August 29, 2012
Law School Textbooks: The Price of the Penultimate Edition?
Posted by Christine Hurt

Probably two years ago, I began fielding a question or two every August that went something like this:  "Professor, I noticed on the syllabus that you require the [X]th edition of the textbook.  Will the [X-1]th edition suffice?"  My first (and second) reaction to these email questions was fairly snarky:  What does the word "require" mean to you?  I was also puzzled that the questions seemed merely to be asking permission to deviate from instructions, not seeking information as to whether the deviation had any risks or drawbacks.

But this year, the Torts book I use is in a new edition, and I have been asked the question repeatedly.  So, I sent an email telling students that they were free to buy an old edition or no edition, as long as they understood the consequences.  I was not going to check page by page to see how the new and old page numbers aligned or point out every new case, hypo and note, but if they wanted to wing it, that was up to them.  I assumed, and told them so, that buying the old edition would require them to make friends with someone with a new edition to get names of new cases, figure out what the readings were, etc.  I thought my tone reflected my opinion that the first year was already so hard (and so expensive), that setting up a new challenge for themselves to save a small fraction of its cost was unwise.

Is my opinion wrong?  (I have seen several students carrying obviously used textbooks, so my tone was obviously off.)  Is my cost-benefit calculus incorrect?  Could/should law professors do anything to make the cost-benefit less penalizing of the penultimate edition purchase?

So, according to Amazon, the brand-new edition of the Torts book is $198.  (This in itself blew me away.)  The last edition (new) is $150.  I would assume a used edition would be even less.  But let's start with a $50 savings.  Of course, law school is very expensive -- you may have heard about that.  So, to me the $50 savings seemed a little "penny wise, pound foolish."  But, if you could save $150-200 a semester or maybe $1000 or so total with used books, that's real money.  But would it decrease any of your grades?  The only way it could would be if you were missing something (a topic, a new rule given in a new case, a new statute) that ended up on the test.  This would be much more likely to happen in Securities Regulation than in Torts.  Other classes, I'm not sure.  Even then, a certain kind of student could pick up on the change in class and gather the case/statute from Westlaw.  Would the time required be worth the $50?  To me, if this extra work would take more than 4-5 hours or just stress me out, then the $50 wouldn't be worth it.

But, professors (or research assistants, or enterprising students) could create "cheatsheets" with page numbers, new case names, new statute numbers, etc.  Then students could purchase old editions with relative impunity.  A few years ago, it would have seemed fairly far-fetched to me that schools or faculty should entertain the thought.  But now, with the high cost of law school a topic of everyday conversation, I'm not so sure.

Of course, I'm sure textbook publishers, who have to make their own ends meet, would have different thoughts.

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