Saturday, June 28, 2014

Done is better than perfect

I am in the middle (or actually, the middle of the end) of writing my first law review article in 7 years. It has been a monumental task, starting with the fact that I am terribly out of practice. The Bluebook has changed since the last time I published in a law review (and I wasn't great at Bluebooking to begin with!) I have only had a month of solid writing time, although I have been researching and writing piecemeal for almost a year. To get inspired this morning, because I am so tantalizingly close to the end, but just so burnt out and exhausted, I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed comparing writing to running. I am a long distance runner, primarily at the 10k to half-marathon length, so I thought the article could help inspire me. And she did have some good advice.

Done is better than perfect. As I write, I think about all the connections I should be making. However, I don't have the time to write the article of my dreams, I have to finish. And done is better than perfect. I think this also applies to bar takers. So many high-achieving students get stuck during bar prep because they have trained themselves to be perfect. On law school exams, aiming for perfect is important if you want to be in the top of your class. But for bar prep, just getting the work done is more important than perfect. You can't be perfect when you have so many subjects to cover, and so little time.

Writing and running each require one small step. An article doesn't come out whole in a day or a week. Neither does bar prep. Each are about taking one small step, then another, and so on. Because if you look at the project, the race, or the bar exam, as one giant  monolith, you will never get started. And you have to get started. And you have to keep going when you only have 4 pages of a 30 page article, or you have only read one subject in a 15 subject outline, or you have run one mile, and have 12.1 more to go.

So with that, I need to get back to writing. I am working on one of my last sections, a section that is dear to my heart--ASP. And then I need to write my conclusions. Wish me luck. And to all of you working on the bar exam, good luck to you, too. I hope to see fellow ASPers at LWI next week.

(RCF)

 

 

June 28, 2014 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Miscellany, Sports, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reminder about Call for Papers for AALS Section on Academic Support - Deadline August 15th

As you plan your summer writing, remember the call of papers by the Section on Academic Support for our fourth speaker at the AALS Annual Meeting in January 2015.  The call for papers deadline for submission of your paper is 5:00 p.m. Friday, August 15, 2014.  The full announcement is below.

 

Call for Papers

AALS Section on Academic Support

January 2015 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

 

ASP a Roadmap at the Crossroad: How Academic Support Will Meet Today’s Varied Challenges

 

This year, the Academic Support Program Committee opted to have a call for papers and one speaker will be selected from the call.  From isolated academic support efforts to more formalized multifaceted programs, academic support has fundamentally changed itself and legal education over the years.  In light of shrinking budgets, disappearing positions, smaller applicant pools, changing profiles of incoming students, and media attacks on legal education, academic support programs face newer and varied challenges. We seek papers highlighting innovative methods, programs, or ideas related to these challenges.

 

Topics might include, but are not limited to, efficient and effective ways to:  collaborate with faculty; manage limited human and financial resources; attract and retain students; provide resources for students with learning and other disabilities; and create programming for diverse populations to address any social isolation and/or bridge any skills deficiencies.

 

As the deadline for program proposals was April 1, 2014, our list of program proposal speakers will be forthcoming.  The selected paper speaker will join those speakers as one of the presenters.  There is no formal requirement as to length of the abstract and paper submission.  Preference will be given to papers that offer novel scholarly insights on the panel topic.  A paper may have already been accepted for publication as long as it will not be published prior to the Annual Meeting.  The Section does not have plans to publish the papers, so individual presenters are free to seek their own publishing opportunities.

 

Papers must include the following information:

1.  A title for your paper.

2.  An abstract of your paper.

3.  A final draft of your paper.

4.  The amount of time requested for your presentation. No single presenter should exceed 30 minutes in total.  [Deleted statement about shorter presentations because paper speaker should be given at least 30 minutes.]

5.  A detailed description of both the substantive content and the techniques to be employed, if any, to engage the audience.

6.  Whether you plan to distribute handouts, use PowerPoint, or employother technology.

7.  A list of the conferences at which you have presented within the last three years, such as AALS, national or regional ASP or writing conferences, or other academic conferences.

8. A list of your published scholarly articles or books within the last three years.

9.  Your school affiliation, title, courses taught, and contact information (please include email address and telephone number).

10. Any other information you think will help the Committee appreciate the value your paper presentation will provide.

 

Please submit your paper by Friday, August 15, 2014 at 5pm to Goldie Pritchard, Michigan State University College of Law, gpritch@law.msu.edu.  If you have questions, please email Goldie Pritchard or call at 517.432.6881.

The Section on Academic Support Program Committee:

Goldie Pritchard, Chair

Robin Boyle Laisure

Robert Coulthard

Steven Foster

Lyndsay Garmond

DeShun Harris

Danielle Kocal

Haley Meade

Maysa Nichter

Brendon Taga

ASP Section Chair:  Amy Jarmon

 

 

June 16, 2014 in Meetings, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Blank Generation

Many students have problems with outlining an answer before writing it on the exam.  When all you hear is typing fingers around you, taking the time to outline your answer might seem like a luxury you don't have time for.

