Studying Legal Texts and the Art of Active Reading
By Daniel June
Knowing how to take notes from books is as important as taking them from lectures or clients. Reading is a large part of the legal profession; in a way, legalese, the special jargon-laden language lawyers use to finally make words mean one thing without too much wiggling, comes from really knowing what the terms mean and what they apply to. You get this supple control of the language from reading it and writing it. And for a lawyer, reading is a different experience than, say, for a poet or novelist.
There are, after all many kinds of reading, and each of us can do many of them. We know how to read a bill with scrutiny to make sure we aren't being cheated, how to read a love letter with an open heart, and how to read a novel at the end of the day with full receptiveness so we fall under its spell and even forget we are reading. None of those modes of reading are relevant to law students and lawyers. Instead, the professionals will want to do something called "active reading," the likes of which are carefully explained in Mortimer Adler's Book "How to Read a Book."
The basis of active reading is to think while you read. Don't simply let the words wash over you like water from the faucet: annotate. The more you interact with the text, the more you actively engage it, dispute it, question it, interrogate it, the more you will remember. Make it personal; in everything you read, ask yourself "What's in it for me? How can I use this?" By having a use for everything you read, you will care about it, you will remember it.
The highlighter has become the traditional implement of academic reading, but it can be overused. When we read, we do so at a given rate: quickly, or slowly. Some important sentences must be read many times, and must be read slowly. By highlighting the sentence, you force yourself to read it slowly. But you can do the same trick by reading with your finger. Your eyes will naturally follow the rate of your finger or pen as it scans the text. If you want to read faster, move your finger faster, if you want to read slower, move your finger slower. By moving a little faster than you are comfortable, you will increase your ability to quickly digest a text. Some things should only be scanned and skimmed; they are not worth your time to read carefully. Other things must be read extremely carefully.
You will quickly know what to do with a given book or article. If you find your mind wandering or you keep asking yourself, "What the hell am I reading anyway," then you might have to annotate to focus your mind. Don't be shy about writing in books and articles. Annotate away, and find a personal system for getting what you want out of a book.
For instance, you could draw a square around important terms, underline important sentences, put stars, asterisks, or question marks in the margins, and write questions on the header or footer of the page.
Another way to focus your attention is to outline what you read. This can be done casually or carefully. You can break down a chapter or an essay into sections; that will make it easier for you to return to the text later, to find what you need. Name the sections by writing headers in the margins.
Some books are going to be over your head -- and that is true no matter how smart you are. Just as religious folks read the Bible countless times throughout their lives, finding new insights each time they read, you might find a book or article that has a lot to teach you about your profession. Don't expect to get it all after one read. A particularly deep or profound article might be read many times, and you might return to it over the years.
But most of your reading will be one-time reading: you will read it once, find the notes you want to take, and never return to it again. After you square your terms, underline your important sentences, and mark the margins, you can do a follow up on those notes, and copy them into a notebook, perhaps into the same notebook you take your lecture notes in, integrating the material. By supplementing the notes for each other and integrating them, you will make a profound set of connections between your ideas.
Remember that you retain more, understand more, learn more, the more active your mind is. So read actively, and learn how to make yourself really care about everything you read. It isn't as if some people are just born wanting to read volumes of dry legalese. They had to learn to care about it, had to teach themselves to delight in the permutations, twists and turns of the law. It is, after all, a kind of art, a battle of wits, more engaging than any crossword or Sudoku. The more you engage a text the more you will get out of it.
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