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What Book Should I Read Before Going to Law School?

As I mention below, lots of people ask me this question. Please post your answers here, but for now let me mention mine: A good English usage dictionary — my favorite is Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, but Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage is good, too. (Garner also has A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, which may be worth reading as well, but it covers a different set of matters.)

Of course, this is also good advice for anyone who wants to go into a profession that requires writing English prose for a living. When words are your tools, you need to know them well, (1) so you can convey the right meaning, (2) so you can convey the right meaning without needlessly distracting or annoying the reader, and (3) so you can convey the right meaning without the reader's concluding, fairly or unfairly, that you're ill-educated.

And the trouble is that many people misuse words without knowing they're misusing them, or use words that some dislike (again, whether or not the dislike is well-founded) without knowing that they're risking condemnation. The dictionary is a good way of knowing where the linguistic land mines are.

Plus, at least to me, these dictionaries are fun reads, especially when you read a few pages at a time. Each page has some interesting and surprising tidbits, and the usage dictionaries are also pretty well-written; I'm particularly fond of the style of Webster's.

Of course, knowing other things about writing — how to craft, organize, and edit sentences, paragraphs, and documents — is more important. But most of the people who ask me have already heard "read Strunk & White" (though I should note that not everyone is wild about it). They'll have read it or something like it, though they probably will have a hard time putting it into practice; that's just the nature of writing advice. In my experience, though, knowledge about usage rules is much easier to put into practice, even if it means just remembering that there's a problem with some word (so that you can look up the word again). So that's my tip; use it if you can, and suggest your own in this separate thread if you'd like.

dearieme:
Read anyone who can teach you to write like this:-

Lord President Clyde in Ayrshire Pullman Motor Services v Commissioners of Inland Revenue (1929) 14 TC 754: Lord Clyde said, 'No man in this country is under the smallest obligation, moral or other, so to arrange his legal relations to his business or to his property as to enable the Inland Revenue to put the largest possible shovel into his stores. The Inland Revenue is not slow -- and quite rightly -- to take every advantage which is open to it under the taxing statutes for the purpose of depleting the taxpayer's pocket. And the taxpayer is in like manner entitled to be astute to prevent, so far as he honestly can, the depletion of his means by the Revenue'.
6.1.2007 3:14pm
Steve Lubet (mail):
Two novels:

Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" (about courtrooms and politics in New York).

Robert Harris's "Imperium" (about Cicero's law practice and politics in Rome).
6.1.2007 3:31pm
uh clem (mail):
Not a book, but a good article:

Letter to a Young Law Student

Disclaimer: IANAL.
6.1.2007 3:51pm
Hoosier:
The 'Complete Essays of Montaigne.'
6.1.2007 4:07pm
bobolinq (mail):
EV: Your favorite is not Webster's, it's Merriam-Webster's.
6.1.2007 4:23pm
George Weiss (mail):
planet lawschool II...that book itself gives more recommendations...(chiefly it recommends getting a familiarization with black letter law before going to law school..nd practicing hypotheticals and issue spotting)
6.1.2007 4:25pm
mbsch13:
In the style/usage category, I'd recommend some of the books that are a little more interesting to read than simple usage dictionaries, such as Lynne Truss's "Eats, Shoots &Leaves" or Safire's "Fumblerules."
6.1.2007 4:29pm
Truth Seeker:
Atlas Shrugged, to encourage you to be strong against the collectivist faculty and students you will encounter in law school. Also, this is the last time in a long time that you'll be able to read such a long novel.
6.1.2007 4:46pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Bobolinq: My favorite usage dictionary is the dictionary that I have in front of me, titled "Webster's Dictionary of English Usage." It's put out by Merriam-Webster, but its title includes Webster's. I will, however, italicize the "Webster's" in my post, to make clear that it's part of the title.
6.1.2007 5:25pm
uh clem (mail):
About half the dictionarys sold in the US are called "Websters" for marketing reasons. Simply saying "Websters" doesn't really tell you much.

Appologies in advance for yet another link to a years-old Slate article, but here it is anyway: Which dictionary is the best? Only a true word nerd would read book reviews of Dictionaries.