Consequently, I have students make a short "attack" outline to use during the exam (if it is open book), and ask them to set up that outline in something of a fill-in-the-blank format.  

For example, the attack breakdown for adverse possession might look something like this:

Adverse Possesssion 

Hostile --

Exclusive --

Open and Notorious --

Continuous --

Actual --

On the exam, once the student recognizes that a question is asking about adverse possession, he or she can simply fill in the relevant facts on the attack outline and then write the exam answer.  Especially for the weakest students, who might have timing issues and tend to leave out elements and specific facts, such an attack outline can be invaluable.

(Alex Ruskell)

March 21, 2014 in Advice, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Time to write persuasive memoranda and briefs

At this time of year, as Spring Break looms large for many of us, law students are facing the, sometimes daunting, task of writng and polishing persuaive memoranda and appellate briefs.  John Mollenkamp, a former academic support educator and legal writing professor, created a video that walks through the process of creating tables of authorites.  The video can be found at the following URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8F2h8AD-9aY

 (Myra Orlen)

February 28, 2014 in Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators

Hat tip to Deborah Borman for the link to an article on the Legal Research and Writing Professor listserv.  The article combines procrastination, writing, Dweck's research, and millenials into one piece: Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators.  (Amy Jarmon)

February 12, 2014 in Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

National Punctuation Day

Today is National Punctuation Day!  Any of us who work with students on the legal writing aspects of law school or lawyering skills know that many students struggle with correct punctuation.  Commas show up in all sorts of places they are not needed.  Semicolons are exotic for our students.  Where the punctuation goes in relation to the final quotation mark in a sentence is a mystery for many.  And apostrophes are appearing in amazing locations. 

My praise, empathy, and heartfelt thanks to all ASP'ers and professors who join in the fight to train lawyers who will correctly place the punctuation in their drafted legislation, contracts, legal memoranda, and other documents.  (Amy Jarmon) 

September 24, 2013 in Miscellany, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Writing Process and ASP'ers

During the last few years I have been blessed with some writing opportunities that have taught me a great deal about putting words on paper while juggling a busy ASP office.  In addition to writing articles for the Student Lawyer and writing posts for this Blog, I have had the opportunity to publish Time and Workplace Management for Lawyers through the ABA this past spring. 

If anyone had asked me before these opportunities if I would ever be published in any format, I would have been skeptical because my full-time job is so busy.  Here are some of the tips that I can pass on to ASP'ers who might want to write but who are unsure how to get started:

  • Realize that you have something to say that can help law students and your colleagues.  ASP'ers may discount their expertise if they are treated as "just administrators" and peripheral to the law school experience in their own work settings.  ASP'ers are experts and with declining law school applications are becoming more important because of the changing law school populations.
  • Turn items that you already use with your law students into writing opportunities.  You may be able to use e-mail study tips, a series of handouts, a Power Point workshop, or other material as the basis for an article.
  • Turn presentation materials that you have done for a regional workshop or national conference into an article on the same topic.  Watch for conferences which are linked to publication opportunities with paper submissions linked to the sessions. 
  • Turn trends and observations that you have noticed about student skills or problem areas into possible research projects and later writing opportunities.  Remember, however, to clear any research through your institution's human subject research approval process.  Once you have collected and analyzed your results, consider whether you can turn your research into an article.
  • Look for opportunities to write articles in related disciplines.  Legal writing, balance in legal education, pre-law advising, teaching legal education, and student services are just some of the overlap areas that often have academic support writing opportunities.
  • Start out with smaller writing opportunities that seem possible within your time constraints: guest posts submitted to this Blog; guest posts for other blogs that you read; short articles (usually 1,000 to 2,000 words) or comments (roughly 500 words) to newsletters, web publications, and other publications; book reviews for publications.
  • Realize that many writing opportunities in the beginning are unpaid opportunities.  Once your material becomes known, you may be able to land a paid situation on a regular or occasional basis.  Even unpaid opportunities are beneficial!
  • If law review articles are your interest, then talk to faculty and ASP'ers who are already published to gain tips on submissions; look for mentors who will review your articles and make constructive comments during your writing process.
  • Consider starting your own blog or web pages.  You can use tweets to gain followers.
  • Consider posting your research papers on SSRN either as finished works or as working papers for comment.
  • Set aside time in your schedule to write so it will happen instead of staying just a wish.  Personally I work in the evenings and especially on the weekend when I have articles and book projects.  An article of 1,200 words may take me 8 hours of writing time and 2 hours of editing time.  My book on the other hand went through about 5 drafts during the approximately 20 months before the manuscript went to the publisher. 

