Sometimes the letter of the law means exactly that, the letter: miss an “a” when you’re reading a contract and it could spell big trouble. So are lawyers destined to be slow readers because of the exacting detail of their reading? Not necessarily. Here are some guidelines.
- Let your purpose for reading (to do legal research, get an update, learn a new skill, read for fun) determine your reading speed and level of comprehension. To remember in depth what you read, aim for 90-100% comprehension; for fun, 50-70% comprehension, or just to be aware that the material exists if you might need it again, 30-50% comprehension.
- Skim contracts and other legally-binding material twice before you read them. Skim the first time to identify the negatives; this is because people often read negatives as positives (put a pencil check in the margins next to the negative words, such as don’t, can’t, won’t, no, and not). When you just look for the negatives, they’ll tend to jump out at you. Skim a second time to get the gist of the material, to see what the text covers, and how the various sections relate to each other. And then read at whatever speed you need to. You might find that when you’re already familiar with the terminology, concepts, and legal statutes, you naturally read faster.
To condition yourself to move faster on the page, set some time limits for yourself and skim large amounts of material—fun reading—for practice, and then go back and read it after skimming. Then when you return to your important reading, you still might not read at lightning speed, but you’ll probably read a little faster than before, and by following the guidelines above, you’ll be a more effective reader.