When “may” means “shall” “may only”
Secrets of successful legal-writing students

How to read, Part II

Last year, Prof. Leah Christensen published a paper showing a correlation between the way law students read legal texts and the grades they earn.1 Now she’s followed up that study with another paper, this one comparing the way the “experts” (judges and lawyers) read a judicial opinion with the way “novices” (law students in the top half of their class) read. Here’s part of the abstract:

Whereas the experts read efficiently (taking less overall time), the beginning law students read less efficiently. Where the experts read the text flexibly, moving back and forth between different parts of the opinion, the novices read inflexibly. The experts connected to the purpose of their reading more consistently than the novices and drew upon their prior knowledge and experience with the law. The results of this study suggest that we can give our students the following advice in order to read like legal experts: (1) Read with a purpose; (2) Use background knowledge to situate the case; (3) Establish the context of the case before beginning to read; (4) Evaluate the case and have an opinion about its outcome; and (5) Read flexibly; skim and skip when appropriate. By examining the actual transcripts of lawyers and judges reading a case, this article illustrates how we can teach our students to read like legal experts. The earlier they achieve these skills, the better for the individual students, the more likely their success in law school and the better for the legal profession as a whole.

1 See blog post dated 15 Sept. 2006.



From reading only the excerpt you quoted, it strikes me that the difference in reading strategies between "experts" and "novices" may well be little more than a function of comparative levels of experience. Coming out of law school, I undoubtedly read differently than I do now. But a very big part of that is that, through practice and experience I have a much broader and much deeper understanding of the law than I did then. I can skip over large chunks because I already know, for example, that the "open and obvious doctrine" stems from the idea that a landowner shouldn't foresee that and entrant will ignore obvious hazards. I may not need that understanding for any particular case, but it is useful for understanding similar rule in different contexts, which lets me breeze over new cases more easily.

I just wonder whether it's not counterproductive to encourage "novices" to skip around the way an "expert" does -- in doing so, the novice may very well skim right over the portions of an opinion that build a valuable foundation for understanding not just what the legal principles are, but why they've been adopted.

My $0.02.

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