A long-winded discussion of summaries and paraphrasing

I have been working with my new international LL.M. students on summarizing and paraphrasing skills, to get them ready for a first research memorandum assignment.  I decided to spend some time on this because I have noticed that even when writing a single case brief exercise, some students do not feel free to depart from the court’s words. As a result, students can spend hours wrestling 6 pages of case law into a 3-page summary that really only needs to be a few ordered dots of thought the size of an index card.  So we have been working to condense information into different styles of case briefs, using the same legal text until they feel comfortable putting the case aside and writing main points from memory.

Stephen spied one of my latest worksheets, and we started an email discussion about how to distinguish the two concepts in a meaningful way, to make students aware of how we expect them to manipulate source material in writing assignments. Finally, I arrived at this, which I think will work. I am interested in learning how other instructors introduce and practice these ideas with the class. 

There is an element of using your own filter to create a summary, whereas a paraphrase is more of an attempt to re-package someone else’s ideas in a way that is more relevant to the writing task and problem at hand. For instance, in summarizing background facts, you can pick and choose facts that are relevant to the matter and issue at hand, re-arrange the order of the facts given, and in essence just state the main ideas that are needed to have the matter make sense. The lawyer is using discretion and judgment to present the client’s facts in a sharp but truthful way.

To paraphrase a rule, you need to stick close to the meaning and often the order of the court’s words (or words of the legislature, or agency) and leave some key lexical bundles in order. But perhaps the writer can replace an introductory phrase or add an opening element of context to show how the rule merges with the assignment.

In rule paraphrasing, the students don’t need all of the internal detail and internal citations that the court includes in its holding and reasoning. But students do have to use some form of the court’s discussion and definitions. In an attorney ethics case, “plagiarising is stealing” is an inaccurate paraphrase of the definition of “plagiarism,” whereas “plagiarism means using another’s work and presenting it as your own thoughts” is an accurate paraphrase.  Likewise, “When considering sanctions, the court considers several factors” is more of a summary, whereas “When considering the degree of sanctions, the court considers the deterrent factor, the public interest, the egregiousness of the offense, and mitigating factors and aggravating factors” is an accurate paraphrase because it hits on all points and doesn’t change key terms.

So a summary could be the answer to “What is the main idea?” or “What is the general background that you understand?” and a paraphrase could be the answer to “What did the court say about X?”

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