Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Helping Students with Their Upper-level R&W Requirements

As you are preparing your spring ASP program, you might consider adding a scholarly writing component.  Many students arrive at law school already struggling with writing generally, and their struggles are compounded as they strive to master writing for legal contexts.  The problem becomes even more complex as they attempt to move from the instrumental legal writing they learned in the first year to the scholarly writing demanded by their upper-level R&W requirements.  Some ASP workshops on scholarly writing or even a full-blown scholarly writing course can be a great help.

Consider what many students face as they enter law school.  They come in with poor training in writing and a "how much baloney must I pour into this paper to get to the page limit" approach to research-based writing assignments.  They must learn to research what for them are dizzyingly complex legal problems in a completely foreign library system.  They must learn to write with precision for an exacting audience that will consist mainly of lawyers and judges who have no patience for sloppy research or fuzzy legal thinking and writing.  They must learn to tailor this research and writing to resolving specific legal questions raised by hypothetical fact patterns and either predict how a court would likely rule or persuade a court to rule in a particular way.  They learn IRAC.

Then comes the upper-level research and writing requirement.  No longer focused upon a discrete set of facts that raise a set of specific legal issues, the R&W requirement forces students to cast their nets into a legal ocean they have barely learned to navigate (and even that navigation has been learned mostly close to shore) and come up with something interesting and novel to say about a legal topic they barely understand. 

When they begin their first tentative forays into the world of academic legal writing, they find that their seemingly fresh, new topics have already been the subject of intense scholarly exploration by seasoned law professors.  Finally, even if they can come up with something useful and novel to say, they find that because there is no hypothetical fact pattern to which their research and writing must be tailored, IRAC is useless as an organizational tool.

They could use some help.

One way to help might be to create a series of workshops on scholarly research and writing for legal audiences.  The ASP professional need not be the one who actually conducts all of the workshops, of course.  Recruiting other law faculty and librarians to deliver the sessions can be an excellent way to provide the students with very practical and insightful advice on developing topics, using research tools not covered in first-year writing courses, and tailoring writing to academic audiences.  After all, a law faculty is made up of scholars, and the law library is filled with people who think about research problems all day long.  Many of those people are rich sources of experience and expertise and would be delighted to help.

It is true, of course, that students have individual faculty advisors for their R&W assignments.  Those advisors, however, may not always have thought deeply about the processes of legal reseach and writing. They may have produced extremely important scholarhip in their particular areas of law, but ironically their extensive backgrounds can sometimes make it difficult for them to explain to a novice how to discover and develop a novel topic when everything in the field seems novel. 

Some of those scholars, on the other hand, are quite interested in and thoughtful about the processes that drive good scholarship; and they can provide an abundance of practical advice for novice scholars.  It makes sense for the ASP professional to tap such expertise for the student body as a whole whenever possible.

Librarians are also a treasure trove of research strategies that students have yet to encounter.  Students learn basic legal research in the first year; but good research librarians can open up a much larger world of strategies and resources for budding legal scholars, a world even many faculty advisors may not realize exists.

Finally, and certainly not least, legal writing professionals are often well-established scholars for whom thinking deliberately about the writing process is second nature.  Many would relish the opportunity to share what they know about scholarly writing and its similarities to and differences from the instrumental writing students encounter in the first year.

A step beyond a workshop series would be a full-blown course in scholarly writing.  Later this week, I'll describe how such a course might work.  (dbw)

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