Law Books For The Price Of Printing?

June 30th, 2016 / By

Originally published on Above The Law.

library w bookLaw students spend between $3,000 and $4,000 on books during law school. For those that borrow, add another $1,000 on the 10-year plan or $2,000 on the 20-year plan. While a drop in the bucket compared to tuition and living expenses, $4,000 to $6,000 for books is not insignificant.

Shaving these costs down to the cost of printing is a common suggestion, but it does not appear to have been done at scale. In a new article in the Saint Louis University Law Journal, Professor Ben Trachtenberg from the University of Missouri School of Law outlines how to actually do it with the goal of encouraging action.

The question is: will it happen?

He starts off with a sensible premise. Casebooks really do offer value in the form of editing and commentary. Although the other parts of the book are typically available in the public domain for free, the people who put casebooks together still deserve compensation for their work and expertise.

Trachtenberg outlines his argument through the lens of criminal procedure casebooks and supplements. He conservatively estimates that students at the four law schools in Missouri spend $80,000 annually for crim pro books. Extend those estimates to all ABA-approved law schools, and law students spend a conservative $5 million annually. My back of the envelope estimate for the total spent by law students on all casebooks and supplemental materials is about $100 million per year. However, Trachtenberg points out that not all courses are primed for scale.

Costs imposed on the professors to change casebooks, taste, emphasis, and other factors would ensure that no single book would ever be adequate. However, that’s a lot of money spent annually for an area of law that’s not changing rapidly. When the law does change, student-printed books ease changes without new editions or supplements.

Given that course materials do not appear out of thin air, Trachtenberg suggests that law schools coordinate efforts to fund teams to create these books. He believes that part of a university’s mission should be controlling costs and spreading knowledge. Casebook production seems like a natural fit.

But rather than the schools pooling resources, it may make more sense to do this through an external organization funded through grants. This would reduce costs even more because the students would not be funding casebook creation. Of course, even if students do fund these types of projects through tuition dollars, they save overall — and that’s what really matters.

Professor Trachtenberg says this is a “who’s with me?” kind of statement. He can’t do this alone, but hopefully he’ll have some takers as he works to spread the idea. Tenured faculty have the freedom to spend their time as they see fit. Why not this?

  • I agree with all of this except for the assumption that this is an effort that needs to be funded. I wrote a pay-what-you-want casebook on Internet law that can be downloaded for free without any external funding. I’m involved in an effort to produce a Property casebook that will be released open-source: for free download and resuse by anyone. Again, no one is paying us for this, other than our regular salaries. We’re hardly alone. There are also two Intellectual Property casebooks, another Internet law book, and an advertising law book that are available either for free or for the cost of a normal book. That’s just the ones I can name offhand.

    Indeed, i think that funding can be counterproductive, because it crowds out the intrisic motivations to produce affordable materials and it makes it seem like creating these materials is too big a job to take on without financial assistance. Inexpensive and open-source casebooks are going to sweep through the legal academy over the next few years as people realize just how close we already are to the world we want to live in.

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