Writing is not for everyone.  It is okay not to be interested in such tasks if you are not required by your law school to publish.  However, if writing appeals to you, make time for it.  Being published can add to your resume, your own feelings of personal accomplishment, and your credibility with ASP'ers, faculty, and students.  Most of all, enjoy the process and the opportunities.  (Amy Jarmon) 

 

September 17, 2013 in Advice, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Submission of Articles to Western State Law Review

Hat tip to Lori Roberts for the following information on a call for submissions:

 

The editor-in-chief of Western State's law review has asked me to announce that they would like to encourage the submission of articles related to legal writing, pedagogy, academic support and assessment in legal education.  So, if you have a piece that is finished (or almost) please send it along!  The deadline for submissions is September 30th.  We have a fantastic group of students and a faculty advisor that keeps everything on-time and on-track during the publication process.

Please let me know if you have any questions.  You can submit articles through ExpressO, or directly to the law review at sabrina.narain@gmail.com   

Thank you,

 

Lori A. Roberts

Professor of Law

Director of Legal Writing & Research

Western State College of Law

1111 N. State College Blvd.

Fullerton, CA 92831

(714) 459-1145

 

September 13, 2013 in Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Daily Writing Tips

Hat tip to the Legal Writing Professors Blog for suggesting an article on this Daily Writing Tips website about 50 Ways to Shorten Your Phrases.  Although the website is not for lawyers only, this particular article can be of assistance to our students.  (Amy Jarmon)

September 13, 2013 in Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Request for Article Submissions to The Learning Curve

Dear ASP colleagues: 

The Learning Curve is the official publication of the AALS Section on Academic Support, showcasing
brief articles treating theoretical or practical ideas related to student support and teaching excellence.  Recently we shifted to a twice-yearly publication structure, and we look forward to sharing our first summer issue next month.  Its articles explore ways to incorporate "Fun and
Games" into your programs. 

We are considering articles for the January 2014 issue now, and we want to hear from you!  We are
particularly interested in submissions concerning professional development in ASP, and encourage both new and seasoned ASP professionals to submit their work.  Can you share some advice regarding scholarship – generating ideas, outlining, navigating the submission process, etc.?  Are you doing
something innovative in your classroom?  Do you have a fresh take on technology or what it means to be “ASPish”?  Can you tell us something about the history of ASP teaching? 

Please ensure that your articles are applicable to our wide readership.  Principles that apply
broadly, i.e. to all teaching or support program environments, are especially
welcome.  While we always want to be supportive of your work, we discourage articles that focus solely on advertising for an individual school’s program.  

Please send your submission to learningcurveasp@gmail.com by no later than August 30, 2013.  Please attach it to your message as a Word file.  Please do not send hard copy manuscripts, and please do not paste a manuscript into the body of your e-mail.  Articles should be 500 to 2,000 words, with light notes, if appropriate.  Please note that Publisher does not support footnotes that run with text. 
Endnotes or references lists will be used in publication and are strongly preferred in manuscript submissions.

For more information, or to inquire about the appropriateness of a topic, contact Jennifer Carr at Jennifer.Carr@unlv.edu. Please include “Learning Curve” in the subject line of your inquiry.

We look forward to reading your work and learning from you! 

 

Sincerely,

The Learning Curve Editors

Jennifer Carr, Heather Harshman, and Courtney Lee

 

July 16, 2013 in Miscellany, Publishing, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Physician, Heal Thyself: Taking My Own Advice

It’s summer now.  All of the exams are scored, grades assigned. It’s time for a little reflection….

It occurred to me at the recent inaugural AASE conference (which was great, by the way!) that
this last year was really busy for me.  Not in a “Wow, I surely did accomplish a lot this year” way, but in a “Man,this year was so busy that I feel like I got very little accomplished” way. 

If you are like me, then any given day during the semester could look something like this:

    9:00 a.m.:        Eat breakfast while returning yesterday’s e-mails.

    9:45 a.m.:        Make a to-do list of the things I want to accomplish today.

    10:00 a.m.:      1-on-1 meeting with struggling 2L.

    10:30 a.m.:      1-on-1 meeting with 1L.

    11:00 a.m.:      Prep for 1:00 class.

    11:15 a.m.:      Interrupt prep to meet with a walk-in student.

    11:30 a.m.:      Return to class prep.

    11:45 a.m.:      Another drop-in.

    12:00 p.m.:      Skip lunch to complete class prep.

    1:00 p.m.:        Teach class.

    3:00 p.m.:        Return to office for office hours.

    4:00 p.m.:        Grab lunch.

    4:15 p.m.:        Eat lunch at desk while reviewing a past exam for the next student meeting.

    4:30 p.m.:        Place partially eaten lunch on credenza and meet with struggling 1L. 

    5:00 p.m.:        Ask 5:00 appointment to be patient, because the 4:30 meeting is going long.

