‘The Criminal Lawyer’s Guide to Criminal Law’ is an Illustrated Primer on Law and Order
When I was in law school, my absolute least famous class was criminal procedure. It’s affectionately termed the “Law & Order” class, because it deals with the sorts of things Sam Waterston dealt with every week: illegal searches, Miranda warnings, burdens of proof. But I spent those months in confusion, staring blankly at my professor’s handlebar mustache while he droned on about fifth and sixth amendment protections.
If you’re stuck with a law professor who couldn’t explain how to assemble a peanut butter sandwich (or if you’re too hungover to make sense of what he’s saying), you have a lot of options: upperclassmen tutors, commercial outlines, horn books, and, if you’re lucky, a smarter student’s notes. Now law students — and anyone else who fears they’ll have a run-in with the law — have a new tool in their arsenal: The Criminal Lawyer’s Guide to Criminal Law, a webcomic introduction to criminal law and procedure.
Nathaniel Burney, the creator of this illustrated legal guide, is a criminal lawyer with his own practice in New York, so his understanding of criminal law goes beyond the academic. The Criminal Lawyer’s Guide to Criminal Law starts at the very beginning, explaining what a crime is and the purpose of criminal punishment. Burney assumes that his readers are coming to the world of criminal law cold, with no external knowledge (and no Latin). But once he’s explained the role of the state and whether rehabilitation is a likely outcome of punishment, he jumps right into culpability, intent, solicitation, and conspiracy.
Law is usually taught in an exceedingly verbal way, with an emphasis on reading court decisions and comparing minor details in the language. Burney offers a more step-by-step guide to the law, with a little something for the visual learners among us. Rather than analyzing lengthy court decisions, Burney creates hypothetical situations, comparing and contrasting the situations of different characters.
For example, in a section about mens rea (the mindset required to find criminal culpability), Burney tells the stories of five different adults who directly cause the deaths of five different children — one accidentally, one negligently, one recklessly, one knowingly, and one deliberately — and explains how the law would view their actions differently. To explain how a conspiracy works, he concocts a movie-style heist. And he includes the one thing I desperately wish I had seen more of in law school: diagrams.
Even if you’re not headed to law school, it’s good to have a basic knowledge of criminal law in your back pocket. As dull as my criminal procedure class was, I learned some useful information that everyone should be introduced to in their education (but often usually). Burney’s explanations are easy and accessible, far more so than the legal outlines I tried to cram into my brain before exam time. I just hope that he’ll get into our rights against illegal search and seizure, our right not to talk to the police, and how to properly ask for a lawyer.
For now, The Criminal Lawyer’s Guide to Criminal Law is only available online. Jones McClure Publishing, which publishes books for law students and lawyers, will be publishing a print volume of Burney’s comics in the fall, just in time to help a new crops of 1Ls decipher their professors’ lectures.