Reading Law: Teaching Law to Non-Law Students

Ask almost any professor at a law school: the best way to learn law is to “read the law”.  What that means is that to learn law, students should read the primary sources of law – statutes, regulations and court cases – instead of secondary sources such as textbooks, articles and blogs.   That’s why most law school courses are taught using casebooks, instead of textbooks.

When law is taught to non-law students, that law-school approach in its purest form, does not work.    Business students do not know how to read and interpret cases and legislation from scratch.  Even lawyers and law students have difficulty interpreting the average Supreme Court decision with 50-plus pages.

As a professor teaching law to undergraduate business students, I try to remember that teaching from primary sources is still very important.  In particular, it’s the facts of cases that give life to and animate legal principles.  Cases help ground legal principles to the real world.

I have been taking a MOOC (massive open online course) by Professor Randal Picker of the University of Chicago Law School called “Internet Giants: The Law and Economics of Media Platforms”. The content of that course is fascinating especially how Professor Picker demonstrates how the economics of internet media platforms (such as Google, PC operating systems, smartphones) relates to the applicable law and government policy.  What I have also found fascinating is how Professor Picker teaches his material.  There are no fancy graphics and videos.  He does use powerpoint, but not in a common way.  A common way that we all see everyday is to put a list of bullet points on each slide.  Instead most of Professor Picker’s slides have a big picture of the front page of a primary source document such as court decision.  Then, he “zooms in” on specific passages in the document as he is lecturing.  Instead of summarizing or paraphrasing a case, he is highlighting specific key passages to explain his points. The central focus remains the law, not any secondary summary.

Professor Picker’s approach stays true to the spirit of “read the law”.  Since the course is a MOOC, Professor Picker probably knows that he cannot reasonably expect his students to pick up and read from beginning to end the cases, legislation and government policies that he refers to.  He explains the law in his own words and insight while highlighting key passages from the primary sources.

I have started to apply Professor Picker’s approach in my own teaching. These are a couple of examples of slides I have developed for lecture videos to explain various clauses in a contract.

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About Wayland Chau

Post-secondary educator involved in teaching and course design for face-to-face and online learning.
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