1L Memory Lane: Reading starts with the first word, right?

Black and white photograph of an old film camera. Irrelevant to the content of the post, but helps set the intended mood/tone.

During the 2006-07 school year, I was sitting in my legal research and writing class and my professor asks the class, “Where do you begin reading a [nonfiction] book when you want to learn something?”

We students exchanged looks. We’d been in law school long enough to recognize a trick question, but many of us didn’t know why this was a trick question.

Some brave soul, not me, raised their hand and said exactly what I was thinking to myself, “The first page?”

“No,” said Professor Jones. She was very warm in shooting that idea down, but she didn’t waste time letting us think it was a good one. “What other places might you begin reading if not the first word?”

One of the other students raised his hand and said, “Either the Table of Contents or the Index?”

“Yes!” Professor Jones then went on to explain how when you are reading to learn something new, you should identify where the information you need is within the text and jump to it rather than marching through a whole book when you might only need a section of a chapter.

I imagine many of the people reading this are thinking, “Well, yeah. Who doesn’t know that?” Some are probably also adding, “Ctrl + F that, Sucker.”

Me! I didn’t know that when I started law school! Well, I knew it in the context of using an encyclopedia or dictionary, but I failed to realize the concept could transfer to other written works. And a bunch of my classmates didn’t and a lot of my students since that time have come into law school with the same gap in understanding how to read to learn things under our own direction.

For many of us, we come to law school having never read any law texts beyond the U.S. Constitution, if that. There’s also a bunch of us who never really needed to teach ourselves things just using books and finding information for ourselves. Instead, we’ve had carefully curated assignments marching us through informational texts, or we’ve been able to watch a YouTube video, or whatever.

The long and short of it is that many people beginning law school don’t have existing strategies for teaching themselves something from written sources. And that’s okay, because that is a skill that can be learned and practiced and developed fairly easily in the grand scheme of all things law school.

Moreover, reading in law requires reading in, to use the technical terminology, a complex domain. The field of law has numerous different types of documents that contain information law students and lawyers need to teach themselves. These different types of documents follow different conventions so the “jumping right to what you need” is great in principle, but requires quite a bit of practice before you can actually do it.

In my next post, I’ll provide a process to help beginning law students navigate some of the complexities of learning to read law and for law school.

Next Post: Reading Strategies in Law School