Thursday, September 16, 2010

Is Legal Writing the "Crazy Uncle in the Closet"?

The Chicago Lawyer Magazineheld a deans' roundtable with the deans of five Chicago-area law schools.  They discussed changes in legal education, changes to the law school curriculum, providing practical education, and how the economy affects law school applications.

Dean John Corkery of The John Marshall Law School in Chicago said that law firms would like to see more (rather than less) emphasis on legal writing, training to improve analytical skills, and training that would require lawyers to work together well.  That kind of an answer, I believe, shows a good sense of what law firms want law schools to do and the important role that a good legal writing program can play in a law school.

Dean Howard Krent of Chicago-Kent College of Law said that law firms were putting more of a premium on having new hires "get it quickly."  Whereas firms in the past might give associates three years or so before deciding how they were doing in the law firm, now that period may be as short as six months.

But Warren Wolfson, a former Illinois Appellate Court Justice who is now serving as the Interim Dean at the DePaul University College of Law, gave the most puzzling quote of all -- one that would certainly light up a legal writing listserve with at least a week of discussion on what he meant by the comment.  Here's what he said:

"I'd like to figure out some way to teach students how to write.  I was on the appellate court for 15 years, and the state of writing among new lawyers and young lawyers is deplorable.  It just seems that legal writing, every time I've run across it in law school, is the crazy uncle in the closet.  No one wants to get in there.  The students hate it.  They don't come out learning how to write.  I would like to see that somehow change."

I'm not quite sure what to make of that statement.  Your comments here would be much appreciated.

Click here to access the full text of the roundtable discussion.


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Interesting. I have been playing with an idea of revamping law school education. (I will probably unviel it as soon as I finish writing The Great American Novel. . . . ) But the basic idea is that instead of teaching law by using the "case method," law would be taught through writing. So, for example, the predominate way of teaching contracts would be by writing contracts. Obviously, there would be a need to have perhaps a lecture on the "black letter law" of contracts and writing would not be the exclusive method, but it would be the primary method.

Of course, there are a lot of problems with this (as there are with the current case method). I would be interested in anybody's thoughts or comments.

Posted by: Mike Shpiece | Sep 19, 2010 1:42:10 PM

Writing is the best way to unclog a cluttered mind, but the case law method requires a lot of reading, which is the most important skill a writer needs. In his memoir on writing, Steven King states that he spends half the day reading, and writes 1000 words per day.

I suspect the big problem is that law schools accepting students who cannot write. Requiring a writing test would improve the applicant pool, but since the law school business is controlled by the government, an innovator willing to accept the risk is unlikely to emerge.

Posted by: ArticlesThatRock | Sep 22, 2010 6:06:24 AM

I'm not sure whether Wolfson intended to single out younger lawyers for his criticism or was just on a roll. Although I'm not a younger lawyer, I think it is time we quit beating them up all the time. I'm 56, and there is a lot of knowledge jammed in my head that was not possible for me to assimilate by the age of 26. You would expect and hope older lawyers would write better because they have been at it longer. I don't know how younger lawyers are supposed to learn how to write well without doing a lot of it with review and comment by someone who is interested in their development.

Posted by: Jim Covington | Sep 24, 2010 9:28:44 AM

I think Mike's comment above is right on target. Writing in law school has been pushed into the "closet" by casebook teachers who don't want to change the way they teach, even though it can be demonstrated that it is inefficient and in many ways ineffective. Instead of learning how to do what they will need to do to make a living practicing law, students spend the bulk of their law school careers reading things written by, well, people like Judge Wolfson. Let's face it: while some judicial opinions are just badly written, all of them are written for a different purpose than what lawyers write. Students can't learn to write appellate briefs simply by reading appellate decisions; they need to write more in law school.

Posted by: Ken Chestek | Oct 3, 2010 4:35:12 PM

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