Wednesday, July 7, 2010

better beginnings for legal writing students

Grahamlp Felsenme At another LWI conference session last week, Laura Graham and Miki Felsenburg, who teach at Wake Forest, presented A Better Beginning: Strategies for Minimizing Students’ Frustration and Maximizing Their Achievement in the First Weeks of Legal Writing Instruction. They explained the results of a survey they give new students on the first day of law school and then again 8 weeks later.

The surveys confirmed that at the beginning of law school, many students have little experience with independent thinking and are resistant to it. They keep asking to see sample documents, because they want to replicate what they see, using "outside-in" thinking, working first from what they see outside of their own thinking. Then 1Ls lose confidence quickly, when they can’t use their previous strengths in college for immediate success in law school.

Laura and Miki shared some anonymous student responses about self-perceived writing strengths and weaknesses. You can imagine the reaction of a roomful of legal writing professors when we saw that some brand new law students label verbosity a strength and truthfulness a weakness.

The surveys taken 8 weeks later showed a big shift. Now students start realizing the need to use "inside-out" thinking, independently thinking through a problem as they write about it. They also begin to realize that they may not have the strengths they thought they did as writers, and their self-assessments of their own writing strengths and weaknesses start to reverse.

Laura and Miki offered many strategies to help new law students adjust their expectations more quickly and less painfully. Students need more context for their writing and a better understanding of who the end users of their writing will be in law practice. You could project pictures of legal readers in class during the explanation or invite an end-use legal reader to class to answer questions about the writing assignment. New law students also need to hear early on that mastery is not the goal of the first year legal writing courses, competency is; they will not learn LRW, they will practice it – for years to come.

To help 1Ls learn "inside-out" thinking, try to avoid using terms like "formula" and template," substituting "method" and "process" instead. Show them an old memo or other sample and ask them where the writer got each part of it, so they can start trying to replicate the process of creating the sample, not just its superficial features.

This duo’s survey results and recommendations will be the basis of a new article, and we’ll alert you on this blog when it’s available.


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Thanks to Sue for this very nice blog post! For those who are interested, an article describing the surveys we outlined in our presentation (along with appendices containing the complete surveys) will be in the next Journal of the Legal Writing Institute. Previews are available now at Click "publications" and then "Journal" to find the article. It's title includes "Beginning Legal Writers in Their Own Words..."

Posted by: Miki Felsenburg | Jul 7, 2010 2:25:34 PM

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