    5:10 p.m.:        Begin 5:00 appointment. 

    5:30 p.m.:        Ask 5:30 appointment to wait about 10 minutes.

    5:50 p.m.:        Apologize to 5:30 appointment for the late start. 

    6:55 p.m.:        End 5:50 appointment, which went over an hour due to my “late start guilt.”

    6:56 p.m.:        Look at partially eaten lunch on credenza.  Decide to take a bite.

    6:57 p.m.:        Throw partially eaten lunch away.  It has turned.

    7:00 p.m.:        Call my wife, and tell her that I’m working late tonight.

    7:05 p.m.:        Work on faculty committee work.

    8:30 p.m.:        Begin reviewing today’s e-mails. 

    8:45 p.m.:        Begin reviewing student work sent in today’s e-mail.

    9:30 p.m.:        Look at the list of things I meant to accomplish today. 

    9:35 p.m.:        Choose to leave work notwithstanding 90% of my to do list is not done. 

    9:36 p.m.:        Promise to do better tomorrow.

    10:15 p.m.:      Grab dinner at a drive through to eat at home.

    11:00 p.m.:      Go to bed.

    1:00 a.m.:        Wake up with indigestion.

    1:05 a.m.:        Check e-mail before going back to sleep.

    1:10 a.m.:        Return e-mail from a troubled student. 

    1:11 a.m.:        Troubled student responds.

    1:13 a.m.:        Respond to troubled student.

    1:15 a.m.:        Troubled student responds.

    1:17 a.m.:        Respond to troubled student with a very clear, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

    1:20 a.m.:        Troubled student responds with “just one last question.”

    1:22 a.m.:        Respond to troubled student.

    1:25 a.m.:        Troubled student responds. 

    1:30 a.m.:        Turn off my phone and promise to e-mail troubled student tomorrow.

Does this seem at all familiar to you?  Am I crazy?  Because I have to be honest with you, I originally was trying to be funny when drafting the sample day above.  But it occurred to me by the time that I finished that it was all too realistic.  I absolutely have days like this.  A lot of them.  And please note that as I string days like these together, there’s nothing on that list that says “spend six uninterrupted hours working on scholarly writing” or “go off-campus for a weekly afternoon of community service at local high school” or “work out” or “read for fun” or “eat lunch at a reasonable hour” or “write that blog post that you promised Amy Jarmon months ago.”

As I think about this, I wonder how I get anything done.  I’m so busy, and there’s always so much to do.  I’m not complaining, mind you.  I like to be busy.  But I realize, looking at the schedule above, that my days are so full that a lot is getting missed.  I realize now, in my head, that my thoughts sound a lot like a law student’s:

                “I don’t have time to do everything.”

                “Where am I supposed to find the time?”

                “I’m working really hard, but I always feel behind.”

                “I have so much to read.  I can’t get anything else done.”

                “I can’t think beyond tomorrow.”

                “I’m not sure how I’m going to get everything finished.”

                “I’m not getting enough sleep.”

                “I don’t have much personal time.”

                “I’m not procrastinating.  I just can’t get to things until just before they are due.”

                “I don’t know where I’m going to find the time to get all of my work done.”

                “I guess I’ll just do the best I can.”

I hear these complaints from law students every day.  And I genuinely believe that I give them really good advice.  So, I wonder, how might I advise myself?  Here is some simple, familiar advice that I now offer to myself, and possibly to those of you who are like me:   

        1. Make a schedule.

Plan out what you want to accomplish each day.  Don’t just put “write” or “work” on your calendar.  Plan days with detail. For example, set aside reasonable stretches of time to work on
individual tasks.  Keep in mind all that you must accomplish in a given day.  Set aside time in your schedule to accomplish each task and to complete the tasks overall.   

In addition, engage in long-term planning.  Look weeks (even months) ahead to see what deadlines exists or what longer projects must be completed.  Estimate the amount of total time that you need to complete those projects and then spread the bigger tasks out, working on a little bit at a time, rather than trying to accomplish all of it at once.  All nighters are often a reflection of poor planning.  If you plan better, hopefully you won’t be spending the last day or two before a deadline working insanely to finish your project. 

        2. Focus on one thing at a time.

Even though we all think we can multitask pretty well, you might find it helpful to isolate certain tasks.  When writing, find an environment that is free of distractions – though you should know yourself and avoid an environment that is too quiet, if you know you won’t be productive there.  An hour spent meaningfully on one task is probably more efficient than three hours spent on that one task while simultaneously trying to accomplish other goals or spending those hours in a state of distraction. 

        3. Build in time to care for yourself.

It is important to eat and work out and spend time with family.  Don’t just expect that time to appear.  Plan it out.  Put “Lunch” in your schedule, and put “Work Out” in your schedule at specific times.  Then, respect those times.  From now on, you are unavailable to do work during those times.  You’re going to feel better if you eat and exercise regularly, and the remaining hours in the day will be more energized and productive. 

