Don’t be dumb like me: use a hornbook

1L 2L 3L legal studies

Imagine turning to the first page of Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins for your Civil Procedure homework and seeing this first sentence: “The question for decision is whether the oft-challenged doctrine of Swift v. Tyson shall now be disapproved.” So in order to understand what’s going on in this 80-year-old case, which you thought was about someone getting hit by a train, you have to go find out about this other, even older case. But don’t worry! Justice Brandeis has you covered. Swift, he says, “held that federal courts exercising jurisdiction on the ground of diversity of citizenship need not, in matters of general jurisprudence, apply the unwritten law of the State as declared by its highest court; that they are free to exercise an independent judgment as to what the common law of the State is -- or should be.” Totally clear, right? What was that about a train?

One of the many stupid things I did in law school was to avoid so-called “hornbooks,” which are collected summaries of important cases and the legal principles they stand for, organized by area of law (property, torts, civil procedure, etc.). I’d studied literature as an undergraduate and I snobbishly thought these things were like CliffsNotes for law. Then the first time I tried to read a case, I felt like I was having a stroke: I could recognize all the words individually, but I couldn’t make any meaning out of them.

That’s because I’d failed to grasp one of the fundamental approaches of a lot of law school teaching. In many of your classes, you’ll be assigned pages from a big casebook, with lots of excerpts from judicial opinions about a particular area of law, then quizzed about how the facts and decisions in those cases demonstrate a particular principle of American law. You’ll constantly be asked to take a few pieces of evidence and construct a theory that explains them.

This approach has value. The understanding you arrive at on your own will stay with you longer and influence you more profoundly than the answers you simply get handed. But in law school, the game is often somewhat rigged, and you may not be given enough puzzle pieces to see the larger whole into which they fit. 

That’s where hornbooks come in. Instead of starting from the example and forcing you to derive a theory without enough information, they’ll explain why a case matters and then what’s going on in it. On Erie, Civil Procedure from the standard hornbook series Examples and Explanations says: “In diversity cases federal courts must apply the law that would be applied by the courts of the state in which they sit. They are not free to decide for themselves the ‘right’ rule of consideration, the duty that a railroad owes to a trespasser, or the enforceability of exclusive contracts.” From just these two sentences, you now know what the key facts are and what role they play in the most important principle Erie has come to represent. 

Whenever you’ve got a new case, look it up in the hornbook that’s relevant to your class (I’d recommend the Examples and Explanations series) before trying to read it. If your case isn’t in the index or table of contents, try to identify what legal idea you’re being taught about (jurisdiction? statutes of limitation?) and read that section in the hornbook. Then when you read the case itself, you’ll already know what to look for—like my wife inviting spoilers so she can better appreciate how the movie does its thing—and the whole painful process might hurt just a little less. Optimistic, right?


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