I have a degree in a field I no longer wish to pursue in my career (English literature). Without a university and all it comes with (libraries, knowledgeable people, etc.), what are the best ways to self-educate and gain a substantive knowledge base in subjects I have little background in, specifically law, philosophy of language, intellectual property, and ethics? I am looking both for specific book recommendations and tips on how to most productively make my way through the material. I am no longer a student, but I have enough time on my hands to do nearly the amount of "course-work" I was doing in college. Also, are there folks who have covered self-education best practices in a book, podcast, etc? I have listened to Tyler Cowen interview Nassim Taleb on this; are there others offering insight on self-education?

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Your first choice is law and I am a lawyer, so, here are my thoughts:

In the 19th century, people learned the law primarily through self-study and apprenticeship, so I'm tempted to say start with Blackstone like Lincoln did. But that probably isn't very good advice. 

Legal education in the US in the 20th century came to be premised on what is known as the "case method," ie., you read published opinions from actual courts deciding actual controversies. You might see potential here for a self-study method, but there are some caveats:

First, it's widely believed that you should only read cases in the context (at least in the first year) of a course where you are subjected to a "Socratic" pedagogy that is designed to force 22 year olds to learn how to argue positions based on the law as it's actually articulated in the cases they are reading instead of what they think the law should or might be. 

Second, there are a lot of cases, they are published chronologically and not organized in any coherent way, and the content of the opinions is often taken up with procedural details with the potential to distract a novice. So  there are "case books," which are collections of abridged cases organized topically with additional explanatory material and intended for use in a "Socratic" class context. See, e.g., https://www.amazon.com/Torts-Introduction-Law-Richard-Epstein/dp/0735500479. I don't recommend this as a method for self-study.

The alternative to the case method would be what are referred to as "treatises," which are what they sound like. A classic of this genre would be. https://www.amazon.com/Prosser-Keeton-Torts-William-Lloyd/dp/0314748806  Frankly, this would probably be a better way to start a self-study program.

However, I would hope that you would start looking at actual cases eventually. An alternative and perhaps better approach to studying cases than the "case books" discussed above, which might work for self study, would be to look and see if your state has a body of "annotated" statutory law. There is a lot of variety here, but the states have, with varying degrees of success, attempted to codify their common law in statutes, and they usually then publish these statutes with annotations citing to cases that interpret or rely on the statute. Due to a recent US SCt opinion, for example, Georgia's annotated code is now available for free download at: https://public.resource.org. It would probably be best to have some grounding via treatise first, though.

The curriculum looks something like this:

Contracts. The first year course teaches you the law of obligations and some stuff about remedies, advanced courses teach the details of the Uniform Commercial Code, and more about remedies.

Torts. This is the law of how you get civil damages (or potentially some other remedy) to make you whole when you've been injured by the negligence or intentional wrongs of another.

Property. This is a class about property rights that is often an excuse to teach the history of the common law system as much as it is about tenancy.

Constitutional Law is generally divided into a semester about the boring parts of the constitution and a semester about what my professor called the "Jerry Springer" parts of the constitution.

Civil Procedure teaches you about the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which is the model for the state civil procedure codes (but sometimes diverges considerably). Advanced topics include Federal Courts, which is a more specific look at federal topics in this area, and potentially a state specific course. This if very important. Much of what you will read in a published opinion is about this stuff and not about the substance of the law in dispute.

Criminal Law is an introduction to how the criminal justice system thinks about crime; the guts of criminal practice are actually constitutional law subjects that are covered later in a course called Criminal Procedure.


If you want specific advice about what to read with respect to a specific subject matter or jurisdiction, let me know and I'll try to help. If you are mainly interested in a higher level understanding of law as a philosophical subject, well, I'm not the person to speak to that.

I am a U.S. lawyer and endorse this answer.

Some states allow for licensure as an attorney via a de facto apprenticeship in lieu of law school. The difficulty, I assume, is finding the "master" to your apprentice.

Thanks for the guidance. I suppose I am interested in the boring parts of the constitution and would welcome any suggestions on where to start. As for methodology, can you offer any advice on how to set out on a course of self-study for someone not attending school? (i.e. What are your habits for teaching yourself new material? Do you simply read, or do you annotate? How do you reinforce what you learn without external forces like examination? What does your scheme of work look like?)

Interesting. Okay, for treatises none of these particularly stand out (https://guides.library.harvard.edu/c.php?g=309841&p=2076807) but you should find a treatise or hornbook on the subject. You should realize that these treatises, like any treatise but perhaps especially in this area, are written by people with a vision of how the constitution works that you may or may not agree with but which is in any event essentially polemic, even with the boring bits. Engage with the underlying argument and try to pick it apart. Whose ox? The primary component of the law school experience you will be missing is the experience of standing in the middle of a room full of people and having your professor say, “Okay, sure. Now argue the other side.” Read Marbury v. Madison. Why do people go on and on about this case? Read Wickard v. Filburn. Read tons of leading cases, focusing on the question of what the case says about the ultimate issue of how authority is distributed and exercised in government. Learn to look at Brown v. Board of Education, for example, through this lens; assuming segregated education is not just bad but unconstitutional, whatever that means, what is the Court supposed to do about it, and why is a federal court the right venue for this discussion? I’ll also take back what I said about Lincoln in this context and say go ahead and read The Federalist Papers and, of course, the constitution itself, as amended. Go ahead and read Blackstone, and Story on Equity, etc etc. Try to read this material on its own terms, though. This stuff has been heavily polemicized, but the source material is rich and strange and also very human. As to how, well, set yourself a systematic course of reading and try to find a way of writing about it, if only for yourself. Books on legal writing might actually be of use to you. To supplement that, I’d mainly advise that you try and find a real live lawyer to talk to, if only as a sanity check. The constitutional law world is full of
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Thanks for asking this question. If you do start the reading programme, I hope you'll post your plans and progress so I can follow along.