It’s the time of year when we law professors, working on getting our exams ready (and then graded) and preparing our reading lists for next semester, can best contemplate the many, many oddities of the law school educational process. Here’s one with which I’ve become increasingly obsessed over the past few years: our bizarre insistence on shielding our students from having to read the full, unedited versions of court opinions in their reading material. The more I think about it, the odder it appears. The overwhelming majority of our courses use material – whether already compiled into a Casebook, or even instructor-prepared – in which the cases have been edited down into a more digestible form, so that only the “important” stuff remains. This, supposedly, helps the student focus on the important stuff (and, not insignificantly, keeps the casebooks from bloating even more than they already are).
It’s odd because the ability to read a case, and the ability to figure out what is, and what is not, the important stuff is one of the critical tasks that law students have to master, and our practice insures that they get hardly any practice at all, and no help from us, in mastering it. It would be as though graduate students in, say, 17th century English literature were presented only with bowdlerized versions of Milton’s work, so as to help them focus on the important stuff. It would be idiotic – and yet I am having increasing difficulty figuring out why our practice is not similarly idiotic. Reading a case from start to finish – plowing through all of it, figuring out who did what to whom, who sued whom, what the lower court(s) did, following each train of thought (even those that lead nowhere and are incomprehensibly set forth – ain’t easy; but given that one must learn how to do it, you’d think we’d look to maximize the number of opportunities we give our students to confront the task. Instead, we avoid them like the plague.
I’m going to try to put my money where my mouth is this coming semester (not the perfect metaphor, but you get what I mean). I’m going to be teaching a class in Introductory Intellectual Property; it’s quasi-experimental to begin with, inasmuch as it is for first-year students, part of our recently enacted menu of elective courses that our first-year students take in their spring semester. So I decided, first off, to scrap the Casebook I usually use when teaching this course to upper-level students, and to put together my own material. And I’ve decided that all of the cases I use will be in full text, no editing, right as you can pull them off of Lexis/Westlaw.
I know that means that they will encounter tons of “extraneous” stuff in their readings – that when we’re covering some narrow topic in copyright law (joint ownership, say), the cases might (as they often do) stray into other questions, even questions concerning other bodies of law, and they might (as they often do) present weird and inexplicable procedural postures, and they might (as they often do) wander around and beat around the bush and fail to present their ideas or their reasoning clearly. But that’s the nature of the legal world we are supposedly preparing our students to inhabit, and it seems to me the sooner they get exposure to that and some help in navigating through it, the better off they’ll be.