Teaching Statutory/Rule Interpretation

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By Rory Bahadur from Washburn University School of Law

One of the most challenging aspects for any law professor should be teaching a rule or statute based class; for example Civil Procedure. These classes are the exception rather than the norm in law school. As a result, most law students, by sheer force of repetition and exposure, whether it be in Torts Contracts, Con Law, Criminal Law or Criminal Procedure (you get the picture) leave law school at least fairly able to brief a case and analyze legal arguments.

Most law students however, may not be as comfortable with understanding basic concepts and techniques in statutory interpretation. The reason for this is that the importance of contextualization of statutory text is often overlooked. Here is an example of an exercise(26 KB PDF) that promotes student contextualization of statutory text to promote the understanding of the statute and to enable students to engage in metacognition of what they need to do to understand statutory text.

This in class exercise may be used to provide a basic understanding of the pleading rules (F.R.C.P 7-11) in Civil Procedure.

  1. Assign the pleading rules to the students to read for the class in which the exercise will be administered;
    2. When the students come into class distribute the attached complaint;
    3. Certain sections of the complaint are enclosed in text boxes (see the attached complaint);
    4. Break the students into small groups and have them read the complaint;
    5. Ask students to work in groups, figure out and write down which of the pleading rules is/are relevant to each boxed in section of the complaint, and what text of the rules makes them relevant.
    6. Debrief the answers as a class, asking the small groups what rules governed each of the textboxes.

If you try this exercise you might be surprised at how much they learn the following on their own:

  1. The importance of careful rule reading;
    2. The importance of contextualization of statutory text to glean statutory meaning;
    3. How to contextualize;
    4. How best they learn the rules.
    (This is because the exercise caters to different learning preferences:
    i. Visual learners are facilitated by the completed complaint;
    ii. Experiential learners are facilitated by the activity of problem solving;
    iii. Collaborative learners are facilitated by the collaboration necessitated by the small group work.)

One of the main things this exercise does for professors is to force them to think about their own student learning goals. Without thinking about and getting concrete ideas of what we want the students to get out of our classes it is impossible to develop plan an exercise that facilitates student learning of those goals.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning