How We Think About Editing

By: David

While Illustrated Law content is excellent as a study aid, I also believe it’s superior to any law textbook. Unfortunately, resistance to new ideas has been a powerful struggle for us.

There seems to be one primary concern—and misconception—regarding Illustrated Law content. When two professors and staff members at Georgetown glanced over our sample case, Brown v. Board of Education their first reaction was to declare the content incompatible with law school classrooms. The point of textbooks, they argue, is that they expose students to full opinions and that forces students to wrestle with the actual language of the case. This, in turn, teaches law students to think like lawyers. What these people seem to miss, though, is that Illustrated Law content, like textbook content, is verbatim. Our content is the actual words of the judges and justices.

The faculty who have skimmed our content seem to believe that our content is heavily edited. Or, at least, is more heavily edited than a typical casebook opinion. For the sake of comparison, here’s our edited version next to the original. For ease of comparison, I’ve made bold what was removed.

As you’ll note, we’ve merely removed procedural stuff and a one-paragraph summary of six other cases the reader likely hasn't read and is unlikely to remember (though information like this is often encapsulated in our Context section). None of the removed material concerns how the court reasoned its way to the holding in Brown. When in doubt, we've left the original material in place. I'd love to eventually have a professor partner with us to kind of "validate" our edits, but I feel highly confident that our material is every bit as effective for teaching and learning as a dense traditional casebook.

My supposition is that the layout, where we identify the Facts, Issue, etc., makes it seem like we heavily edited or even summarized portions of the original text. But we've only identified those headings so people can benefit from cognitive "chunking" of material. I'd be shocked if many Georgetown law students, for example, confused the facts with the reasoning. We're not revealing any secrets or rephrasing the original verbiage. We're just making it easier to learn, compartmentalize, and re-combine information. Nothing is taken from any professor's ability to prod students about why the Court came to its conclusion based on the Court's own words. 

The entire thought process behind how our content is developed is driven by a simple goal: Make it easier for people to learn law efficient. Illustrated Law isn’t a gimmick. Our approach is specifically designed to aid in learning. Not encourage rote memorization. Not to make dumbed-down soundbite. But to help people actually, genuinely comprehend the law in all its glorious subtleties.  


The Professor Argument

So now we know that though our content isn’t radically different from textbooks, it is superior. But I also disagree with the premise professors tend to argue for. They claim that reading full opinions is the best way to learn and tend to over-emphasize the benefit of reading entire opinions (though, again, few opinions are actually unedited in any textbook).

There are two simple ways to look at this, as well as more complex, empirical-based ones. We’ll stick with the simple for now and save the complex for another post.

1) Reading only full opinions is silly because humans can only retain a fraction of what they read. By asking students to do four hours of reading each day when they will only remember a small portion of it, professors are wasting everyone’s time. And because students can only read about 250 words per minutes, cutting out the superfluous information from opinions can save people a significant chunk of valuable time. And, again, this time saved has no negative trade off. They will learn just as much as someone who read four times as much. This is especially true in law school because all you really need to understand is how the Court reached its conclusion and how you can apply that same logic to analogous situations. Which brings us to #2…

2) If deciphering opinions was truly what professors believed was the most valuable skill, our final exams would presumably test that skill, rather than only requiring us to spot issues and apply legal concepts to fact patterns. Why don’t they just hand us a long, unfamiliar court opinion and have us summarize and analyze it? Well, because that’d be silly. Identifying potential problems and applying legal concepts is what most lawyers do most days. Most lawyers do not regularly read full opinions.

Part of my aim is to move law courses toward the true endpoint of learning concepts and applying them faster, without skipping the ability to decipher opinions. And if this is correct approach, universities would be better served primarily focusing on the application of law than on reading long, unedited opinions. Perhaps one course could be about reading opinions (maybe just an expansion of the mandatory writing course, for instance) while the rest of them focus on practical law.

This seems to make all the more sense because once you know how to read opinions, you've got it down. Few students, it seems, even in the second semester of 1L year, tend to miss the key concept from an opinion. They may struggle explaining how and why the Court reached its conclusion, but it’s difficult to overlook the conclusion entirely.


Stubborn Resistance

So why might professors push back against the approach Illustrated Law is taking? I wonder if it's because it's actually inferior to all current textbooks as most professors are likely to argue, or if it's simply because it's new and different. Because law textbooks don’t even pretend to apply the best practices of cognitive science, it defies reason that they’re a better approach. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, anyone can easily highlight a number of inefficiencies with the current approach to teaching law.

And if the strangeness is the hurdle, why is that allowed to stand as a barrier to more efficient learning? How can that be an acceptable excuse when faced with a better alternative?

For any professors out there who may be reading this: I realize all this might sound a bit abstract, but I'm genuinely curious what you think the primary hurdle to new approaches is. Do you personally believe current textbooks would be more effective than something along the lines of Illustrated Law? If so, why? If not, how do you think a product like ours could enter the market as an alternative solution to teaching law? I'd love to have some inside perspective on why there may be resistance to change.

For everyone else: I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What do you agree with? What do I have wrong? Please leave a comment below.