Future of the Casebook I: Editor Value Added

Compared to traditional print casebooks used in law schools, the future electronic casebook presents many identifiable differences yet remains inchoate and open to infinite variation—especially concerning the value editors add.

Well-known differences concern physical attributes of weight; reader capability of marking text; a certain finitude to printed materials that expands unbounded with hot links in a digital version; and teacher tailoring—done for print books using a syllabus and supplemental materials but with electronic books done internally by digital re-sequencing and cut-and-paste.

To date, electronic casebooks remain closely tied to their traditional counterpart. Even when available for reading using devices like Kindle, they also appear in print format. New printed casebooks advertised as interactive, like West’s series of that name, are loaded with internal editors’ notes on how to reach beyond the printed text into digital materials, with tips and printed links for further inquiry.

Yet much else remains unchanged, such as teachers still doing course tailoring using a combination of the printed book and supplements, though the supplements are increasingly digital, posted on the course web site for reading there, along with hot links.

Not yet seen is how our inchoate migration from print to electronic casebooks will change the editors’ role and service, especially concerning dynamic legal developments. Editors of traditional print casebooks tend to keep a file of new developments as the days go by.  At year-end, they compile the file into a printed Teachers’ Update; this often is developed into a printed Casebook Supplement released every year or two; and this culminates in publication of a New Edition every so many years.

In this model, individual teachers are responsible for handling new developments—the latest case or statute. It is up to them to identify important cases, digest them, provide them to students, and determine when in the book and course sequence to analyze them. For courses taught widely across the country, that means multiplying the costs of covering new developments by the number of teachers inclined to do so.

That opens up a clear advantage to electronic casebooks. Editors of those would no longer merely maintain a daily-developments file for integration and transmission annually or less often. They identify the important new cases or statutes in real time. They incorporate new materials into the electronic casebook, using a compare-type function to show both the original form at the start of a semester and resulting change incorporating the new development. They commit to doing this weekly or monthly throughout each semester.

Teachers assigning the book direct students at the beginning of the term to read related materials no earlier than one week before they are assigned. Any new developments are thus included by then. Editors engage in real-time ongoing casebook updating.

Periodically, of course, editors also reflect upon the new developments and how they may warrant rearranging materials more generally in the book or adding materials to enrich the context. But students get up-to-the-minute legal knowledge and teachers benefit from editorial value-added. Total pedagogical costs of legal developments are slashed.

For editors, this would be a significant shift in habit and opportunity cost. The traditional approach to casebook editing is relaxed, maintaining a file then turning to annual rites of updating in a concentrated period.  The new approach to electronic casebook editing is dynamic.

The file is maintained in the book, so to speak, and the editor is more or less constantly engaged with how new developments fit and alter the book’s pedagogical shape.   This new form of editing likely will appeal to bloggers, especially those who report legal developments in their fields as a matter of professional habit anyway.

For me, a good example comes from last year when I taught Corporations using my traditional print casebook. Several interesting developments occurred during the term. I incorporated these into my teaching, using my course Web site to link to newly-assigned or recommended materials.

In some cases, I blogged about them, including on big Delaware Supreme Court cases Gantler v. Stephens and Lyondell Chemical v. Ryan, along with other lower Delaware court opinions on AIG and Citigroup and other corporate law topics affected by federal bailout activity.  As later noted on this blog, some of the results will appear in the new edition of my book being released in traditional print next month.

If this book were in electronic format, I would have been adding cases as that term proceeded, and my blogs would have been more focused on exactly why they were important generally and to the book and how one might think about them in relation to other materials in the book.  It would have added a distinctive and valuable feature to that book–creating incentives for editors to venture more boldly into the coming world of electronic casebooks.

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2 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Some devil’s advocate questions, perhaps:

    (i) Is boundless infinitude good for students?

    (ii) Expressing rapid-fire thoughts on a blog is one thing, but is it feasible for profs to see immediately how the addition of a new case might affect the overall balance or dialectic of the casebook, and to pare appropriately? Or will it just mean the casebook accretes a lot of new material during the term, becoming bloated? Won’t some kind of more traditional-style, reflective editing be needed at least annually anyway? What’s wrong with just posting a slip opinion (or published one) on a course website?

    (iii) Certainly a real-time discussion of a leading SCOTUS decision, and maybe of a few other exceptional types of case (e.g. a major case in the school’s home circuit or jurisdiction, or a newsworthy case that students might be very motivated to discuss during its 15 minutes of fame), can enhance a class. But otherwise, do students really need “up-to-the-minute” knowledge? E.g., is it a benefit to cover a newly-breaking decision in a distant Federal circuit when there may be a split a few months later? In any case, it won’t be “up-to-the-minute” by the time they’re sworn in. Might the noise and jitter drown out the signal? Is this the importation of the day-trading ethos into legal pedagogy?

  2. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    A.J.–Thanks for the quick 🙂 response! Very good points worthy of serious attention. The balance must be sought.

    In my examples, the opinions I mentioned were worth noting during class as they came down, for certain. I assigned and we discussed one of them and it appears in the new edition as a main case. We discussed a second and read a portion of it and it appears as a note case in the new edition. We mentioned the other two as they related to executive compensation as a current event topic. But those two are too long, written by trial courts on preliminary motions and I did not assign them or include them in the new edition.

    All this filtering can and must be done, in real time and on reflection. There is much more to say about the comparative appeal of print versus electronic books and I hope to say some of it in future posts. And I appreciate thoughtful comments like these.