Legal Reading and Success in Law School: an Empirical Study

Publication year2007


Legal Reading and Success in Law School: An Empirical Study

Leah M. Christensen(fn*)

I. Introduction

One of the most important skills in law school is the ability to read a judicial opinion efficiently and accurately, yet relatively few empirical studies have researched how law students read legal text.(fn1) Not only are legal texts "largely incomprehensible" to novice readers, law schools do not always spend sufficient time instructing students how to read legal text.(fn2) Instead, we assume our students are good legal readers upon entering law school. However, legal reading is a challenging task for a new law student.(fn3) Comprehending legal text requires knowledge of legal terminology and an understanding of both case structure and legal theory.(fn4) If we think back to our own first encounter with a judicial opinion, the language was confusing; the structure was mystifying; and the terms were unfamiliar. Scott Turow, describing his first year of law school at Harvard, compared reading cases to "something like stirring concrete with my eyelashes."(fn5) Although many students adapt quickly to legal reading, others continue to struggle throughout law school. Can we guide our students more directly about what reading strategies are most effective? Does the way in which students read impact their law school success?

My study examined how first year law students in the top and bottom 50% of their class read a judicial opinion and whether their use of particular reading strategies correlated to their law school grades. This article outlines my study's findings by seeking to explore these questions and adding to the growing body of empirical research on legal reading.(fn6) The study results show that even when students have taken the same first semester classes, the more successful law students read judicial opinions differently than those students who are less successful. Further, this study suggests a correlation exists between the reading strategies of the top law students and their first semester grades.

Part II of this Article describes the cognitive challenges of legal reading. Part III discusses the prior reading studies that have examined how individuals read legal text. Part IV describes the present study, including its participants, the think aloud procedure, and the methodology used to collect, analyze, and interpret the data. Part V sets out the results of the study and explains the various conclusions that might be drawn from them. Finally, Part VI presents examples of the reading strategies that the most successful law students use and offers observations on how to incorporate these strategies into the legal classroom.

II. The Challenges Of Reading Legal Text

This Part explores the challenges of legal reading and the four types of reading knowledge needed to read the law effectively.

A. Law: A Unique Discourse

There are several reasons why it is relevant to study how law students read legal text. First, both law school and the practice of law involve the interpretation and production of legal text.(fn7) "Words are tools for lawyers, who must be able to forge words into consequential discourse."(fn8) New lawyers need to do more than simply "think ... like a lawyer;" they need to "read and write like a lawyer" as well.(fn9) Professor Ruth Ann McKinney summarized the importance of legal reading to the beginning law student as follows:Law students-and lawyers-who read law well are getting something from their reading that is not shared by those who read law less proficiently. Starting with the first days of class, what law students understand about the reading process itself has a major impact on how they read their assignments. How they read their assignments determines what they are able to get from those cases and statutes, what they are able to bring to class discussions and take from class discussions, and-ultimately-what they are able to learn for exams.(fn10)

Second, we often assume that beginning law students will learn case reading quickly and easily given their past success in academics.(fn11) Many of our students have been very successful in their undergraduate programs and have achieved high scores on the LSAT.(fn12) But, these skills and successes do not necessarily translate to law school.(fn13)

Third, the legal academy may not acknowledge the relevance between legal reading and law school performance.(fn14) James Stratman, an experienced reading researcher, refers to this attitude as the "skills deployment assumption."(fn15) Stratman suggests that legal educators incorrectly assume that law students enter law school with "intact literacy skills" and that those skills can be "readily transferred to the texts of law."(fn16) In fact, the opposite may be true.(fn17) For example, the students who volunteered for this study did so mainly because they hoped participating in the study would help them uncover secrets about legal reading. Even though half of the study participants did very well on their first semester exams,(fn18) these students still felt insecure about how they read legal text.

Finally, studying how law students read the law is relevant because law school grades are critical to a law student's future career.(fn19) Many legal employers only offer interviews to students if they fall within the top ten percent or fifteen percent of their class. Therefore, the question of how reading strategies correlate to law school grades is particularly important.

In her 1995 study, Dorothy Deegan, one of the pioneers of legal reading research, inquired: "If it could be empirically demonstrated that variability in reading correlates with performance as assessed by grades, then the law school community would be hard-pressed to continue to ignore factors concerning individual differences in student reading."(fn20) The present study seeks to answer this question.

B. Four Types of Reading Knowledge

Legal texts are unique in both their form and structure; they are their own special genre.(fn21) In order to read any text well, readers need four types of reading knowledge: (1) word recognition; (2) text structure; (3) grammatical knowledge; and (4) reading strategies. Professor Peter Dewitz explains that reading is the product of both how we recognize words and how we comprehend the words we read.(fn22) In order to understand how law students read legal text, we need to understand the reading process more generally.

First, in order to recognize the words they read, readers need sufficient background knowledge about the law. Word recognition is the set of strategies we use to identify words.(fn23) While beginning law students encounter many new terms, they usually can identify these words using basic phonics principles.(fn24) However, just because a reader recognizes a word does not mean that the reader comprehends its meaning.(fn25) As we know, legal cases are full of terms that present new and sometimes abstract concepts to beginning readers.(fn26) As Dewitz explains, "Reading comprehension is essentially the process of building a mental representation of the ideas expressed by the author."(fn27) In addition, the factor most affecting reading comprehension is the "real world" knowledge that the reader brings to the legal text.(fn28) The typical beginning law student usually lacks background knowledge about the law. Yet, without this background knowledge, a new reader has a hard time understanding the new information in a legal text.(fn29)

A second type of knowledge the legal reader needs is an understanding of "text structure."(fn30) Comprehension proceeds more smoothly if the reader understands the organizational structure of the text.(fn31) For example, the typical judicial opinion contains a synopsis, fact section, issue statement, and holding. A new reader could easily become confused by this unusual structure. Additionally, most law students have spent four years reading, writing, and studying in the humanities and the social sciences, and they may have been able to read text more simplistically than required in law school.(fn32) No wonder the judicial opinion seems particularly strange during those first few weeks of law school.

In addition to word recognition and text structure, the beginning legal reader needs a third type of knowledge called "grammatical knowledge," which "helps the reader understand the relationship among concepts within a sentence."(fn33) In legal text, the grammar and syntax can become so complex that the reader has to work hard to understand how the sentences fit together.(fn34) Understanding the complex grammar and syntax used in legal text presents a significant challenge to the novice legal reader.

Finally, readers need a fourth type of knowledge called "strategic knowledge," or more commonly referred to as reading strategies.(fn35) Reading strategies are "set[s] of mental processes used by a reader to achieve a purpose."(fn36) Reading strategies are "intentional, flexible, and self-evaluative."(fn37) Strategic reading occurs when readers "set a purpose for reading, self-question, search for important information, make inferences, summarize, and monitor the developing meaning."(fn38) For basic reading, we are usually unaware of the reading strategies we use to help us move through text.(fn39) We may evaluate, underline, or question...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT