Saturday, July 10, 2010
This doesn't affect legal writing or its teaching directly, but it affects our students so we're happy to share this information with you.
The U.S. Department of Education announced the requirements, definitions, eligibility criteria, and procedures for the implementation of the Civil Legal Assistance Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program, under which civil legal assistance attorneys who meet certain qualifications may have a portion of their Federal Perkins Loan, Federal Family Education Loan, and William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan program loans repaid based on qualifying full-time employment for at least three years. Applications are due by August 16, 2010. Get more information at Fed. Reg. 38,999.
Hat tip to the ABA Governmental Affairs Office.
Friday, July 9, 2010
This year's recipient of the Scribes Lifetime Achievement Award will be Richard Wydick, author of Plain English for Lawyers. The special speaker will be Professor Pam Karlan, the founder of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at Stanford.
Well, you know something's up when the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar e-mails all of the people preparing to take the July bar exam to tell them:
"Quality of writing counts. Answers written in a form other than paragraphed essay form will not receive full credit. Excessive use of abbreviations, such as symbols, acronyms and text-talk may result in a score reduction."
You can read the full message here.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Ray Ward, author of the (new) legal writer blog, has done us the very nice service of already blogging about his presentation at the Legal Writing Institute conference, on Techniques for Emphasis and De-emphasis. Ray was among the brave practitioners who joined 600 academics at the conference.
According to the ABA Journal blog:
A Duquesne law professor [who teaches LRW as well as torts and family law] is alleging in a lawsuit that the school discriminated against her in the appointment of an interim dean after the school told Donald Guter to resign or be fired.
Vanessa Browne-Barbour, who is black, alleges discrimination on the basis of race and sex, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. She says the Pittsburgh law school failed to consider her for the interim position in December 2008 even though she was associate law dean and more qualified than Ken Gormley, the white man who got the interim position and then the permanent deanship.
The law school denies the allegations, the story says.
I am the scholarship dude.
Although most consider it the handbook of good writing practice, it has at least one critic. The blog Lawyerist reports on a column that appeared last year in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (I must have missed it too the first time around) that states:
The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
The authors won't be hurt by these critical remarks. They are long dead. William Strunk was a professor of English at Cornell about a hundred years ago, and E.B. White, later the much-admired author of Charlotte's Web, took English with him in 1919, purchasing as a required text the first edition, which Strunk had published privately. After Strunk's death, White published a New Yorker article reminiscing about him and was asked by Macmillan to revise and expand Elements for commercial publication. It took off like a rocket (in 1959) and has sold millions.
This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.
Notice what I am objecting to is not the style advice in Elements, which might best be described the way The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy describes Earth: mostly harmless. Some of the recommendations are vapid, like "Be clear" (how could one disagree?). Some are tautologous, like "Do not explain too much." (Explaining too much means explaining more than you should, so of course you shouldn't.) Many are useless, like "Omit needless words." (The students who know which words are needless don't need the instruction.) Even so, it doesn't hurt to lay such well-meant maxims before novice writers.
The criticism gets worse (and you can read it here). Even Lawyerist thinks that some technical problems notwithstanding, The Elements of Style serves up good lessons on the importance of brevity and clarity.
Hat tip to Above the Law.
I am the scholarship dude.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
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.
When law students fill out written course evaluations at the end of the semester, sometimes they say the darndest things. A certain legal writing professor (who shall remain nameless) received high marks in all regards on one student's evaluation. Then in response to a question asking "what in this course needs improvement," the anonymous student wrote: "likely my final course grade."
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
There’s been a lot of discussion on the legal writing professors’ listserve about writing diagnostic tests for newly admitted law students. For a variety of reasons, the basic writing skills of arriving 1Ls have been on a long and steady decline.
Last week at the Legal Writing Institute conference, writing specialist Jeremy Francis and legal writing professor Daphne O’Regan gave an intriguing presentation about their use of writing diagnostic tests. At their law school, Michigan State University, students have to pass a writing proficiency test during the 1L year, to pass their LRW course. Three proprietary writing proficiency tests are administered at various times during the first year. Workshops and tutoring are available to help students work on problems the tests identify for them.
