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How to Read A Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students:
In previous summers I have posted drafts of my essay for entering law students on how to read a judicial opinion. This time around I am posting the final version, as published last fall in the Green Bag: How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students.

  I've been very pleased that a number of law schools assigned the draft version of the essay to entering students. I hope they will continue to assign it using the final (and nicely formatted) version rather than the draft. As I noted last year, the essay has a creative commons license which means that the final essay can be freely reproduced and posted elsewhere for any educational or non-profit purpose.
Oren:
Kudos for using CC licensing!
7.16.2008 5:31pm
Applekeys:

English criminal cases normally will be Rex v. Doe or Regina v. Doe. Rex and Regina aren't the victims: the words are Latin for "King" and "Queen." During the reign of a King, English courts use "Rex"; during the reign of a Queen, they switch to "Regina."


This is actually quite helpful. To show my age, when I was taking Criminal Law the show "Martin" starring Martin Lawrence was (relatively) popular. There was a character on the show named Gina. Martin had a particular phrase he liked to say to her when she did/said something of note.

So, while on call - apparently unable to resist - the Professor asked a student on the second or third class who "Regina" was. He replied: "I don't know, but she's in every case! DAAAAMMMMMN GIIINNAAA!" For some reason this became the running joke of that semester at my lawschool.
7.16.2008 5:40pm
Soon to be 1L:
Thanks for the helpful suggestion. I was wondering if you or anyone else on this blog had any other suggestions for helpful readings in advance of starting law school next month.
7.16.2008 5:43pm
Anonymous '08:
I remember being assigned to read this article as part of my legal writing class. It was probably the most useful thing I read during my entire 1L year, and probably saved me tens of hours of wasted time doing my reading for my substantive classes. Definitely belongs in the top 5 articles I'd recommend to any incoming 1L.
7.16.2008 5:45pm
OrinKerr:
Anonymous '08:

Now that made my day. Great to hear.
7.16.2008 5:48pm
tarheel:
Soon to be 1L:

I would say "Getting to Maybe" (most helpful come exam time) but in reality I would spend the rest of the summer working on your tan/golf game and catching up on reruns of Deadliest Catch. There will be plenty of non-fun reading come August.
7.16.2008 6:10pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Allow me to do a little brownnosing, but I really admire this sort of thing, whether it is Prof. Kerr's work on reading a legal opinion or Prof. Volokh's book on Academic Legal Writing. In both cases, law professors (who face institutional imperatives that often direct them towards more "serious" scholarship) making efforts to provide more "practical" information for law students that can really make a difference. Mind you, I am not denigrating traditional scholarship; I am just observing that the legal academy could benefit from more of this sort of thing even if there were fewer traditional law review articles published as a result.

Just as a personal aside (and coming at this from a more "left" perspective), I really enjoyed reading Professor Duncan Kennedy's "Legal Education And the Reproduction of Hierarchy" when I went to law school. It provided a needed context for a lot of what goes on there. And it's in this same tradition of providing more practical advice to law students.
7.16.2008 6:17pm
Mike 08:
One of my classmates thought "Regina" meant "Regina, Saskatchewan". Most of the way through first year criminal law, she commented "There sure are a lot of interesting criminal cases in Regina".

I'm sure "Rex" would have had her wondering how dogs could commit such bad crimes.
7.16.2008 7:58pm
tarheel:
Two more suggestions: (1) almost any article in the Green Bag. They tend to be very interesting, very accessible article; (2) some legal, but non-academic book, like "Make No Law" about the NY Times v. Sullivan case or "Simple Justice" about the school desegregation cases.
7.16.2008 8:27pm
NickW:
I was also assigned this essay in my legal research and writing course at the beginning of my first year of law school. My first thought was that it was all fairly common sense and rather obvious; my second was that reading this essay would have been very helpful a year earlier, before I had started taking a couple of undergrad constitutional law courses--when this essay's material would have seemed neither common sense nor at all obvious. That really brought home to me just how much of an acquired skill reading a judicial opinion is, and thus how useful advice like this can be. (Not to mention how mind-warping legal education is...)

I definitely recommend reading this to anyone about to start law school. More pieces like this would be great.
7.16.2008 8:34pm
jim47:
Let me echo other commenters in citing the rex/regina note as being the best tidbit in the piece.

