Rules. Your whole life you’ve had to live by the rules. Now you’re in law school and there are a whole bunch of rules you have to memorize that may have nothing to do with how you live your life. But you have to know these rules cold so they can come to you at the right moment during a law school exam. But wait, now you’re told there is a whole new category of rules. These are rules you have to create yourself in your legal writing class. This requires something called “synthesis.” So, what exactly does that mean?
“Synthesizing” is Nothing New
Believe it or not, you have been synthesizing rules since the first week of class. In your substantive classes, a student presents a case. After a fact summary, a holding, and a discussion about how the court reached that holding, a rule has been crafted from the case. But it’s not over, is it? No, your professor goes on to the next case. Another student, another summary. But this new case doesn’t present a whole new rule. Instead, it adds to the previous rule, or maybe states an exception to that rule. Your professor helps you to combine these concepts during the class discussion, getting you to integrate the ideas expressed in the various cases, to come up with a new rule. Guess what? You just engaged in rule synthesis.
In contrast, in your legal writing class, you have to research and find authorities relevant to an assignment. Rather than a professor driven process where the rule is drawn from a discussion and developed, you now have to find the statutes and/or cases that will help you to resolve the issues presented by the facts. These rules may or may not be exactly the same as the rules you worked on in your substantive classes. In fact, they might be different because they are specific to a particular jurisdiction. But how you work with the sources discovered through your research is not that different.
A More Specific Example
You don’t believe me yet? Just think about your torts class and a discussion about false imprisonment. Your professor probably started with a case that set out a basic rule on false imprisonment – for instance, “the intentional and unlawful restraint of a person’s liberty or freedom of movement.” But the discussion does not stop there. In the next case, the professor focuses on when a restraint should be considered “unlawful.” Here you learn that a restraint should not be considered unlawful if a merchant suspects a person of shoplifting. In these cases, detentions are allowed when a merchant has reasonable cause, and the detention is done in a reasonable manner for a reasonable length of time. The final case in the lecture tells you this “shopkeeper immunity” does not extend automatically to the companion of a suspected shoplifter.
By the end of the class, the professor has synthesized a rule with the help of a few students. So now, the more complete rule for some cases of false imprisonment is:
While false imprisonment may occur when a person’s liberty or freedom of movement has been restrained unlawfully, a merchant may be allowed to detain a suspected shoplifter for a reasonable period of time, as long as the merchant has reasonable cause and any detention is done in a reasonable manner. However, a merchant’s right to detain extends only to the person suspected of shoplifting, not to people accompanying that shoplifter who are not suspected of shoplifting.
The “synthesized” rule has taken a general concept and expanded it with an exception and an explanation of how far that exception can be taken. This is the rule your professor now uses to answer a hypothetical about a woman shopping with her son and a friend, who is detained when trying to leave the store.
Applying the Concept
Apply this same approach to your legal writing assignment. It is probably easy to figure out which of your sources is the starting point. It could be a Supreme Court opinion, or a statute. Start with the authority that states a more general concept, or lays out a rule that requires further interpretation. Maybe it’s a word that needs further explanation. That’s how you link in the appellate court case you found that defines the word using a particular set of facts. Yet another case explains how the word cannot be defined to apply to another set of facts. Now construct a new, synthesized rule that states the general rule, with a limitation on how it applies to a narrow type of situation. That is the rule you will now apply in your legal memo or brief to the facts provided by your legal writing professor in the assignment.
The more you practice this skill the more you will realize, whether you are in a classroom, the library, or researching online, the technique for creating a new rule or engaging in “rule synthesis” is the same.
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