        4. Prioritize tasks.

On busy days, figure out what must be done and what can wait.  Reschedule a meeting if you must; ask for extra time on a task when you can.  Then spend your day focusing on the most important things but avoiding the guilt about the other, less important things.

        5. Do not allow one task to dominate your time

It is all too easy to get sucked into working on one task to the exclusion of all others.  Don’t let this happen.  Even though you have prioritized tasks, and one seems (or is) more important than the others, do not let that one task allow you to fail on all the others.  I see this all the time with my students who are working on writing assignments.  The writing assignment is due this week.  It will get a grade.  It seemingly is the most important thing on the schedule.  Students work all day and night on the writing, simultaneously falling behind in reading, outlining, class attendance, and other obligations they have.  While working on the paper with extreme multi-day focus is actually an understandable decision when one is taking a snapshot view of a student’s life, less so when looking at the “movie” version.  Decisions have consequences, even the well-intended decision to focus on only one thing that happens to be due this week.

        6. Grind.

Sometimes, you will find yourself in a position where you will have to grind.  By that I mean that you will be busy, tired, working late, irritable (is that allowed in ASP?), hungry, and overwhelmed, among other things.  But you have to press forward; keep working and check things off of that to do list.  Things will settle down, especially if you plan ahead a little better, and you’ll be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

        7. Just start working.

If you’re feeling paralyzed about work, sometimes the best thing you can do is start working.  Overwhelmed by the amount of research you need to accomplish in order to write a scholarly article? Just sit down at your computer and start writing the article, figuring out the finer points of research focus as you go.  Need to grade exams, just pick one up and start reading it.  Need to give Paula Manning-type feedback on a paper, just get started.  Need to write a blog post, just tap into your thoughts and get started.  Don’t worry about perfection, just do some work. 

One of my favorite pieces of advice for students who are having trouble outlining is the advice to just get started.  The task seems so overwhelming to them, so I say this:  Imagine riding a bicycle on flat ground, or maybe even a little uphill.  When you first get started, you have to stand up, shifting your weight on the pedals, rocking the bike side-to-side, in order to build momentum slowly.  But, after you have momentum, you find that the pedaling is easier, you can sit down on the seat, and you can still keep up your pace with less intense effort.  So, dig down and spend a little extra energy to just get started.  You’ll find that once you do, the going forward is much easier, as is forming the belief that you are able to keep moving forward.

I am going to follow my own advice.  Starting today.  (Well, maybe tomorrow, because today is almost over.)  Ask me at the end of the summer if I finished my article and book.  If I don’t give you the right answer, point me back to this blog post.  Please.  Because it’s going to be busy in the fall.  Really busy.  So the time for productivity and accomplishment is now. 

Happy and productive summer months, one and all!

 (Russell McClain)

June 10, 2013 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Article on Texting's Potential Impact on Formal Legal Writing

Hat tip to Sue Liemer, one of the Editors for the Legal Writing Prof Blog, for pointing out an interesting article by Lindsey P. Gustafson at the William H. Bowen School of Law - University of Arkansas Little Rock.  The article is entitled "Texting and the Friction of Writing."  The article is available here at its SSRN link:  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2244481

May 20, 2013 in Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Law is not creative writing

When reviewing 1L's first drafts of practice exams, there is one problem that always comes up: writing in law is not creative writing. 1L's get confused by this statement, especially when their professors tell them that creativity is an important part of lawyering. However, the creativity that law professors are referring to, and the creativity that law students try to demonstrate on exams, are two different things. This is a particular challenge for students who majored in English in undergrad, and for law students who previously worked in creative fields, such as PR or marketing. Students need to understand that the purpose of writing for a legal audience is different from the purpose of writing in those fields. Lawyers need to be understood. A creatively written contract, that uses terms of art in new or novel ways, is likely to be misunderstood by the parties, and wind up in court. This is NOT what a lawyer wants when they write a contract. Therefore, lawyers use terms of art carefully; in fact, lawyers use words carefully. The goal of writing for a legal audience is not to show them how many 25 cent SAT words you know; the goal is to be understood.

Here are some other basic rules of writing for a legal audience that 1L's frequently misunderstand:

1) Using the same words throughout an exam is smart. Don't try to change your vocabulary so you don't overuse a word. That rule is true for creative writing, but it undermines the coherence of your essay when writing in law.

2) Keep your sentences short. Long sentences frequently contain too many ideas that need to be discussed separately.

3) Use linking words, like because. Although your sentences should be short, you need to be sure that you make explicit connections between law and fact. You are not a fiction writer; you do not want to make the reader make inferences. Spell it out for them.

4) A paragraph should focus on one idea. If you have a new idea, start a new paragraph. If you reread your work, and find that you have multiple ideas in one paragraph, chances are you are not discussing any one idea completely.