(BTW, I'm not really that much of a Slate fan, but there are a dozen or so articles that are really memorable, and you've jogged my memory of two of them today.)
6.1.2007 5:59pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
The 'Complete Essays of Montaigne.'

Or if that's a bit much, the last essay in the book, "Of Experience."

Whence does it come to pass that our common language, so easy for all other uses, becomes obscure and unintelligible in wills and contracts? and that he who so clearly expresses himself in whatever else he speaks or writes, cannot find in these any way of declaring himself that does not fall into doubt and contradiction? * * *

Who will not say that glosses augment doubts and ignorance, since there's no book to be found, either human or divine, which the world busies itself about, whereof the difficulties are cleared by interpretation. The hundredth commentator passes it on to the next, still more knotty and perplexed than he found it. When were we ever agreed amongst ourselves: "This book has enough; there is now no more to be said about it"? This is most apparent in the law; we give the authority of law to infinite doctors, infinite decrees, and as many interpretations; yet do we find any end of the need of interpretating? is there, for all that, any progress or advancement towards peace, or do we stand in need of any fewer advocates and judges than when this great mass of law was yet in its first infancy? On the contrary, we darken and bury intelligence; we can no longer discover it, but at the mercy of so many fences and barriers.
6.1.2007 6:33pm
genob:
I'd read the play "A Man for All Seasons." Whether you study a lot or a little in law school, you are still going to graduate and become a lawyer. If you take a strong sense of pride, purpose and responsibilty to that role, you'll probably succeed, enjoy your career, and do some good. If you don't, your JD won't really be worth much to you anyway...or might even become your prison.
6.1.2007 6:46pm
RMCACE (mail):
Someone about to go to law school should read Prof. Volokh's book before going to law school.
6.1.2007 8:11pm
jim:
(though I should note that not everyone is wild about it)

That blogger can say whatever he wants about Strunk and White, but I still credit it as the book that single-handedly got me my National Merit status. Thank god for that grammar section counting for a third of your PSAT score. If only it had been on the SATs too.
6.1.2007 8:49pm
The Cabbage:
I wish I had heard EV's advice before going to law school. I had a technical undergraduate education, and I only wrote a handful of papers during my college years (upside: I can split the bar tab faster than anyone else). I was at a significant disadvantage to my classmates.

Atlas Shrugged, to encourage you to be strong against the collectivist faculty and students you will encounter in law school. Also, this is the last time in a long time that you'll be able to read such a long novel.

Reading Atlas Shrugged also beneficial because Ayn Rand is so freaking crazy that she sends you running from those Nietzchian thoughts you flirted with in college and into the warm, loving, and wholly reasonable embrace of Emmanual Kant.
6.1.2007 10:19pm
Hoosier:
Anderson: Sorry. I should have said prospective law students should read *from* the 'Complete Essays.' I haven't even read them all, and I have a picture of Montaigne hanging behind me in my office.

I also agree with 'Atlas Shrugged.' This will give the future law student the expereince of reading really painful prose for page after page. It might lead him or her to empathize with future readers, and thus to try to write more like George Orwell, less like INGSOC.

But KANT? What's a lawyer supposed to learn from Kant? How to write so that no one will EVER understand you? (They already teach that in law schools, from what I can tell.)
6.1.2007 11:38pm
Dedalus:
Speaking of Ulysses, our friend JJ provides one of my favorite examples of good legal writing:


For nonperishable goods bought of Moses Herzog, of 13 Saint Kevin's parade in the city of Dublin, Wood quay ward, merchant, hereinafter called the vendor, and sold and delivered to Michael E. Geraghty, Esquire, of 29 Arbour Hill in the city of Dublin, Arran quay ward, gentleman, hereinafter called the purchaser, videlicet, five pounds avoirdupois of first choice tea at three shillings and no pence per pound avoirdupois and three stone avoirdupois of sugar, crushed crystal, at threepence per pound avoirdupois, the said purchaser debtor to the said vendor of one pound five shillings and sixpence sterling for value received which amount shall be paid by said purchaser to said vendor in weekly instalments every seven calendar days of three shillings and no pence sterling: and the said nonperishable goods shall not be pawned or pledged or sold or otherwise alienated by the said purchaser but shall be and remain and be held to be the sole and exclusive property of the said vendor to be disposed of at his good will and pleasure until the said amount shall have been duly paid by the said purchaser to the said vendor in the manner herein set forth as this day hereby agreed between the said vendor, his heirs, successors, trustees and assigns of the one part and the said purchaser, his heirs, successors, trustees and assigns of the other part.
6.2.2007 1:26am
Volokh Groupie:
You can obviously tell my biases from these recommendations, but the three books I would tell about to be 1L's to read are:

