What to Read Before Starting Law School

This fall an estimated 2800 students will begin their three-year journey for a J.D. degree at one of Canada’s 18 Common Law Schools (there are 23 law schools in total in Canada).[1] If they are anything like I was some 23 years ago, these students are excited but apprehensive. The vast majority of new law students have had no contact with the legal system and have not taken any law-related courses. Their knowledge of law comes from popular culture. For me this was L.A. Law, Inherit the Wind, Perry Mason and To Kill a Mockingbird. For today’s law students, it is likely The Good Wife, Damages, Suits and perhaps still, To Kill a Mockingbird.

So how to prepare for law school? In my law school acceptance package, I received a “Recommended Reading List” of 8-10 pages (!) of books to read prior to arriving to collect my first casebooks. The list was heavy on legal biographies. I went to my mentor and now friend – the Honourable Bruce Cohen of the B.C. Supreme Court – and asked him to review the titles and help me pare them down.

Justice Cohen reviewed the list studiously but then surprised me by saying: “There is only one book that you need to read before going to law school in the U.S.”. He proceeded to lend me his copy of Felix Frankfurter’s classic The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti: A Critical Analysis for Lawyers and Laymen. This was a surprising choice. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian-born anarchists who were wrongfully-convicted of robbery and murder in 1921 and electrocuted in 1927. They were the victims of racial, class and political prejudice. This occurred not in Charleston, South Carolina or Maycomb, Alabama but in “liberal” Massachusetts. The message that the book gave me was that law is a tool; that it can be used in the pursuit of justice but it can also be wielded to create great injustices. Years later I would learn that Canada had its own Sacco and Vanzetti in Donald Marshall Jr. But fortunately, we did not have the death penalty.

This one book instilled in me a powerful and important message about the centrality of justice in the law. It has continued to ground me to this day. “Justice” must be part of any reading list about “the law”.

So in my homage to the generational passing of David Letterman, here is my suggested Top 10 list of What to Read Before Law School.

  1. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
    A timeless classic of racism, injustice and the perversion of law, countered by the paradigmatic ethical virtue of Atticus Finch and the values he teaches his children and has taught generations of lawyers.
  1. Allan C. Hutchinson, The Law School Book: Succeeding at Law School, 3rd ed.
    In my mind, the best overall practical guide to law school written by Osgoode Hall’s iconic “Hutch”.
  1. Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
    You cannot understand Canada or Canadian law without understanding the history of our treatment of Aboriginal peoples. Thomas King does a masterful job in providing his account of this history and its continuing effects.
  1. Eugene Forsey, How Canadians Govern Themselves
    This timeless classic is a must-read for anyone who did not do their B.A. in political science. It is a good review for those that did as well. It is available for free on the Parliament of Canada website in PDF form.
  1. Steven D. Stark, Writing to Win: The Legal Writer
    Lawyers (and law students) are professional writers. The sooner law students (and law schools) realize this the better. There are many superb books on legal writing but this is my favorite.
  1. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style,
    See #6. This little book contains the basic rules of writing. It is a must-read. Over and over again.
  1. Stephen Waddams, Introduction to the Study of Law
    This thin volume covers a wide swath of law and decodes much obscure legal terminology. Helpful appendices of Latin and French legal phrases.
  1. Allan C. Hutchinson, Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World
    Hutch is the only author to make the list twice. With good reason. Common law education is still about reading and analyzing cases. All too often the facts are stripped out of the cases. Hutch puts them back in and brings these cases to life.
  1. Adam Dodek, The Canadian Constitution
    What kind of idiot would I be if I didn’t recommend my own book that I wrote specifically for Canadians with no knowledge of their own Constitution? This book is aimed at ordinary Canadians and provides a great introduction to the Canadian Constitution and will also be a handy reference for law students throughout their three years of law school. And hopefully beyond.
  1. A Novel
    Read a novel. Any novel. At law school, you will be bombarded with reading cases. It may be a long time until you read another novel. Some of my suggestions are included in a previous post. My triumvirate of favorites: Richard Wagamese’s beautiful Keeper’n Me; Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda; and his Three Day Road.

What books would be on your list?


[1] I do not purport to recommend what Civil Law students should be reading in preparation for their studies but I imagine that there would be some overlap.


  1. Disillusioned Lawyer

    Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning by Will Meyerhofer
    “exposé of the world of biglaw (as seen from the inside), based, in part, on his infamous “In-House Counseling” columns from and his own experiences as a corporate associate at Sullivan & Cromwell. This best-seller is required reading for every lawyer – or potential lawyer. Be forewarned: While thoroughly amusing, it’s also just a little scary… but that’s probably a good thing. ”

    Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
    Pair it with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The moral of the story will become: there are no good people in law, not even Atticus Finch. There are only hypocrites and those who a blatantly amoral hired guns.

    The Fall by Albert Camus
    “Elegantly styled, Camus’ profoundly disturbing novel of a Parisian lawyer’s confessions is a searing study of modern amorality.”
    “it might be a savage critique of the veneer of altruism beneath which the wealthy operate – indeed does social snobbery rather than genuine concern truly underpin their acts of charity?”

  2. One L by Scott Turow. Chillingly accurate portrayal of the anxiety and stress of first year, especially for overachieving undergraduates shell-shocked by the Socratic method and the expectations of law school

  3. Nathaniel J. Hartney

    “Learning The Law” by Glanville Williams is a must read. I read it after first year, wish I had read it sooner.

  4. Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson
    Barred from Prison series by Claire Culhane

  5. Woe Unto You, Lawyers by Fred Rodell, though long out of print there is at least one copy online (I note it contains what appear to be some typographic errors likely introduced in transcription):

    The Doubter’s Companion / The Unconscious Civilization / Voltaire’s Bastards, all by Canadian author John Ralston Saul

  6. Before law school I read Learning the Law by Glanville Williams. Not sure about recommending the current edition since it has some EU specific content. Also watched the movie Paper Chase and was gratified to find how well it predicted how some of my classes would be.
    I also borrowed some of the materials published by the University of Saskatchewan Native Law Centre for their summer program. They were useful preparation for first year.

  7. Thank you very much for this thoughtful list, Mr. Dodek.