(RCF)

November 15, 2012 in Exams - Theory, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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)

 

 

October 11, 2012 in Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fixed and Growth Mindsets - Another Resource

Thanks to Jennifer Cooper at Thomas Jefferson for the mention on the ASP Listserv of a book review recently written by Tracy Turner, who is at Southwestern, regarding Dweck's book and using the mindset ideas in legal writing: Teaching Ourselves and Our Students to Embrace Challenge.  (Amy Jarmon)

May 23, 2012 in Learning Styles, Teaching Tips, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #120611 - Memorize

Last month, Professor Jarmon wrote a piece about the importance of memorization for earning good grades.  What she wrote is one-hundred percent accurate (of course!).   Note the two steps she recommends:

  1. Memorize the rules, exceptions to rules, methodologies, policy arguments, and so forth.
  2. Go beyond memorization.

Many students do neither.  Too many concentrate on one to the exclusion of the other. 

Some professors erroneously tell students that “law school is not about memorization.”  I say “erroneously” because, as Professor Jarmon pointed out, law school IS about memorization … and so much more.  But for the moment, let’s just focus on grades – and for most courses, that means focusing on exams. 

In order to write a high-scoring essay exam answer, a student needs to employ many skills and strategies.  Cogent presentation, high level analysis, sophisticated legal reasoning … yes, these are critical capabilities when it comes to earning “A” grades.

But one cannot earn an “A” … or a “B” … without being able to spot the issues that the professor expects to see analyzed.  In order to find issues, one must “know” the law.  In the deeper sense, to “know” the law is to understand its background, variations, nuances, subtleties, and so on.  But in the fundamental sense, to “know” the law (in the context of exam-answering) is to be able to write a rule statement without actively thinking; to “know it by heart.” 

Before walking in to a Torts final exam, a student committed to earning the best grade he or she is capable of earning ought to have learned “by heart” at least each of the following:

  • As to each tort, a statement of every “rule” – meaning a sentence or more that includes every element that must be proven to result in a determination that the tort has been committed.
  • As to each affirmative defense, a statement of every “rule” – meaning a sentence or more that includes every element that must be proven to result in a determination that the defense is viable.
  • A definition of every element, including “tests” to determine if that element can be proven.

A schematic template for constructing an essay is, essentially, included within these three categories.  Here’s a partial example:

  • To prove negligence, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed a duty to all foreseeable plaintiffs, that the defendant breached this duty by not acting in accord with the standard of care, and that this breach caused the injury to plaintiff.
  • Duty. A plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed a duty to all foreseeable plaintiffs, that the defendant breached this duty by not acting in accord with the standard of care, and that this breach caused the injury to plaintiff.
  • Standard of care. The standard of care is the degree of prudence and caution required of an individual who is under a duty of care.
  • Breach of duty. A breach issue can be looked at from (at least) two different angles ...
  • Balancing test. Liability turns on whether the burden of adequate precautions is less than the probability of harm multiplied by the gravity of the resulting injury. B<PL. 
  • Negligence per se. The three essential criteria include: that plaintiff is a member of the class intended to be protected by the statute, that the type of injury which occurred is the type the statute was enacted to guard against, and the violation was not excused. 

But a student need not memorize these 214 words.  This works:

  • Negligence – duty, breach, standard of care, cause, damage.
  • Breach – balance, per se.  Etc.

Should a student “memorize by rote”?  Ideally, no. It’s unnecessary if a student has adequately prepared for each class, produced a personal course summary (outline), and answered dozens of short-answer (and longer) practice questions.  The repetitive use of the fundamental rules to resolve tough problems imbeds the elements into the memory for most.  But not all.  That’s why memory tools are important to many law students.  (More about that later.)

Another helpful item to add to the bullet-point list above (what to memorize) is this: a list of every issue studied.  This provides an excellent checklist for the student to quickly run through during the pre-writing stage of composing the essay answer.  How much rote memorization does this entail?  Not much.  (For an example of a Criminal Law checklist, go to this link, then scroll down to Criminal Law, Checklist.)

Students must remember that the “memorization” part – the learning by heart part – is only a small part of what must be done to score high on exams.  But if a student is not able to run through the elements of each intentional tort (for example) quickly, without pausing to try to recall specifics, issues will be missed.  Don't let that happen!

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

December 6, 2011 in Advice, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #103011 - Focus on Key Facts

“Legal problem solving — identifying and diagnosing problems and generating strategies and tactics to achieve client objectives — is a legally trained person’s most basic function. Most legal problem solving activity involves some legal analysis — combining law and facts to generate, justify, and assess a legal problem’s merits.” (Legal Services Practice Manual: Skills (2010) Link)

All lawsuits arise as a result of disputes involving facts. Our legal system revolves around resolving disputes through the application of rules of law to the facts of a case. Yes, trials and appeals are about “law,” but remember that the trial court judge, or the jury, is referred to as the “trier-of-fact.”  Determinations of facts are so important that the Bill of Rights guarantees that facts once decided by a jury are pretty much the last word.  The seventh amendment provides that, “...no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law."  This clause forbids any court from reexamining or overturning any factual determinations made by a jury, unless the factual determinations are clearly erroneous.

