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Teaching Rule Synthesis with Real Cases

Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 61, p. 245, 2011

American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2012-01

20 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2012  

Paul Figley

American University - Washington College of Law

Date Written: November 1, 2011


Rule synthesis is the process of integrating a rule or principle from several cases. It is a skill attorneys and judges use on a daily basis to formulate effective arguments, develop jurisprudence, and anticipate future problems. Teaching new law students how to synthesize rules is a critical component in training them to think like lawyers.

While rule synthesis is normally taught in legal writing classes, it has application throughout the law school experience. Academic support programs may teach it to students even before their first official law school class. Many professors convey analytical lawyering skills, including rule synthesis, in their doctrinal courses. Rule synthesis has obvious utility for clinicians and others who supervise interns. Mastering synthesis skills can help students integrate doctrinal material and succeed on law school exams.

Many students new to the law have a difficult time grasping how to do rule synthesis. To avoid the process, some pick one promising quotation from a group of cases and declare it to be their rule of law. Others may serially discuss all the cases on an issue and compare each with the facts of the matter at hand, in effect, doing a mini-IRAC analysis for each cited case. Neither approach is adequate. Students must learn to read a body of law and integrate their understanding of it into one simply stated, readily applied rule.

This article suggests how rule synthesis might be taught in one classroom session using real cases. It advocates a three-part approach. First, explain the nature of rule synthesis to the students. Second, do a whimsical exercise with them to show how rule synthesis works. Finally, break into small groups and synthesize a rule from real cases for a hypothetical problem. Massachusetts judges have written a number of very short opinions regarding banana peel litigation. Accordingly, the hypothetical problem suggested involves a banana peel slip-and-fall case set in Boston. Because these opinions are so short, students will have time in class to read them and synthesize a rule from them. In working through the exercise students will see that different rules can be synthesized from the same set of cases.

Keywords: Legal education, legal writing, legal analysis

Suggested Citation

Figley, Paul, Teaching Rule Synthesis with Real Cases (November 1, 2011). Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 61, p. 245, 2011; American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2012-01. Available at SSRN:

Paul Figley (Contact Author)

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

4300 Nebraska Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States

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