On Legal Books

by F.

I recently read an unbelievably awful book. It was quite bad, even for Wiley (the publisher), which seems to be taking up the rear of the business book publishing world. The material the authors collect could have been interesting, but these guys and their editor just couldn’t pull it off. One of the authors, we read in the “about the author” blurb, has “written two crime novels.” Wow. Of course, they’ve not been published, it seems, at least from a search on Amazon. And reading this book, I can see why. It appears to have been written by high school students. Don’t be fooled by the reviews on Amazon. This book belongs in the remainder bin (where it probably is). The authors should pay you to read it.

But reading this piece of trash did have on unintended positive side effect: it got me thinking about why legal books are generally so boring. A book like A Civil Action is the rare exception. That’s basically just a good novel, with a strong story, that happens to be about the law. What about the usual sort of legal book, the kind that is supposed to teach you about the law? My god, these books are dull. Why?

Some speculation. A legal book should tell the business reader three things:

  1. Does this law apply to me?
  2. If so, what must I do? and
  3. What can’t I do?

That’s it. The average business person only wants to know these three things. Everything else in irrelevant, especially the political background to the law and the specific sections of the it (Title Z, Section 443, and so on). No one cares. Lawyers care, because they have to cite to them, but normal people don’t. And even lawyers only care about that stuff when they have to write a brief or do a regulatory filing.

One other problem with legal books is that they focus too much on definitions at the beginning. For instance, I’m reading a book on privacy laws. Sure enough, the chapters start in the most boring way possible: with definitions. “Graham-Leach-Bliley defines blah as blah-blah-blah.” No. Wrong. Start with an anecdote. A person. This is the way all good journalistic writing starts. Something concrete and familiar. Then move on to the subtleties after the reader has something tangible to grasp. This follows the tried-and-true principle of “old information before new.” Start easy. Get the reader interested. Then dive for the depths after you have their hand.

Another problem is focusing on gray areas. Again, turning back to this privacy book, we read about the definitions of this and that, and then we get sections like, “What is a Non-Qualified Third Party?” And then that section goes into a bunch of edge cases—some attorneys think a non-qualified third party is X, some think it is Y, others that it is Z. And there isn’t much case law to tell us (as with most legislation) so we’re left scratching our heads. What’s the bottom line? We don’t know.

What if you learned algebra that way? “OK, class, today we’re going to start on the quadratic formula and how to solve it. But, instead of telling you what it is, I want to focus on a debate in the early 19th century between two Prussian academics about the metaphysical status of exponents, and whether the number derived from raising a number to a power is really the same as the number derived from taking the root of that number so raised—metaphysically, of course. Is there an identity relation between those two numbers? Or are they subtly different? Then we’ll move into some of the wrong ways to solve the quadratic formula—the ones that didn’t work, especially the work of Dinkelmann and Horkenfreim. We’ll spend about three weeks going over what you should forget. Then we’ll get to the quadratic formula if we have time. Oh—and did I mention that your exam will be on the quadratic formula only.” “But Mr. Douchmann, why can’t we just learn the right answer?” “What’s that Sally? Oh, uh, this the way we’ve always done it. Now—on to the irrelevancies.”

How should you deal with gray areas? Easy: provide a continuum, from the easy cases to the hard ones. Continua are one of the basic schemas we use to understand the world (timelines are another; “forces” are another; hierarchies are another; part-whole relations are another—and so on). Give an example of an uncontroversial non-qualified third party—a definite hit. Then give us a definite miss—someone who couldn’t be a non-qualified third party. Then move to the middle. That way, we start with something concrete and graspable, then move on to subtleties. This is just good pedagogy. A good book is an information delivery device. No more, no less. People write great books on hard subjects all the time. That’s what a good writer can do: explain something hard in simple terms.

Customers should expect more than they usually get from risible books on law and regulation, which generally suck. The publishing world seems to be contracting; it’s not hard to see why, nor is it hard to feel that it is getting what it deserves.