Thursday, February 25, 2010

Law $chool Books: Let the $cams Begin

I know, I know. This is an easy one. Why don’t I pick on someone my own size, or something like that? Bear with me, please, Blogosphere. I just need to get this out of my system. Thank you.

So-called “casebooks” designed for use in law schools are nothing but reprinted public record. Of course, the compiler/editor of these books is a law scholar who takes credit for using his or her perspicacity to know which cases are important and which are not. The same scholar, or team of scholars, throws in marvelous little paragraphs here and there, along with other quips (gadzooks, but sometimes these other quips are even witty) to punctuate a higher legal point.

And voilà! The resulting 1,000-page tome puts you the diligent law student back about 160 smackers. But don’t worry: the financial aid office has already put a hefty item on your projected expenses for law books, so there should be a tidy sum waiting to be spent on these books once your student loan check comes through.

If you’re really lucky, there might even be a humorous cartoon or two inserted into the pages of your casebook. My Torts casebook even has a photograph of the Long Island train station where the intrepid Helen Palsgraf was hit by a flying scale, ever changing the legal world and its often impenetrable jargon forever.

I have a friend who passed the bar exam and kept telling me, “aces don’t read cases.” In other words, a successful lawyer not only doesn’t waste time reading cases; a successful lawyer knows that the act of reading and learning cases makes a younger lawyer too cocky and filled with information that is, at the end of the day, useless. That being said, it doesn’t take a Clarence Darrow to know that if you want to look good in front of your scowling law professor and scared-shitless colleagues, you’ll buy the books and read the cases. If you want to do well on the exams, on the other hand, you’ll listen to my friend. This is after all where you’ll be graded. Reading every word of these cases is going to waste your time something silly.

But what is it about the law book that reflects the smarmy corruption of the legal world in general? One such book I had to buy was a bunch of Xeroxed pages bound together with a spiral binding. It cost $70. When I asked the clerk at the bookstore if this was actually correct (shouldn’t $7 be the more likely price), she responded that it had copyrighted material in it so yes, of course, it should cost $70. Perhaps if I were smarter, this clerk intimated, I would know that too.

My Criminal Law professor actually published his own case book: a handsome hardback published by LexisNexis. That cost $80, some of which goes into his pocket. This price does not include the distinguished pipe you should smoke while reading it.

Some cases get reprinted twice. Tennessee v. Garner is in both my Criminal Procedure and Criminal Law books. Moore v. Regents of the University of California is in both my Property and Torts books. Perhaps that should be a clue to something: aren’t we wasting space by buying two books and buying the same case twice?

How about printing one big case book for all the courses, get rid of the commentary paragraphs, quips, and cartoons, and let the professors put their own spin on why one case is more important than the other? Better yet, since students all have access to Lexis and Westlaw, why not forget the casebooks altogether and just read the cases directly off our laptops?

Of course, most of the cases are edited so only the “important parts” have to be read. Again, it takes the perspicacity of a legal scholar to know how to edit the cases down. Still, the abridged versions of cases could be made available on the Internet somehow. There is a way to cut back on this waste of paper and money.

The only law book I had to buy that looked useful was the ALWD Manual. Unlike my other law books, this was a professionally edited reference book that was a guide to all legal abbreviations, citation style, and other useful information.

The ALWD Manual is used for legal writing classes, and it takes practice to master all the important stylistic details given in it. As someone who spent seven long years of his life dedicated to writing and editing for a major newspaper, I have learned the usefulness of a manual of style. Any graduate program has a course that introduces the student to the resources of a library and scholarly writing. In my day, the MLA Handbook was the guide for writing any research paper. This has been replaced by the American Psychological Association Manual of Style in most areas, although there are new styles being used, reflecting the rise of the Internet and the fact that any research paper might have literally thousands of sources--too numerous to list.

