflating the parts of a judicial opinion, particularly rules and holdings, is common among law professors, law school success materials, and, to an extent, even legal writing texts. Coupled with the novice law student’s search for right answers and found meaning, 1Ls often find themselves understandably frustrated and confused. This Article argues that the resulting confusion about rules and holdings is an opportunity ripe for introducing contextual understanding and for modeling this metacognitive approach to reading legal texts. Further, it demonstrates how to persuade 1Ls, even the doubters, that contextual understanding will enable their early fluency in the logic of judicial opinions.

With buy-in for contextual understanding achieved, this Article next proposes teaching holdings as hypotheses and offers two detailed examples for doing so. Finally, it explains how teaching holdings as hypotheses—itself an example of contextual understanding—will achieve at least three classroom objectives: (1) focusing 1L attention on constructed meaning and the malleability of law; (2) emphasizing the evolution of law, including how holdings themselves can be fundamentally altered without being overruled or criticized; and (3) enhancing classroom engagement, particularly among Gen-Z students who may otherwise be reticent to participate.