How to read legal statutes like a lawyer

academics legal studies
By Florene

Legal statutes can be a daunting task. Statutes are filled with legalese, numerical codes, and several headers that can make you feel stuck in a labyrinth of law. However, have no fear! Following these simple steps can turn that labyrinth of written statutes into a nice roadmap and summary of any legal statute. 

Step 1: Understand the basic statutory organization

A statute is a law passed by a legislative body. Once a statute is passed, the document is often organized by hierarchical headers and sub-headers that summarize the subject matter. Reading the complete heading (title/subtitle/chapter/subchapter/section) will help you find the main point of the entire code and establish how the section you are reviewing fits into the entire code’s organization.

The layout of each statute has the typical presentation:


Title 1. Heading

Subtitle A. Heading

Chapter 1. Heading

Subchapter A. Heading 

Part 1. Heading

Sec. 1.01. Heading. (section)

     (a) (subsection)

        (1) (subdivision)

           (A) (paragraph)

               (i) (subparagraph)

                  (a) (sub-subparagraph)

Some other codes, such as the Code of Criminal Procedure, are organized by articles:


Title 1. Heading

Chapter 1. Heading

Art. 1.01. Heading (article)

     Sec. 1. (section)

Step 2: Find and review the statutory definitions

Statutes provide definitions for key terms, and it is essential you review these definitions. Sometimes definitions are included as provisions in the statute at issue, but often the definitions are included in a separate statute that provides definitions for key words. Avoid making assumptions about key terms that are defined by the legislature. Additionally, the legislature will sometimes provide specific interpretive instructions. Reviewing the Table of Contents or the Statute’s headers/chapters will tell you which section of the Statute contains the definitions. You should always look for any “Definition” section.

Step 3: Pay attention to key words and grammar

Look for grammatical construction and keywords that indicate “action”, exceptions to application of the statute, and words indicating a series ending. 

Grammatical construction in a statute can be substantive and technical. A common substantive grammatical construction is “if…then”, which means a statutory provision may only apply if a certain condition has been satisfied. Punctuation details such as commas, colons, hyphens, and semicolons all have substantive legal purposes. A common technical grammatical construction are cross-references to another section of the statute and clarifying changes in the statute. 

The most common “action” keywords are: “may,” “shall,” or “must.” For example, “may” means you are allowed to do it. However, “shall” or “must” means you are required to do something. 

The most common keywords indicating exceptions to the application of the statute, are “only,” “under,” “over,” “more than,” less than,” “if,” “unless”, or “notwithstanding.”

The most common keywords used in a series ending are: “and” or “or” which indicates whether all the elements of the series are includes or only one of the elements needs to be included to satisfy the series.

Step 4: Use cases that cite the statute for further understanding

If you need clarification on understanding a statute, case law can further your understanding of a statute’s meaning. Cases that cite the statute will likely analyze the meaning of a statute and provides an example of how the statute applies to a set of facts. 

Following these four steps will provide you with a better understanding of a statute’s meaning and application!

Florene is a law student at Harvard Law School. Previously, she worked as strategy and operations consultant at Deloitte. She earned her BA in Political Science at Brown University.


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