So I get to my legal writing course, and the teacher hands out a standard exercise, consisting of a poorly written legal memo that we are supposed to spruce up using the ALWD Manual. Was it fate, divine intervention, or just plain luck that I, the only professional writer in the course, was assigned the final segment of this exercise--the hardest part, the grand finale?

Here was the incorrect paragraph as stated in the exercise:

“Under proposed rules to the IRC published in the Federal Register/Vol 68. No. 131 pages 1107-1108 (Wed. July 9, 2003), even conversations between a client and the IRS auditor are protected. The proposed rules seek to amend the Code of Federal Regulations, 26 CFR Part 301, § 301.6104(b) (1999). 68 Fed. Reg. at 1112.”

And after searching through the ALWD manual, knowing that there was something tricky about this segment, I found the rule that was the key to the problem, which I’ll cite as “ALWD 19.3(e)” making the solution to the exercise look as follows:

“Under proposed rules to the I.R.C., even conversations between a client and the IRS auditor are protected. 68 Fed. Reg. 1107, 1112 (proposed July 9, 2003) (to be codified at 26 C.F.R. § 301.6104(b)).”

Mind you, this is what the author of this exercise intended. Right? OK, don’t spend a lot of time working it out or referring to your own ALWD Manual. Just take my word for it.

Alas, the poor teacher, a 30-something Vietnamese-American, using that sarcastic lawyer tone that I have never mastered, whether dishing it out or receiving, did what she could to tear apart my work. I was the only person in the class to come up with this solution. I also got the lowest grade in the class.

This same 30-something Vietnamese-American lawyer scolded me handsomely in class one day because I had used the word “charlatan” in an assignment. It was another of those situations (like the ALWD assignment) where I felt I was the only one in the class who was correct--everyone else was wrong. The teacher didn’t know what the word “charlatan” meant, and, although I can’t believe no one else in the class knew what the word meant either, the smartest girl in the class was the only one who chimed in at that moment, believing the word meant “a magician.”

20 minutes later, I was reading a case for contracts, Sullivan v. O’Connor, and there it was in the middle of the case: the word “charlatan.” But remember what my friend said, “aces don’t read cases.” I’ll say. They don’t read at all.

So why all the casebooks in law school? I know. Get yourself a dictionary and look up the word “charlatan.” Welcome to law school, young tykes!


  1. The only book you need as a 1L is a used barbri MBE outline book and questions. The teachers are supposed to be teaching common law, and the barbri gears you to multistate. Its easier to learn elements and black letter law than from 1 hour discussions about consideration. Asking about specific cases to learn the black letter law outside of a R and W class is inefficient.

  2. Yes, why buy the latest edition when maybe a few a paragraphs were updated?

  3. The casebook scam is a great microcosm of the much larger law school scam. "Reprinted public record" is spot on! I only paid for two books from my TTT bookstore. Everything else I bought online - including a few casebooks that were prior editions. So what if I didn't get the few upated pages? I only paid $5 for a casebook (which is still more than these damn things are worth). Plus, I was able to borrow a friend's book, if the case was important.

    Law is about image. People want to look good in front of their classmates - or more aptly, they simply want to avoid looking foolish in front of the entire class. The Socratic Method is a relic from Harvard's Christopher Columbus Langdell. It is a completely inadequate teaching method - other than that is about the CHEAPEST way possible to teach a class of 75 students. So, it is very cost-efficient for the schools.

    Keep hammering away at these crooks! Just look at the West Publishing Empire! (They are now referred to as Thomson Reuters.) They have made untold sums of money by republishing and parsing the public record. This is insanity.

  4. I loved it in law school when the professor would call on a student and ask him to read page 101. The student would proceed and a look of confusion would cross the professor's face until everyone in the class would figure out that they are using two different editions. A lot of professors author law books, so the fewer students that buy them, the lower the royalty check. That's why the newest edition is always REQUIRED material in the syllabus. Law students, being observant of rules, will comply. Occasionally, you'll have a few rebels who will buy an older edition off