Cases used in casebooks are usually great basic examples of how to apply a rule of law to a set of facts (as long as the judge is competent, that is). It's a good starting point, at least.
For me, after 2 years of law school, I have taken only ONE exam where an A meant memorizing case names, and most students in the class agreed that while the professor was very nice, he was not a very good teacher nor did he really understand how to write a good exam. Earning an A typically requires good legal analysis, not proof of a good memory for case names. Knowing the ins and outs of the law you learned in class is obviously important, but that is a baseline. Being able to "fork" your answers is what gets you an A - which is essentially arguing for BOTH sides of an issue, then saying which side is likely to win. That's half the battle - you should always address what would happen if you were wrong, and the other side won. This is where you cover your bases and clean up points. People who only argue one answer, one side get Cs. People who argue both sides, choose a conclusion and run with that w/o considering that their conclusion might not be "right" get Bs. The people who cover all angles and show that they understand how to argue the law every which way from Sunday get the As.It all depends on what's on your final exam. Too many people lose sight of the end game - which is the exam. Your goal is to get an A on the final. If your prof's finals require a detailed analysis of the assigned cases, then obviously you should spend your time reading those cases. But if - as was the case in most of my 1L classes - your prof only tests on issue-spotting and applying/analyzing blackletter law, then you're better off learning the legal concepts and spending a lot of time on hypos and practice exams. It varies from person to person and there's no one "correct" way of doing anything in law school, but this approach worked very well for me.Good luck trying to do legal research on your own in a few years if you don't read the cases in law school. Reading cases trains your mind to analyze the facts and determine what's relevant. You'll find a lot of what you do as a starting attorney is taking an issue the partner gives you to research and finding cases on point. Facts are very important for that. And the skill takes practice. You have plenty to time to read the cases! Why not do the reading assigned by the professor and recognize they might actually know a little something about how to teach law?
My advice is to ask them whatever you want to know. If it's something that will give you an unfair advantage, they won't tell you.
Exam-related questions that have brought concrete answers for me:
-How will the exam be structured? (They'll almost certainly tell you this anyway as it gets closer.)
-Do you want us to mention or recognize cases by name?
-Do you want us to draw conclusions about the issues we discuss? (I've had some who didn't)
-How do you want us to deal with splits in authority (assume majority rule vs. discuss majority and minority rule)
-Do you want us to discuss policy issues? Will there be a separate policy question?
-What do you think is the best way to study for your exam?
-Is there anything you see when grading exams that irritates you? (One prof responded that he HATED it when people brought up things we hadn't discussed in class that they clearly had gotten from commercial outlines)
First off, don't necessarily count on hard work getting you anywhere near the top of your class. Iit really depends on how close you and the instructor are in terms of views and approaches. I've seen students with a firm grasp of the material fall flat on their ass because they and the instructor differed on interpretations of the law or formatting of exam responses or whatever.
Given this, my number one piece of advice is to visit your professor as often as possible. What I did was write down a list of questions from the day's reading assignment and take them to the professor in office hours. Not only does this help you clarify the more confusing points of the material, but you can see how the professor approaches the subject. My property professor, for instance, was focused heavily on policy implications. I made sure I studied up on those aspects of her class, and sure enough I got the only A+ on the final.
As for outlining, there's no harm in starting the outlines early provided you rework what you've written as the term goes. If you choose to start the outline at the beginning of the term, be willing to reorganize it whenever you add new sections. I found the constant exposure to the material combined with the need to try and fit whatever I'd just learned into the structure of my outline really helped me understand and remember things when finals came.
Other than that, just do practice exams and see if you can get your professor to look over your answers. Again, its really all about understanding what they want to see on an exam and giving it to them.
On a slightly different, as a transfer student to my current university my advice on that is to apply early and don't give up hope if your first term grades aren't what you'd hoped. I was only top 40% my first term, but I managed to up my GPA substantially the second term and now I'm going to a top 20 school. Hell, even if you're not near the top of your class you can still likely transfer. I had a friend who was barely top 50% and she's now at Cardozo.
Hope that helps, and good luck to ya!