Daphne and Jeremy have collected a lot of data related to these diagnostic tests and their students’ performance. They do plan to publish the results. For now, two of their preliminary findings really stood out:
1) Students who, even after workshops and tutoring, were unable to understand parallelisms (using parallel structure in sentences where needed) struggled the most with legal analysis generally. This correlation suggests those students have a general problem with conceptualizing abstract structures.
2) Students who, even after workshops and tutoring, were unable to identify sentence fragments did not succeed in law school. Just last year I declared that I had a new bottom line for grading: my students have to write in sentences. Seems my intution there was right.
This article is by Professor Sarah Valentine of City University New York School of Law and can be found at 39 U. Balt. L. Rev. 173 (2010). From the abstract:
While recognizing that these skill sets overlap, this Article adopts this distinction between legal and lawyering skills by using the term "legal skill" to denote the teaching and acquisition of doctrine and legal reasoning abilities, and using the term "lawyering" or "lawyering skills" to denote all other skills routinely used by lawyers. ... In 2007, the Carnegie Report and Best Practices reiterated the criticism that law schools were failing to teach lawyering skills and provided recommendations on how to restructure legal education. ... First-year writing programs purposefully select problems that beginning law students can grasp easily, and thus do not allow students to interact with a range of primary and secondary authority or provide the level of interaction with the material to facilitate a deep understanding of the research process. ... The growth of computers, computerized legal research, and the Internet has increased the importance of teaching students to apply critical thinking skills to both web and fee-based research systems. ... Active learning methodologies are recognized for teaching critical thinking and problem-solving skills and for teaching students to take more responsibility for their own learning experience. ... When legal research is integrated into the first-year curriculum, uses the cases taught in doctrinal classes, builds upon the authorities used in legal writing, and references the issues other courses are discussing, it creates a synergy that supports student learning.
I am the scholarship dude.
Monday, July 5, 2010
The Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities has issued a call for participants for its 14th annual conference, to be held March 11-12, 2011, at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Association brings together a wide range of people engaged in scholarship on legal history, legal theory, jurisprudence, law and cultural studies, law and literature, law and the performing arts, and legal hermeneutics. Several legal writing professors have participated in this conference in the past.
You can submit proposals for panels, roundtables, papers, screenings, or performances, or volunteer to be a chair or a discussant. The deadline is October 15, 2010.
As it becomes available, additional information about accommodations and other conference matters, will be posted at the conference website. Participants will be notified of their acceptance by December 31, 2010. If you have questions, contact Penny Pether, firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the LWI conference, Victoria Van Zandt presented on Assessment Planning in Legal Research and Writing Courses. As the ABA changes its law school accreditation standards to measure outputs, not just inputs, assessment has become a hot topic in legal education. Victoria explained how legal writing professors can help law schools with this shift in focus, since we have experience with regular assessments of our students’ work.
Victoria outlined a series of steps to assess student learning:
First, for each course, determine the learning outcomes that are your goals, including what students should know by the end of the course, what they should be able to do, and what they should value. For legal writing courses, the ABA Sourcebook and annual ALWD-LWI Survey are useful resources for completing this step.
Next, determine the performance criteria, including the competency level expected by the end of the course and how you are going to measure it. Since 1L legal writing courses are introductory in nature and the ABA expects students to graduate truly competent in a range of legal skills, a clear-eyed look at this step suggests upper level law school courses will need to reinforce students’ skills after the required 1L LRW courses.
Continuing on, gather the data that shows whether the students are meeting the learning goals initially set out. Multiple assessment tools, using both formative and summative assessments, are best. Here legal writing professors have a wealth of experience to share with other law school colleagues. Assessment tools should be reliable (scoring consistently), valid (actually assessing what you want it to), and fair (remaining anonymous or at least confidential).
Then analyze the data to see where students are not yet strong enough. It’s helpful if a colleague outside the course or even outside the law school looks at a sample of 1/4 of the class’s results, randomly chosen from among the top, middle, and bottom scores.
Finally, on both the course level and institutional level, close the loop. Make those pedagogical and curricular changes that will address identified problems or weaknesses in the students’ learning.
Look for the full write-up in the next issue of the Legal Writing Institute's Journal.