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Studying Law: What Books Do I Actually Need?

Your Questions Answered: Which Law Textbooks Should I Buy?

From textbooks to revision books to case books, there are many options for law students in the UK. The problem is that buying these books for every subject can get expensive. So, which ones do you buy? This guide looks at the pros and cons of each kind of book and helps you choose the law materials which are right for you.

Student Textbooks

Student textbooks are summaries of the law specifically designed for undergraduate law students. They are a useful tool for learning the basics. However, you should not rely on them entirely. You should treat them as a jumping-off point for your studies and a guide to structuring your notes, and supplement them by making case notes and reading journal articles.

Obviously, you need some kind of student textbook. However, any given subject will have three or four ‘leading’ textbooks to choose from. The place to start should be the book recommended by your tutor or lecturer. But what if your tutor recommends more than one? Here are some factors you should take into account:

  • Each textbook will present material differently. You should choose the approach that you find easiest to understand. Some books will give you the material in continuous prose with only a few headings. Others will split material up into many sections and subheadings, or even tables and diagrams.
  • Different textbooks provide different levels of depth in terms of the case-law. Shallower books are good for when you first begin learning a subject, but you will need to move onto a more in-depth book later in the year. If you have limited resources, it may be worth jumping in the deep end right away.
  • Each textbook will also have a different approach to citing external material. Some textbooks simply teach you the law, without touching much on the academic debate surrounding controversial areas of law. Others will explain that there is a debate, and provide you with a list of journal articles at the end of the chapter that you can explore if you want to know more. Others will provide a summary of the different sides of the debate, with references to the relevant articles in the footnotes. If you want to do well at essay questions, choose the latter two.

For example:

TitleChalmers, Davies & Monti: European Union LawBarnard & Peers: European Union LawSteiner & Woods: EU Law
ApproachMostly continuous prose, with broad headings. Detailed headings and sub-headings, includes tables, bullet points and diagrams.Detailed headings and sub-headings. Provides brief summaries of key cases.
Case DepthExplains the key cases as well as some more niche ones. Rich references to case-law in the footnotes. Explains the key cases. Rich references to case-law in the footnotes. Explains the key cases as well as referencing more niche ones.
Academic DebateSuperficial references to academic debate, but rich references to academic commentary in the footnotes. Brief summaries of relevant academic debates with citations. Limited discussion of academic debate, provides a list of further reading at the end of each chapter.

If you are new to studying law, you should head to your University’s law library before buying any textbooks. Get a feel for the type of book that you learn best from, and figure out which styles work for you.

Practitioner Textbooks

Practitioner textbooks are summaries of the law for solicitors and barristers. Unlike student textbooks, there tend to only be one or two ‘leading’ books in each area. Practitioner books go into more depth than student textbooks and are a great way to identify case-law on more niche points.

Practitioner textbooks are expensive. They also often get new, updated editions, making it hard to sell them later to recoup the cost. For this reason, law students are not advised to buy them. However, your University’s law library should have a copy of all of the leading practitioner books. Some subscriptions services, particularly LexisNexis, also provide online copies of some books. Here are the leading books in each subject you should look out for:

Practitioner books are quite dense for new law students, and they do not usually contain much academic debate. Undergraduate law students should only use them to broaden their understanding of the law once they have mastered the basics.

Case Books

Case books provide summaries, explanations and key excerpts from the leading cases in each area of law. They also usually provide summaries and excerpts of the best-known journal articles on each topic.

It is difficult to recommend case books to law students, at least in terms of spending money on them. A good case book is like a shallow textbook, with the advantage that it identifies the critical passages of the leading case-law. This can be helpful if you are dealing with very long cases and you are not sure which parts to focus on. If you are coping with case-law, then you can get full copies of cases for free on the British and Irish Legal Information Institute or your Uni’s subscription to Westlaw or LexisNexis. This makes case books less valuable.

It can also be worth skimming a case-book to get an idea of the kinds of journal articles which are relevant to each area of law. Again, you should be able to get full copies of these articles for free via your University, and there are ways of finding out which journal articles a book recommends. For example, you can use Google Books to check the ends of textbook and case book chapters for a list of recommended further reading. As such, this does not necessarily make case books worth paying for

Overall, case books are certainly worth borrowing from the library from time-to-time, but you probably do not need to spend money on a personal copy.

Statute Books

Statute books provide key extracts of the relevant statutes in the area of law. They do not usually provide any commentary on the statutes or reference the case-law interpreting them. The most commonly-used series are the Blackstone Statute Books.

Statute books are the only book you can normally take into exams. Unless you can memorise whole statutes, you are likely to need one at some point. For day-to-day studying, however, you will not get much use out of these books. This is because the relevant statutes are usually available online (warning: Legislation.Gov.UK is not always up-to-date). If you can reliably borrow statute books from your Uni library for exams, there is probably no reason to buy a copy for yourself.

Revision Books

Revision books fall into two categories. The first is ‘express’ books which provide superficial overviews of the law. The second is ‘question and answer’ books which provide examples of answers to problem and essay questions.

1. Express Law Books

‘Express’ law revision books are incredibly popular and cheap compared to a full textbook. However, they are a trap for the unwary. They mostly exist to get money out of panicking law students during exam season. Don’t fall for it: they probably won’t help you.

Express revision books only provide the most shallow look at the law. They usually explain enough to allow you to get a 2:2 and no higher. If you have a normal student textbook and a decent set of lecture notes, you have no need for an express book.

2. Question & Answer Books

Question and answer books are more valuable and provide a service none of the other types of book do. They generally provide low-to-mid 2:1 answers, so don’t rely on them too much. However, they can help you understand how a problem or essay question should be structured and the kinds of topics which are relevant. By the time you are in your second or third year, you will have probably got the hand of it already, but these books are a useful tool for first year students.

Though you should avoid their ‘Express’ books, Law Express have a great series of question and answer books that you can find on Amazon.

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