Law students must develop a number of important skills to be successful in their legal writing assignments and exams. Those same skills are equally important for success on the bar exam and in legal practice. One skill every law student needs is the ability to read statutes. Because statutes are a primary source of law, the ability to read, understand, and apply a statute can be critical to academic success in many law school classes. As an attorney, your ability to read and interpret statutes will enable you to provide better legal advice to your clients and predict legal outcomes. But reading statutes is not always as easy as it seems on the surface.
Here are some suggestions for how to be more effective in reading statutes:
(1) Slow down! Don’t read too fast. Statutory provisions are often pretty short, and it is easy to let yourself skim the statutes without really seeing the important details. Take the time to read the statute carefully, and you will understand it better.
(2) Put the statute in its proper context. Law students (and lawyers) often try to read statutes without putting them in context. But statutory provisions do not exist in a vacuum. Statutory codes often contain tools to help you interpret their provisions, if you take the time to look for them.
It can often be helpful to look at related statutes. For example, in criminal law, there can be different degrees of felonies or misdemeanors, each set out in a separate statute, for the same general criminal act (such as drug possession or drug dealing). Comparing the differences between these related statutes can help you understand how a court might interpret them and apply them.
You should also look for statutes that provide definitions for key terms. Sometimes definitions are included as provisions in the statute at issue, but often there is a separate statute that provides definitions for key words. You don’t want to make assumptions about what a word means when the legislature defined it for you.
In some cases, the legislature may have even provided specific interpretive instructions. For example, sections 15.15 and 15.10 of the New York Penal Law provide specific interpretive rules for interpreting culpability requirements for state criminal offenses.
If you look at the table of contents surrounding the statute at issue, you are more likely to find these context clues.
(3) Pay attention to the details. Every word in a statute has a specific purpose. Certain types of words are signals. For example, if you see a list of requirements for a legal test that are connected by the word “and,” you then know that all of the requirements must be proven in order for the test to be met. In contrast, if you see a list connected by the word “or,” then the test may be met without proving all requirements. Other signals include words such as “unless,” “except,” “shall,” and “may,” but this is not an exclusive list. Specific areas of the law may have their own signal words as well. So, for example, words specifying mens rea (such as intent, knowledge, recklessness, etc.) can be signal words for criminal law statutes.
You also want to pay attention to punctuation. Where a comma is placed can affect the meaning of a statute, as can the use and placement of other forms of punctuation.
(4) Break the statute down into smaller pieces. If the statute is complex, it can help to chart or diagram the statute so that you force yourself to identify the key components. Maybe the statute sets out specific elements for a legal test—identify the parts of the test and see if you can define what each of those elements mean, using those context clues I mentioned earlier. Ask yourself what the statute is meant to do. Understanding its purpose can also help you to separate out the parts of a more complex statute.
(5) Use cases to inform your understanding of the statute. You can often find cases where the court analyzes the meaning of a statute. If you are having difficulty understanding a statute, try Keyciting or Shepardizing the statute to find cases that interpret and apply the statute. Case law can further your understanding of a statute’s meaning. (In some cases, you may also find a government agency’s interpretation of a statute helpful—you may want to look for administrative code provisions, administrative law rulings, and advisory letters if you are reading statutes in areas of law with agency oversight, such as tax, immigration, employment discrimination, securities, etc.)
The key to reading statutes is to go below the surface—take the time to get to know the statute and its context, and you will have a better understanding of its meaning and application.