In the decade between my college graduation and my first semester of law school, I worked as an actor in Chicago, often performing “heightened language” adaptations of literary and dramatic classics.
There’s always a lot of work that takes place before actors ever get up on their feet in rehearsal, including collaborative “table work” (completed, unsurprisingly, with the team sitting around a table) as well as individual homework in the weeks leading up to that first “table read.”
With heightened language plays (most recognizably, Shakespeare), part of that homework feels strangely similar to . . . reading the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
I’m serious! Here’s how studying Shakespeare prepared me to read the FRCP.
Before an actor walks into their first rehearsal, they’re expected to be very familiar with the script. In some cases, when edits aren’t anticipated, scripts should be nearly or entirely memorized before Day 1. But there’s other (arguably more important) work to be done before rehearsal starts, too: text work.
“Text work” means parsing the language, researching alternate interpretations, consulting the lexicon, dissecting long, winding phrases, and understanding the nuances of the meter of each line. It means underlining key words, circling punctuation, drawing arrows and boxes and generally marking up the script.
So while the Federal Rules aren’t written in iambic pentameter (but what fun if they were!), there are definitely some similarities in how I approach Shakespeare’s text and the text of the FRCP.
Read for phrase meaning first
Read each sentence through for a general umbrella understanding before marking it up. If the sentence is about a million lines long, break it up into phrases. The idea here is to make it consumable, so you can wrap your head around it before getting into the nitty-gritty.
Then read it again for detail and clarity
Look for the “telegram” words
Imagine you were sending that sentence as a telegram, using as few words as possible. What are the most important words in the sentence? Focus on words that tell you what you can and can’t do (e.g. must, may, shall) as well as conjunctions that tie phrases together (e.g. and, or). Circle those—you never want to miss them (or confuse a “must” for a “may)!
Follow the characters
Rules will often mention the “characters” involved. Some rules, for instance, might affect only actions taken by plaintiffs but not by defendants. Put a box around the party name being discussed so your attention is drawn to exactly which party is affected by the rule.
Find the “antithesis”
In the context of text work for a Shakespeare play, “antithesis” means “contrast.” If a line first mentions the sweetness of nature and then the cruelty of a woman (Twelfth Night I.V), we’d want to highlight that contrast between the two. In the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, we’re not going to encounter that sort of purposeful contrast, but there are times when two opposing ideas are presented.
For instance, Rule 8(b)(3) tells us what may happen when a party intends X, and then tells us what must happen if a party does not intend X. You’ll want to note the opposing set-up and instruction in rules like this one. I like to double-underline “intend” and “does not intend” so my eye is drawn to compare the two.
Mark tricky spots
When there are exceptions to rules or otherwise easy-to-miss tricky areas, a simple exclamation point in the margin will help draw your attention to those rule elements. My high school choir director used to tell us to draw a set of eyes to remind us to look carefully. I’m not much of a visual artist, so I prefer the exclamation point, but you do you!
Translate in the margins
Sometimes a rule feels (1) so dense and complicated I know I’ll need a quick reminder of what it means later, or (2) surprisingly simple but is complicated by lots of words and subsections.
In those instances, I’ll “translate” the rule for a quick reminder later. For example, next to each subsection of Rule 26(a)(1)(A), I described the type of information discussed: (i) potential witnesses, (ii) evidence, (iii) itemized damages, and (iv) insurance information. In the margin next to Rule 18, I wrote “give ‘em all!”
These translations aren’t intended as a substitute for reading your rules later on—just as a quick guide to inform your reading.
Mark it up and make it your own
There’s a lot that goes into preparing for class, and if you’re in CivPro, reading the FRCP is one small part of all that. As you read, marking up your book can be especially helpful if you’re a visual learner like me. Regardless of your learning style, though, the FRCP is full of complicated and dense language, and it’s important to make the page your own, with your own personal diagrams and symbol systems, so you can return to it more easily throughout school—and, my CivPro professor assured us, throughout your career.
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