1. The Common Law by OWH
http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext00/cmnlw10.txt

though if you're too lazy you also can just go through The Path of the Law review article by him
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2373/2373.txt

2. Democracy and Distrust by John Hart Ely

and

3. Civil Procedure get ahead on Glannon

Bickel (least dangerous branch) and Cardozo (nature of the judicial process) would also be good reads
6.2.2007 1:52am
The Cabbage:
"But KANT? What's a lawyer supposed to learn from Kant? How to write so that no one will EVER understand you? (They already teach that in law schools, from what I can tell.)"

I never suggested reading Kant, I just meant that reading "Atlas Shrugged" will scare most sane people away from agreeing with Ayn.
6.2.2007 2:09am
Gordo:
Bleak House - Charles Dickens
The Associates - John Jay Osborn

And then reconsider your choice of school and profession.
6.2.2007 3:44am
Public_Defender (mail):
(Garner also has A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, which may be worth reading as well, but it covers a different set of matters.)

Bryan Garner is a smart man with a lot of good ideas. Pay attention to what he has to say about the disruptive effect of long citations within paragraphs, but disregard his solution--putting all citations in footnotes.

The judges I have heard speak on the topic nearly unanimously find Garner-style footnotes annoying and difficult to read.
6.2.2007 7:57am
PersonFromPorlock:
"Catch-22," for its portrayal of law corrupted by power.
6.2.2007 2:12pm
jimbino (mail):
Anything faintly resembling math and science, so as to contribute to amending the present situation in which law students, lawyers and judges are abysmally ignorant of math and science.

In my law-school class of about 150, only 5 had undergrad degrees in math, science or engineering.

Better language skills are not needed, as law students, lawyers and judges have already mastered the art of concealing their ignorance through language.

Germany has a chancellor who is both female and a physical chemist. I haven't researched it, but I would like to know which of our Supremes, if any, has demonstrated mastery of a hard science?
6.2.2007 2:21pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Amen to that, jimbino, and not just law students.

I am not a fan of Strunk &White for advanced writers, or for unformed writers, but it is useful for correcting the style of bad, especially florid, writers.

Frank Harris, one of the best English stylists of the 20th c., kept a King James Bible by his bedside and read from it to develop his style, although it is hard to detect much KJV style in Harris' writing.

Once you learn how to write a little, the best way to learn how to write better is to read the best writers. To some extent, this is a matter of taste. For mine, Evelyn Waugh was the supreme English stylist of the 20th c., and since I am a newspaperman, I'd start with 'Scoop.' For those more fond of ornament, Joseph Conrad. He wasn't a native English speaker, and reading him makes me feel humble.

A lot of scientists are very good writers. For a splendid example of clear exposition of complicated subjects at length (over 600 pages), see Mayr's 'Origins of Biological Thought.' He wasn't a native English speaker, either.

Like Professor Volokh, I like to read dictionaries, especially etymological dictionaries. For a sense of how people who never encountered Strunk &White use English, J.E. Lighter's "Historical Dictionary of American Slang" is indispensible, but it looks like I won't live to see volume 3.

Urbandictionary.com is fascinating and horrifying, the cobra of dictionaries.
6.2.2007 9:49pm
Motowner (mail):
I would like to know which of our Supremes, if any, has demonstrated mastery of a hard science?
Diana Ross?
6.2.2007 11:01pm
Brad D. Bailey (mail):
Newman, Edwin; Plain Speaking and A Civil Tounge.

Lee, Harper; To Kill a Mockingbird.

This is becoming quite the summer reading list.
6.5.2007 2:33pm