The legal side of what we do requires comprehending dense statutory texts. Law students, however, arrive in our courses after a first year of law school heavily devoted to case law. When I was teaching corporate law, a student once came up after class with a question about preparing for the final exam. She earnestly explained that she understood "the law" — it was just the statute she could not understand. Could I recommend a book that explained the statute? The law apparently was what was in the cases in the textbook, with the statute being some sort of aid to understanding the law. No wonder they put those statutes in books called statutory supplements!
In reaction to what I see as an overemphasis on court decisions in many other law school courses, my courses unashamedly emphasize the statutes we cover. For example, is a spouse is an "insider" under the Bankruptcy Code? Here is a hint for my students this upcoming semester — the answer does not depend on your gut instinct: "relative" is a defined term. Thus, I was initially appalled on Friday when I got an advertisement from Aspen, a law textbook publisher (including of my own textbook on empirical methods in law), asking if I felt guilty about the amount of statutory material I assigned. If so, the new LoPucki and Warren statutory supplement for Bankruptcy Law and Article 9 (of the Uniform Commercial Code) was now available as a VisiLaw marked version that would make "inaccessible statutes accessible." No, I did not feel guilty about assigning too much statutory material — if anything I wanted to assign more. This new development just seemed like another sign of the pending zombie apocalypse.
My initial reaction, however, was more "ready, fire, aim" than considered judgment. As I learned more about the product, I've decided it is worth a try. At the least, I wanted to write something here to get reactions from practitioners.
UCLA law professor Lynn LoPucki is the driving force behind the VisiLaw concept. The picture above provides an example of how he has marked up a section of the Bankruptcy Code. (Clicking on the picture will bring up a larger and clearer image.) Different marks and typefacing set off key parts of the statute, allowing a reader to find the operative verbs as well as conjunctions and exceptions. The mark-up does seem like it would help students learn how to deal with dense statutory text and not just be an unnecessary crutch. LoPucki has tried VisiLaw with his own students to rave reviews.
What if law students only had contact with VisiLaw? When they went into practice, would they be capable of diving into new statutes and other legal texts? Among other things, I remember as a young lawyer having to master statutes as diverse as the False Claims Act and the Ship Mortgage Act. Do law firms want students who have been trained only on Visilaw?
LoPuck's answer to these concerns, and I am loosely paraphrasing, was "students will be trained only on VisiLaw about the same time pigs learn to fly." In a very reasoned e-mail, he pointed out that many law school courses probably underemphasize statutory reading skills already. This underemphasis is not likely to change. The profession should be so lucky that we have a problem like the widespread adoption of teaching innovations like VisiLaw to help students learn how to work with statutes. Whatever problems I might imagine in theory are not likely concerns that will happen in the real world.
This semester, I am going to tell my students that they may want to consider using the VisiLaw Marked Version of the statutory supplement. My assessment of its usefulness will be whether it is helping students develop the long-term intellectual skills they will need as a lawyer. As I wrote above, I would be especially interested in views from outside the academy about the usefulness of products like VisiLaw in legal education.