The Paradox of Legal Expertise: A Study of Experts and Novices Reading the Law

36 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2007 Last revised: 9 Dec 2012

Date Written: March 2, 2007


What strategies do lawyers and judges use to read the law? The study described in this article examined the way in which 10 legal experts (8 lawyers and 2 judges) and 10 novices (law students in the top 50% of their class) read a judicial opinion. Whereas the experts read efficiently (taking less overall time), the beginning law students read less efficiently. Where the experts read the text flexibly, moving back and forth between different parts of the opinion, the novices read inflexibly. The experts connected to the purpose of their reading more consistently than the novices and drew upon their prior knowledge and experience with the law.

The results of this study suggest that we can give our students the following advice in order to read like legal experts: (1) Read with a purpose; (2) Use background knowledge to situate the case; (3) Establish the context of the case before beginning to read; (4) Evaluate the case and have an opinion about its outcome; and (5) Read flexibly; skim and skip when appropriate. By examining the actual transcripts of lawyers and judges reading a case, this article illustrates how we can teach our students to read like legal experts. The earlier they achieve these skills, the better for the individual students, the more likely their success in law school and the better for the legal profession as a whole.

Keywords: Legal education, legal research, legal writing, judicial opinions

Suggested Citation

Christensen, Leah M., The Paradox of Legal Expertise: A Study of Experts and Novices Reading the Law (March 2, 2007). Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, Vol. 2008, No. 1, p. 53, 2008, TJSL Legal Studies Research Paper No. 966675, Available at SSRN:

Leah M. Christensen (Contact Author)

Thomas Jefferson School of Law ( email )

701 B Street
Suite 110
San Diego, CA 92101
United States
619-961-4264 (Phone)


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