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Leave the hornbooks at home, 1Ls

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Hornbooks

I’m not one to keep tabs open on my computer, but in the summer before my 1L year, I had about 20. Public speaking practice, law school strategies, study aids, books, advice on making friends with teachers and self-help—even potential spa offers. Searching for the right spa can be quite a project, much like choosing the right law school strategy. At one moment, I read an article that spoke about hornbooks and the benefits of using them in law school. Upon checking the prices of hornbooks online, I found that I could rent one for each class for just a little over $100.

A month later, I lugged them to the law library with me.

The word “Hornbook” describes a book intended to cover a field of law, like torts, contracts, or constitutional law, in a deeper way than is taught in class. They contain discussion of the various principles in the fields they cover. Hornbooks are thorough and are sometimes cited as secondary authority in cases.

The magic is in the pithy and articulated descriptions of law. Some examples and descriptions are so influential, they have become famous law school tropes. To explain “substantial certainty” in intentional torts, Prosser offers the comparison of shooting a gun into a crowd of people vs. in the Mojave Desert. Indeed, you may read a case that cites this very passage of his Hornbook, “Prosser on Torts.”

The word “hornbook” also happens to describe a transparent sheet of horn mounted onto a frame with a handle. These pre-modern hornbooks contained children’s educational material, such as alphabets or religious materials. I don’t think you’ll find many hornbooks written on actual horn nowadays; at least not ones that purport to help you with your legal education. But, for the curious reader, this site features a selection of handcrafted pre-modern hornbook replicas for purchase. What’s more is that their maker strictly vets the horn imported from England for quality and consistency in thickness.

I’m not sure if this is still considered a bragging right, but the website also features a tagline: “Eureka… You’ve found our 40 page website!”

The offer may be marginally more tempting. After all, it’s the perfect “extra” reading material. But that’s just the issue.

Halfway through the semester, I found that for every tidbit and hidden answer that I had painstakingly gleaned from my hornbooks was revealed by my professors in my law school classes.

How could I beat the curve when the professors revealed all the secrets? You can imagine my enthusiasm in Legal Process class: Its objective was to equip the entering class with the skills needed to thrive in school. Nevertheless, I steadfastly worked on summarizing both my hornbooks and textbooks.

I spent all my time reading and no time thinking, and that was the crux of my problem during my 1L year.

I made other mistakes too. One time I disobeyed all logic and tried to explain my hornbooks to someone. Detail after detail, I revealed my system of switching back and forth from hornbook to outline to textbook to secondary outline, etc. All the while, my conversational partner was gently dismissive, giving me polite nods and “cools.” I eventually satisfied myself with finishing off the conversation, along with the remainder of my four pack of Red Bull before jumping back into Prosser on Torts, 4th Edition.

The mistake is obvious to me now: By reading week, I had two (essentially identical) outlines, and I had read an egregious amount of material. But for all of that reading, I never got the chance to just think about the law and practice elaborating on it like I would need to for the test. Maybe Prosser did reveal a gold nugget or two, but I certainly didn’t use them when I wrote the exam.

The results of using hornbooks extensively over the first year shows that I was in over my head with them.

If I could do something differently, I would use hornbooks to find articulations of rules that surpass my own articulation after I’ve had a chance to try it myself. Oh, you wanted to know what happened to my system? Well, I ended up having two somewhat identical outlines that I had to spend time combining into one. More time wasted on reading and writing that I could be using thinking and internalizing the rules.

I sent back my hornbooks to the Amazon rental center, knowing that my first semester results weren’t their fault. But if I could have done it differently, I would.

Tommy Bronsted Tommy Bronsted is a 2L at Mercer University in Georgia. He enjoys playing piano, reading non-fiction books, and presenting his speeches at toastmasters meetings. He hopes to make a positive impact on the world by becoming a trusted attorney to his clients and a good influence to others around him.