A Parliament of OWLs (Older Wiser Learners): Bramble Bush, Thoughts for Winter Break

I am waist deep in winter break.  In the past ten days, I have driven 1400 miles, sorted bank statements and health insurance paperwork, visited the school where I taught, walked my favorite beach, baked bread and cookies, wasted hours online, and celebrated Christmas.  There are appointments scheduled for the car, the dentist, and the doctor, and the Heir flew back to Boston early yesterday morning.  By noon, I was bored.


No kidding, bored.  I have multiple knitting projects going; I’m walking every day, exploring the city and the campus beyond the law school, and I’m reading three books. Two are not related to the law, but the third is Karl Llewellyn’s Bramble Bush.  These are his lectures to the first year law students at Columbia where he was a professor, originally published in 1930.  What could he have to say to me, all these decades later?

Still, I was attracted to his choice of this nursery rhyme for the title of his work. 

There was a man in our town

And he was wondrous wise:

He jumped into a bramble bush

And scratched out both his eyes –

And when he saw that he was blind,

With all his might and main

He jumped into another one

And scratched them in again.


His explanation for selecting this creepy rhyme is that when one is blinded by too much study of the law, the solution is more study of law.  This exactly parallels my feelings about learning chemistry – when it seems to be getting too complicated, study harder and it will come clearly into focus.  What seems ungainly becomes elegant when understood thoroughly.  If Llewellyn’s view of his area of expertise is so like my own, and his title resonates so strongly with me, perhaps his lectures can also.

Indeed, he can be pretty funny at times. 

It is a pity, but you must learn to read.  To read each word.  To understand each word.   Your are outlanders in this country of the law.  You do not know the speech.  It must be learned... I fear a dictionary is your only hope--a law dictionary--the one-volume kind you can keep ready on your desk.  

This is vindicating – Black’s dictionary got much more use than I anticipated last semester.  When I read Llewellyn, I can picture the young men before him.  Like me, they find reading opinions to glean bits of law to be slow and mysterious business.  Like me, they find themselves turning to Black’s over and over.  When a case from Merry Olde England from sixteen hundred and something shows up in my reading, it’s not just my frustration – Llewellyn’s students are groaning right along with me.  They survived it, and became experienced and wise practitioners, old timers before I was born.  How many of us have puzzled over the ships Peerless, the falling flour barrel, and the misfortunes of poor dumb Neff?  Llewellyn’s exhortation to learn to read echoes across the years, and I’m trying to obey.

Funny thing, though.  I’m reminded of that old story they tell in professional development seminars.  The team is hacking its way through the jungle, and one guy climbs a tree to get a better view.  When he comes down, he announces, “We’re going the wrong way.”  The reply?  “Shh, don’t say anything; we’re making progress.” 

I’m a compliant enough student; I will hack my way through case after case, Black’s wielded like a machete, but sometimes I wonder exactly why this is the way we’re learning.  Christopher Langdell first pioneered the case method at Harvard in 1871. Is it really possible that nobody has had a better pedagogical idea since 1871?  Nothing?  Have we so much in common with the Harvard students of 1871 that the same teaching technique is still the best choice?  What is the real purpose of having generations of 1Ls wrestling with Pennoyer v. Neff

Finally, I think I understand.  No, it isn’t because the case is particularly instructive.  It isn’t because of some twisted hazing impulse.  It’s not a conspiracy of un-civil procedure professors.  (Although I would pay to see the Riddler, Penguin, and Joker as civ pro profs plotting to destroy law students with Pennoyer.)  It’s partly but not exclusively the shake-the-cane rant, “It was good enough for us!”

I think instead its meaning can be found in Llewellyn’s insistence that we learn to read.  Our schools, our professors, they share this goal, that we should learn to read in this same way.  It’s not that they couldn’t just teach the content, but rather, that the culture and the skills are more important than the content.  My professors learned to read, Llewellyn’s fresh-faced 1Ls learned to read, and my classmates and I are trying to learn to read.  One path is known with certainty to work, so this is the path we tread.  Precedent has been set: this is how it is done, from Yale to the East Noplace College of Law.

The world of the 1L in modern times is different than that of Llewellyn’s students.  Unlike them, we can get a case brief from Westlaw or LexisNexis, we can hunt on YouTube for somebody to explain it, or we can just read a commercial outline; might these approaches undermine our progress?  Although I sometimes feel like I just don’t have much aptitude for studying law, I’m forcing myself to do it the long way.  Read the cases.  Open Black’s, for the zillionth time.  Brief the cases.  Read the notes cases, and be ready to answer the questions they raise, even if nobody is going to ask.  If something still doesn’t make sense, then turn to Westlaw, or classmates, or office hours of a patient professor.  Forge new neural pathways, work harder, jump back into that bramble bush.

No wonder I’m bored now.     



Lisa—it’s hard for me to imagine law school with YouTube—so cool!  I would have had a different experience with it.  Your post does touch on an undeniable truth—you have to learn to read even though you have access to all sorts of wonderful tech.  In your practice, you will come across problems that no one else has seen.  They will be issues of first impression, and reading what came before will help you figure out what to do.  It’s just too bad that there’s not an easier way to do it.


You’re an overachiever! 2 articles in one month!

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