The two major components of the dispute resolution process are the applicable law and the facts of the dispute.  In the professional practice of law, you will be sifting through the case file to identify which of the hundreds or thousands of facts produced by discovery (for example, witness statements, deposition transcripts, answers to interrogatories, photographs, and correspondence) are “key” facts.  Key facts are those facts  that are critical to the outcome of the case. A key fact is so essential that if it were changed, the outcome of the case might well be different.

In law school, you are practicing this skill of focusing on facts – in order for you to learn to assess legal problems, you must be able to find the important facts ... the key facts, the facts upon which the outcome of the issue in question depends. When writing an answer to a law school essay exam question, you must ferret out these salient facts from all the facts presented in the narrative. Think of them as keys that unlock point-scoring issue discussions.

But how?  Here are the basic steps to determining which facts are key facts.

  • Identify each claim possibly raised by the exam question.
  • State the rules that will be used to resolve each issue of each claim. These rules include the elements which need to be addressed in the discussion of each issue.
  • Pinpoint which facts in the question possibly relate to the elements of those issues.

This last step involves determining which facts may be legally significant. Legally significant facts might be, for example, that a tenant with an eviction notice has never been supplied with hot water; or that the shooter was an off-duty policeman; or that a party to a contract may have been a minor; or that the geographical distance between the provoking incident and the killing may have been long enough to provide adequate time for a reasonable person to “cool off” the heat of his passion.

After outlining your answer, read through the exam question one more time carefully and quickly (you should be quite familiar with the question by this time, so the reading can go much faster than it did the first time through). Make sure you have assigned all the facts presented in the hypothetical question (the exam) to some issue. If not, ask yourself if these facts suggest another issue, can be used to further explain an issue you already noted, or are merely "red herrings" (facts in the question which might lead you to an errant discussion). Then use this fact-rich outline as a roadmap for answering the question. Note that your outline need not include explanations of why facts are important – the detailed analysis comes in your answer. The outline is only your writing guide.

As for the outline, you may want to follow a traditional outline pattern (bullet points, hierarchies, mind-mapping, etc.) … or, to accent the fact-finding, you may want to think about a two-column approach. You can outline your answer using two separate columns. Specifically, you can list the issues in one column, and then note the facts that need to be discussed in relation to those rules in the column next to it. This method will allow you to match the issues or sub-issues of law with the facts of the question. Skimming through the question quickly (again) before actually writing the essay, you can quickly note if you have skipped over a fact.

Long before encountering exams, work on recognizing key facts.  Focus on key facts when you brief cases for class. Some students find that including basic fact patterns in their self-made course outlines – as illustrations of the rules that appear in the outlines – helps them think of the rules in situational terms.

Many years ago, when I was a little boy, fictional Los Angeles police Sergeant Joe Friday, hero of the “Dragnet” television series, used to say to witnesses he interviewed, "All we want are the facts." Well, there’s more to it than that when you’re trying to score high on a law school essay exam … but Sgt. Friday was zeroing in on one of the two essential components – you should too!

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

October 30, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #10411 - Avoid Expository Writing

In law school, as well as in the practice of law, you will have many opportunities to demonstrate your skills at many types of writing. One type of writing you will need to use from time to time is expository writing. Expository writing is a rhetorical mode of writing in which the purpose of the author is to inform, explain, describe, or define his or her subject to the reader.

However, when answering law school essay exam questions, you are called upon to demonstrate a different type of writing. Exams are opportunities to show your professor your skills of resolving legal problems by identifying issues, stating concise rules that will be used to resolve the problems, then applying your analytical talents to reason to conclusions. That requires a departure from expository writing.

By way of example, in order to prove a negligence claim, a plaintiff must provide evidence of several elements, one of which is the existence of a “duty” on the part of the defendant to act with reasonable care in relation to the plaintiff. The following is unnecessary in an essay response:

“Duty” can serve as a touchstone when trying to understand the essence of the concept of negligence. The notion of duty appears to be a universal keystone in legal systems throughout the world. In civilized societies, all human action is conformable to the law, which members of each society are required to obey. Duty may be obliged by law or by contract. When imposed by law, a duty is an obligation requiring the actor to conform to a certain standard of conduct for protection of others against unreasonable risks. The word “duty” is used throughout the Restatement of Torts to denote the fact that the actor is required to conduct himself in a particular manner; if he does not do so he runs the risk of becoming subject to liability to another to whom the duty is owed for any injury sustained by such other, of which that actor’s conduct is an actual and proximate cause. 