The piece is concise and well-written, so I don't want to seem critical when I say this, but: it seems like a lot of the material was stuff that one would pick up pretty quickly simply from reading a dozen or so opinions; is it pretty common that law students enter without ever taking enough interest in the law to read that much?
7.16.2008 9:02pm
MJG:
jim47:

You're definitely right - I mean, historically law students managed to survive in the dark days before Professor Kerr's article. So it can't be that revolutionary. But most schools tend to try to give you some kind of pointer or document during orientation or in the beginning of school, if for no other reason than that suddenly your career, school, and existence center around reading piles and piles of these funny, unique little documents written by judges (or their clerks) over the last two-hundred some odd years. This is as good of an intro as I've seen. (For another VC connection, I used Prof. Barnett's contracts casebook for my class, and in the beginning was a pretty good outline for how to brief a case. It's over-thoroughness was a virtue in my book, and after a few weeks of hewing to that format I had a pretty good grasp of what I was looking for.)

And I also agree that over the summer I wouldn't really bother with stuff like this. The summer before law school should be about not stressing. If you want to bone up intellectually, I say read lots of books about dense - but non-legal - subjects. Game Theory, science, math, history, philosophy, etc. Find a subject or two that might make you think and read carefully. Don't kill yourself or anything, but I think that kind of process is far more useful than busting out a hornbook before law school ever starts.

Once law school starts read three things over the course of the semester: (1) the beginning, read this article from Prof. Kerr, (2) sometime in October, read the first half of Holmes's the Path of the Law and see if it doesn't shed some light onto what the meaning of everything you're doing is, and (3) before exams read Getting to Maybe. (I also read Aldisert's Logic for Lawyers my 1L year, but I can't tell if that was anything supremely helpful.)
7.16.2008 10:10pm
OrinKerr:
it seems like a lot of the material was stuff that one would pick up pretty quickly simply from reading a dozen or so opinions; is it pretty common that law students enter without ever taking enough interest in the law to read that much?

Fair question, certainly. In my experience, that is in fact pretty common: a lot of students start off with that first case and think, "woah, what on earth is this?" I remember that in my case, I found some old law books that a prior tenant of my apartment had left behind and I read a few cases over the summer to try to get the hang of it. I also read Lawrence Friedman's A History of American Law. But I also remember feeling totally clueless about was going on in the beginning: I was left wondering why every judge's initial was "J.", who "Regina" was, how to pronounce "appellee," even just what exactly an "appeal" was. Plus, I find that a lot of entering 1Ls are too embarrassed to admit they don't know things: better to cover even obvious things than to leave out people who may not speak up if they're a bit lost.
7.16.2008 10:19pm
michael:
Any other suggestions? Your article reference a legal dictionary. Any additional 'reference' or 'general use' books we should purchase that may not be required for any particular class?

Thanks,
Michael
7.17.2008 1:39am
Bill Mill (mail) (www):
As a person who just read their first opinion today, I was interested to read it; but the site silently stopped me from downloading the file. I had to click "help" to read that in order to download the file I would have to register for the site. Which, naturally, I will not.

So: is it available somewhere that will let me download it?
7.17.2008 1:58am
OrinKerr:
Bill,

Unfortunately, the SSRN software does that occassionally. Try here.
7.17.2008 2:09am
OrinKerr:
Michael,

We've had some threads on this: I started one here, but there was another I was responding to just before it, I think.

If you're interested in theory -- and particularly law and economics -- you might try Ward Farnsworth's The Legal Analyst. But it's probably something better read during the year rather than before it.
7.17.2008 2:21am
OrinKerr:
Oh, and here's the original post, Michael.
7.17.2008 2:25am
michael:
Excellent! I actually already own The Legal Analyst.

What about reference books to keep on the desk? I'd assume a legal dictionary, but I hate to make assumptions. Are there particular reference books that are better than others?
7.17.2008 3:10am
OrinKerr:
Yeah. I would get a copy of the standard black's law dictionary for 46 bucks from Amazon (no need to get the deluxe one -- the only difference is the cover). Or get one cheaper used, if you can.

I think that's about it for reference works, actually.
7.17.2008 3:18am
EconGrad:
A great article, sure to be quite helpful to those who are very new to the law.

As a former word processor (the human kind, not the software kind) I can't help but spot typos, and hope it is helpful to point out:

- In the last sentence of the "Know the Disposition" paragraph on page 10 of the PDF, page numbered 58, "that the higher court though the lower court had it wrong" should be "that the higher court *thought* the lower court had it wrong".
7.17.2008 1:44pm