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Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Joy of Casebooks

Marc's posting about legal textbooks resonates with me at this particular time because I'm hustling, with my co-authors, to finish the second edition of our First Amendment casebook.  It's tough work, but exceptionally rewarding, and I find it unfortunate that writing casebooks seems to have fallen out of favor in the legal academy.  The close case analysis that it requires, at least in a precedent-heavy area like the First Amendment, teaches one the law in a way that I think is unmatched by any other experience a law professor is likely to have, including writing other types of legal scholarship.  Deciding how to organize the material, choosing and ordering the relevant cases, and, most of all, editing them can force you out of your own mindset into that of the judges; I can't think of a better way to learn what they are doing.  Of course, not all casebooks are written that way.  Some -- many, perhaps -- reflect the idiosyncrasies or agendas of their authors.  But books that attempt, to the extent possible, to simply present the doctrine on its own terms offer their authors a wonderful learning experience.

This shouldn't be surprising.  I tell my students, just like I was told when I was in law school, that the best way to learn is not simply to read someone else's outline, but to write your own.  Writing the kind of casebook I describe above is, in essence, writing an outline about that area of law, with the editorial decisions you have to make constantly forcing you to consider what matters in the case and what turns out to be the foundation for the later cases.  If that all sounds kind of conventional, it's still a lawyer's stock-in-trade.  If done with care, it can be immensely rewarding.  I hope newer professors -- and more senior ones -- will find a new appreciation for the experience.

Posted by Bill Araiza on November 19, 2009 at 11:08 AM | Permalink


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My prior comment, I just realized, lacks any connection to your post. I had one, but I forgot to actually, you know, write it. My point is this: I think you're absolutely right that the process of developing a good casebook is one of the best ways to learn one's chosen subject matter; however, given the continuity of casebooks over decades (and indeed, well beyond their original authors' lifetimes), I can understand why younger scholars would be less interested in writing casebooks over already-well-trod ground. Hence, my interest, which thankfully lies in a new area, can provide a new book in an area with less competition. Thus, you're not competing with, say, Vik Amar or Chemerinsky in constitutional law (or Dukeminier in what seems like every possible course with a connection to property law).

Posted by: Matthew Reid Krell | Nov 19, 2009 12:02:13 PM

I've been pondering a proposal for an Empirical Legal Studies textbook - a book that would both explore the use of empirical evidence in the law, and the use of empirical evidence to talk about the law, while also offering enough explanation of the numerical tools to enable students to do some simple hypothesis testing on their own.

Posted by: Matthew Reid Krell | Nov 19, 2009 11:42:18 AM

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