From an essay-writing standpoint (outside of law school) this may be a fine paragraph. Including it in an expository writing could be helpful. Although introductory explanations, historical justifications, moral discussions, and segue paragraphs tend to round out good collegiate expository writing, these are not hallmarks of good law school essay exam writing.

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

October 4, 2011 in Advice, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #92611 – Begging the Question

When grading exam answers, professors reward logical, persuasive presentations. Resolving issues using logical fallacies earns no points.

One pitfall to avoid is the use of a circular argument.  This is also known as “begging the question." This fallacy occurs when one assumes the truth of what one is attempting to prove in the very effort to prove it. In other words, an argument is fallacious when the conclusion lies buried in the premise(s) used to reach that conclusion. Question-begging arguments often mask themselves in clever rhetoric. They can be easy to miss because they often sound good.

Example: “The Supreme Court’s power of judicial review is inherently undemocratic. When unelected judges reign supreme in the exposition of the Constitution, it cannot be said that we have a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’”

Explanation: The writer is assuming the truth of what she is trying to prove in the very effort to prove it. If you look at these two sentences closely, you will see that they are essentially paraphrases of one another. Because the second sentence is longer and more complex, it tends to trick us into thinking that it is a logically distinct idea — but it is not.

This example if from Neal Ramee’s Logic and Legal Reasoning: A Guide for Law Students, in which Mr. Ramee correctly explains, “Learning how to spot and avoid such logical fallacies can enormously strengthen your legal writing and advocacy by helping you adhere to the ‘pristine logic’ of correct syllogistic reasoning.”  (Recommendation: read Mr. Ramee’s 10-page “guide.”)

Begging the question — from the Latin petitio principii — arises all too often in exam answers. If you write, “The contract is enforceable because it fulfills the validity requirements” or, “Defendant is liable for negligence because of his negligent conduct,” you’re begging the question. Each of these statements lacks the point-scoring analysis your professor is looking for.  The Contracts essay answer needs to state the elements that establish validity (or enforceability) and to show how the facts in the narrative fulfill the requirements. The Torts answer ought to specify precisely what the negligent conduct is and the rationale behind the conclusion that this conduct is negligent.

Remember that stating the “right” answer (for example, that a party was negligent) is not what scores the points in an essay answer — rather, points are scored by your logical, organized interweaving of the facts with the elements of the law in a compelling analytical presentation.

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose — and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt) 

September 26, 2011 in Advice, Writing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #91311 – Spot the Issues

To score high on law school essay exams, you need to spot as many issues as possible.  They lurk in the narrative.  If you can't spot the issues on an exam you won't score the points.

Issue-spotting is the most fundamental activity in the process of writing an answer to a law school essay exam question. Those students who spend their exam time spotting issues then follow up by organizing their answers, formulating their legal analysis of the issue they have discovered, and then writing the answer in a way that demonstrates their lawyer-like thinking will get the best grades.

Consider making a mental checklist of the issues that continually arise in (for example) Contracts essay exams, then scrutinizing each question/answer by running through your checklist. Some students actually memorize a checklist of possible issues and scribble that down (quite abbreviated) after the test period begins … others use a “mental” checklist. This works for many students … think about it!

If you use the “checklist” approach, remember that it’s just for comparison against your answer outline. Don’t expect to write about everything on the checklist! Selecting and divining the right issues, and only the right issues, for discussion on an exam has its analog in narrowing and selecting the right issues to research and prepare for when you will be advising clients, or when you prepare for oral arguments in court.  Clients have neither the time nor the money to pay for unnecessary research.  Judges are even more demanding than clients! (In other words … try to find all the issues, but only the issues!)

To improve in the area of spotting issues, search through the question for facts that either side might use to fashion an argument that might help that side – then, if the argument is untenable, explain why. Here's a hint: as a general rule-of-thumb, most facts you find in the narrative can be used to support or attack a position.

On the other hand, if the argument would be merely specious (superficially attractive but actually of no real interest or value) it ought not to be raised. This is a decision a lawyer has to make in real life, asking herself, “Do I raise this as an issue, or is it too far-fetched?”  Likewise, it is a decision a law student needs to make in composing an answer to an essay question. But the law student has an advantage: most professors adhere to the policy that no points are taken off for including as an issue something that is not an issue. (Keep in mind, however, that you need to be prudent in this regard, because spending time writing about “non-issues” uses up time which would be better spent earning points by discussing actual issues.  Also, be sure to find out from your professor if this is the grading policy.)

Separating the actual issues from non-issues is a skill that you will pick up as you proceed through law school. If it seems difficult, don’t worry – you are on the road to learning this skill now, and as you answer more essays you will become better and better at it!

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose – and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

September 12, 2011 in Advice, Exams - Theory, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)