Law School Up Close

Getting Stocked Up: The Used vs. New Book Debate

Every student attending law school in the fall will have to quickly make a financial decision that will dictate their path through the first semester.

Should I buy new books, buy used books, or rent?

For me, this is a tough one, because I am a frugal person in general. While I abhor spending money unnecessarily, I also know very well how much financial aid I have withdrawn just to go to school in the first place. For me, the largest chunk of money that I am receiving is for living expenses, but I know for a lot of people the larger burden is tuition, sometimes as much as 30-40 thousand dollars per year.

So, with that in mind, a lot of people will receive advice like, “with how much you are spending on tuition and housing just to go to school, you might as well go the extra mile on new books”. While I definitely understand this logic at its face, I have started to receive the used books that I will be renting for the semester, and I have started to thumb through the pages looking at the markings; the highlighter marks throughout, the crib notes in certain sections. When I decided on rentals, I was wary that these marks would be more distracting, more pronounced then they have actually ended up being.

What I would encourage is that you ask yourself how you studied in undergrad, and how you utilize your textbooks throughout the semester in order to make the decision. First of all, a lot of people, including myself tended to rent certain textbooks during undergraduate, and only bought new copies for classes that particularly interested them. For me, being an Engineering Physicist, Digital Electronics for Inventors was a must have. And indeed, years after taking the Digital Electronics class, I still find myself thumbing through the massive text looking for information on Op Amps and micro-controllers. These concepts may get outdated by newer material, but they will generally maintain accuracy unless there is a new theory of electromagnetism.

Law is, in general, completely different. When I look through the law library at the school I will be attending, many of the older books have big stickers on them that read “overruled”. What this means is that the precedents set in the cases of these books have been overturned by newer ones, whether statutorily or judicially. This means that if you are a practicing attorney sitting in your office, and you recognize that one of your current cases may be related to an old case you studied in school, you’d be making a grave mistake by skipping the electronic search and going straight to that old textbook. See, the legal system, at least in most areas of the law, is not like science. The law does not turn on laws of nature, facts of life. The law turns on justice, a sense of humanity that, while eternally sought on the same grounds, changes over time based on the way we view the world.

This is painfully true in the field that I will be studying in the most depth during school, patent law. While “tort reform” is a policy debate that will likely never seek fruition, at least in the United States legal system, “patent reform” has happened many times over in the forms of such things as the AIA (America Invents Act), the PLTIA (Patent Law Treaty Implementation Act), and other lesser acronymized but equally important decisions, such as Alice, Mayo, Bilski. While some classes may be less prone to these types of changes, such as con law and civ pro, case books get updated far more frequently than books that you read for many of your undergrad classes. So, while it may make you look more professional to have shelves of thick textbooks sitting behind your mahogany desk above your cabinet of whiskey and gin, this idea itself of what a lawyer’s office ought to look like is also being quickly antiquated.

With all this said, I can also confirm that I have purchased case books from upperclassmen, for about the price that I would be able to rent them from the school bookstore or other sources such as Amazon. This means that these students were able to purchase new textbooks and then after selling them, had a final cost that is only slightly higher than renting or buying used. So, if you do feel like you are going to get more out of studying from a new textbook, and you believe that you will be able to sell these books through social channels such as a school Facebook page or marketplace, you should feel fairly confident in making the costlier investment up front, as long as the teachers don’t switch to newer editions in the following years.

The other thing I’d say is that there is a certain aspect to new books that may appeal to some students. While I view myself more as the beetle that just keeps digging, burrowing through work until I feel confident in my understanding of the material, there are many out there, I’m sure many of you who view yourself more as intellectual cheetahs, quick to absorb material and devour tough concepts the first time through. Particularly, you philosophy majors out there who are accustomed to devouring heady tomes with elegant prose and complex ideas. If you are someone who doesn’t often feel the need to re-read material, then I believe that new books may actually have serious benefits, in that your own highlighting will let you know where you’ve been, so to speak.

While studying for the patent bar, my first foray into legal reasoning, there were several chapters that I “just got”, particularly patentability and PCT. When crunch time came to a head and I was scrambling to determine what gaps to fill, I was able to save time on these chapters by only going over the materials that I had scant to no highlighting on, indicating that I may have been “asleep at the wheel” the first time I went through these sections.

So, in conclusion, my point of this article is that I do not have any definitive answers on the “used vs. new” book debate. The only thing I would say is that legal study seems like an especially personalized area of education and finding out what works best for you in the given situation is the approach I would recommend. Be on the lookout for deals in your school’s channels, as well as resources like,, and to make sure you have the full picture of what is available to you.


Ted Rand