Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Importance of Legal Writing Courses

The first-year students are currently deeply engaged in their research paths and legal memoranda.  As is typical, many of them are fraught because they are trying to juggle the large time commitment for these assignments with their daily reading and briefing and their weekly outlining.  It is not unusual for a few of them to lament that they have to do our legal practice course when their doctrinal courses are so important.

As someone who teaches our legal skills component of our Summer Entry Program, I realize the stress that students feel when they are juggling a doctrinal component at the same time as a writing component.  However, I also know why both aspects are important even though students sometimes miss the point.  So, I smile and then explain why legal practice is not a second-class component of law school.

I believe that some students miss the point because they do not really understand the practice of law and how law differs from other academic disciplines in their undergraduate studies.  The following are some of the points that I try to get them to understand:

  • Undergraduate studies in some disciplines (for example, hard sciences, accounting, some areas of mathematics) were often looking for right answers.  In the law, the scenarios often are of the "it depends" nature that require more than just knowing rules of law.
  • Undergraduate studies in other disciplines (for example, sociology, phiolosophy, political science) were often looking for the discussion of ideas.  In the law, ideas are important, but the critical thinking about facts, the precedents, and seeing both sides of the argument combine for a more structured thinking.
  • Undergraduate studies often encouraged mere memorization of material and regurgitation of that material rather than critical thinking about the material.
  • Undergraduate studies often encouraged writing that was less precise and concise without the same critical importance on where the comma went or the specific word chosen. 
  • Doctrinal courses help you to learn how to read cases, understand the rules and concepts for a particular legal specialty, and fit the black letter law into the bigger picture of the course.
  • Doctrinal courses typically ask students to use the law in the analysis of new legal scenarios under timed conditions.
  • Doctrinal areas of the law change as new precedents are decided or new statutes are enacted.  Some areas of law change slowly while others change rapidly.  New societal or technological issues can open up entirely new specialties in practice.  Thus, the doctrinal law learned today may change and is not the be all and end all of learning doctrine.
  • Memorization of doctrinal law is just the start of the process of legal analysis.  You must know the black letter law, but it is the application of that law to legal scenarios that is most important.
  • Legal writing is very different for most students from any past writing and cannot be learned overnight.  Legal writing skills need to be learned through practice.
  • Law firms can have summer clerks and new attorneys learn the law - whether it is a new topic or an entire new specialty area.  Learning the law is a given for any position, and doctrinal classes will have given law students a great deal of practice in doing so.
  • Law firms cannot teach summer clerks or new attorneys how to research and write.  They expect competence in those skills.  A strong foundation is needed for the work that is completed every day in practice.
  • Law firms take legal research and writing grades seriously.  They will look at those grades to determine whether the person can be competent in the typical work that will be assigned.
  • High grades in doctrinal courses are important, but indicate different skills than the legal writing grades.
  • Legal research and writing skills will be used every day of their lives as attorneys.  With stronger skills when they leave law school, they will struggle less as attorneys.

Once students understand the practical implications of their research and writing skills, they make better choices about when to begin their assignments and making time for multiple drafts.  After their first summer positions, law students tend to realize that the hard work on these skills was truly worth it and that what they were told about the importance of the skills was confirmed.  (Amy Jarmon)

 

 

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