Why Original Text is Key

By: David

Building better legal study content required that we focus on a simple question: What information do law students need in order to be successful? Right now students are burdened with superfluous text that in no way aids their learning. Clearly, then, there must be a better approach. But we had to be careful not to be too zealous, like Oyez, Quimbee, and Emanuel, which tend to decrease the learning that occurs and even the capacity to comprehend because they dumb down the content and remove important information.

One of the most powerful aspects of Illustrated Law is that our material contains enough key information that readers can see for themselves how the justices reached their conclusions. Our main competitors largely just state the conclusions. Little or no time is spent exploring how the decision was reached. This does a huge disservice to readers because understanding why the law is the way it is happens to be the most important purpose of reading cases in law school. 

When constructing our content, I decided it's essential to retain the text from opinions verbatim for a few reasons:

  1. Readers can see what the justices actually said, rather than merely reading my interpretation of it. If you're just blindly trusting someone to tell you what was said, you can't be sure they're interpreting it correctly, that they are focusing on the parts that are important to you/your professor, or that they will include the information necessary to draw larger conclusions.

  2. Students should be able to reach their own conclusions on whether the justices were correct, and whether they were right or wrong for the right or wrong reasons. There are often many ways to come to a decision, and it's also common for justices to disagree on whether the decisions were reached based on proper analyses. The nuance in the opinions is vital to understanding the opinions' focus.

  3. Reading the actual words helps students learn their craft. Sites like Quimbee pride themselves on removing "legalese," but I have a fundamental belief that law students should learn to speak the language, just as we'd expect medical students to know medical terminology and business students to understand how to read a profit and loss statement. Illustrated Law simplifies the text, but we don't pre-digest it so much that it's dumbed down. Our readers are in law school because they're smart enough to learn law.

  4. There are key phrases that reappear in many opinions. They become foundational quotes against which subsequent decisions are compared. For example, whenever the Court explores the legality of an action by Congress, the Court will likely refer to the quote, "Let the ends be legitimate," which is from one of the Court's first opinions. What does the phrase mean? What constitutional clause does it refer to? Does the Court in that opinion believe this is a proper application or does the statement reference an improper application? You can learn it by reading the context of when it was first stated and compare it to how the Court applies it 200 years later. If, however, you're just reading dumbed-down, paraphrased summaries of cases, you'll miss these instances of weaving history with stare decisis and constitutional interpretations.

  5. Reading the actual words helps the reader learn to think like a lawyer. You learn what to look for, how to apply modes of interpretation, and how to make an argument. These are essential elements of being a good law student and lawyer.

I don't want to belabor the point, but suffice it to say there are several other reasons reading verbatim text is far superior to paraphrased summaries. 

However vital verbatim text may be for the purposes of learning law--as opposed to merely regurgitating someone else's interpretation--it's equally important that the reader isn't inundated with a ton of irrelevant or superfluous information. This is why I carefully carve out dicta that adds nothing to one's understanding of the case.

For example, the Court often restates the facts and holdings of similar cases as a way to frame prior applications of the law. While this isn't unimportant, it's not usually vital for understanding how and why the Court reached its decision in the current case. Courts also sometimes go to great lengths quoting several papers, studies, and books to make a point. These quotes are not necessary to understand the case, so I only include the key takeaways the Court makes about the material they quote, as that's the only part that future Courts and lawyers will rely upon when making their arguments. 

Illustrated Law is the most efficient way to learn law because we blend the essential parts what you'd normally expect from textbooks with the ease of use associated with case briefs from third parties. We don't dumb down anything. We simplify it.