Learning to Learn the Law: Becoming Legal Readers

Ah, the start of another academic year.  Each fall brings a new group of incoming law students, eager to embark on the adventure called law school.  But what is it we actually do here in law school?

Professors Tracey E. George and Suzanna Sherry from Vanderbilt Law School have said that law school has three purposes:  1) to teach basic legal doctrine; 2) to help students learn how to use that doctrine; and 3) to teach students how to teach themselves the law. 

Although surely 1Ls do learn basic legal doctrine, it’s really third purpose that takes center stage in the first year.  The third purpose can be recast as learning “to think like a lawyer,” a topic I’ve
previously discussed
, and which may have some unintended consequences of its own.  However, teaching students how to teach themselves the law also involves teaching students how to read legal texts and how to find and pull relevant information from those texts.

Reading in law school is unlike other reading that most incoming 1Ls have done.  As any current law student or lawyer knows, it’s demanding and challenging reading that requires an active mind, ready to engage with the text.  (It’s still important to have “for fun” reading even though it’s difficult to squeeze in the time to do it.)  Incoming students need to recognize that the texts they are reading contain the law itself, not (generally) any commentary about the law.  In this way, as Christopher Columbus Langdell envisioned in the late 19th century, students learn the law by reading the law itself, rather than by reading about the law.  This is a big change from education in other fields, where the texts contain information about the subject.

I suggest to 1Ls that they do not begin their first semesters with “book briefing,” simply marking parts of the case in the book itself, as their sole method of case briefing.  I think it’s important in the beginning for students to take the time to craft their own briefs, making sure to put the facts, the issues, and the reasoning in their own words.  It’s good legal writing practice and helps students avoid simply parroting what the cases say without really understanding
what is written.  Later, after a semester or a year, students are experienced enough legal readers to do book briefing.

What other reading or briefing tips would you offer 1Ls?

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Melissa Greipp

    When taking notes on the facts, aim to state the facts that are legally significant to the holding of the case. Avoid including irrelevant facts. Get comfortable with both writing about the facts and talking about the facts of a case. You will be much less nervous talking in class if you practice orally giving a short statement about the case at home first. Finally, talk about the cases with your friends and study partners; the more you engage your senses (sight, sound, tacticle by writing), the more concrete your learning will be.

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