The Language of Law School: Learning to "Think like a Lawyer."

By Constable, Marianne | Law & Society Review, June 2008 | Go to article overview

The Language of Law School: Learning to "Think like a Lawyer."


Constable, Marianne, Law & Society Review


The Language of Law School: Learning to "Think Like a Lawyer." By Elizabeth Mertz. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007. Pp. xvii+308. $35.00 paper.

Mertz's The Language of Law School uses "close analysis of classroom language to examine the limits that legal epistemology may place on law's democratic aspirations" (p. 3). Mertz points to these limits in two ways: she shows how contract law and education promote "a common vision" of human conflicts that obscures particular aspects of social experience, and she explores the differences that gender and race make in the teaching and learning of law.

Mertz's painstaking research is a model empirical and sociolegal study of language. The first three chapters quite thoroughly survey related literatures and very clearly describe the research method. Mertz and her assistants observed, taped, coded, and transcribed eight first-year, semester-long contracts courses from a range of law schools and supplemented their material with interviews. These preliminary chapters explain factors-such as turn-taking, repeated speech, pronomial usage, framing and footing, and role-playing-and terms-such as "pragmatics," "Socratic method teaching," and "metalinguistic filter"-used in the analyses. They introduce the issues through a compelling scenario beginning as follows: "Picture yourself entering a law school classroom on the first day of law school" (p. 7).

The book's greatest contribution comes in its middle chapters, which offer, in a smart and sophisticated reading of the classroom transcripts, subtle analyses of what legal discourse does and how. In these chapters, Mertz considers the implications of the commonalities in the dynamics of the eight classrooms. Although the eight classrooms differ in their use of lecture, free discussion, and shortfocused exchange, professors in all the classrooms, through their speech, model particular relations to texts, to parties involved in lawsuits, and to classroom interactions. A focus on dialogue even when presented in lectures, for instance, suggests the importance of the duelist mode in law. Students ultimately become strategists of speech. They learn to present themselves and the parties whom they animate in response to questions about cases in particular ways. They learn to privilege texts not for their stories of human conflicts but for their answers to "a series of nested questions about the authority of various courts deciding the case at issue and also of the courts that authored precedents" (p. 62). They learn to treat legal texts as "detachable chunk[s] of discourse" (p. 45) that can be moved from one context to another. Vast differences in the cultural meanings of particular kinds of actions or items become elided into a common legal language (p. …

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