Friday, August 24, 2012
Earlier on this blog, I discussed a Yale blog post that discounts recommendations for transfer students from legal writing professors. Amy Vorenberg, Kris Tiscione, and Lisa McElroy with her team at Drexel have now sent a letter to Dean Post and the Yale admissions committee to ask them to reconsider that blog post. The letter contains almost 450 signatures. Many are by legal writing professors, but doctrinal professors and law school administrators are also represented. The text of the letter appears below. Its drafters have done a great service to our field and to legal education by composing it and collecting the signatures.
Text of letter
Dear Dean Post and members of the Admissions Committee:
As professors at law schools across the country, we write to address a blog post by Associate Dean Asha Rangappa (see P.S.B.C.: Back by Popular Demand (June 9, 2011), available at http://blogs.law.yale.edu/blogs/ admissions/archive/2011/06/09/back‐by‐populardemand.aspx). The post observes that potential transfer students make the “common mistake” of submitting one of two required recommendations from a legal writing “instructor.” Although “a third letter from a legal writing instructor is fine,” the Committee prefers recommendations from “core subject area professors, who can speak to [a student’s] ability to keep up with the subject material, contribute to class discussion, and think through difficult concepts.”
If the post represents the policies or preferences of the Yale Law Admissions Committee, many of us are concerned it sends a message that legal research and writing (“LRW”) courses are not rigorous, underestimates the ability of LRW faculty to comment on students’ cognitive skills, harms students by discounting the valuable and thoughtful insight we have to offer about students seeking to transfer to Yale, and devalues LRW professors as a whole. To the extent the advice you provide as a top tier school might be interpreted as applicable, or preferable, to a wider law school audience, we feel the statements lacking in appropriate evidentiary support need correction.
Every year, the Legal Writing Institute and the Association of Legal Writing Directors– the two professional organizations for LRW professors and those interested in the discipline– survey a number of ABA‐accredited and provisionally accredited law schools that grant the Juris Doctor degree. One hundred eighty‐four of the 200 schools surveyed responded to the 2012 survey. At least 170 of those schools require LRW in the first year and award four or more credits for a year‐long course. One hundred sixty schools grade the LRW course and incorporate the grade into the students’ overall GPA. As the survey indicates, the post’s characterization of LRW as other than a “core subject area” class is inaccurate.
The Committee may be unaware that the typical LRW course requires students to conduct research on complicated legal questions, engage in complex legal analysis, communicate well orally and in writing, conference regularly with their professors on their performance, and behave both ethically and professionally. Accurate, in‐depth legal analysis and reasoning are at the core of an LRW course.
The notion that LRW is not a core subject area class is also inconsistent with current thinking about legal education. Consider, for example, the 2007 Carnegie Report, which emphasized the importance of legal writing classes, as well as Justice Kennedy’s statement this week to the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference: “[L]aw schools are questioning whether or not they are teaching students the right way, and it seems to me that the bench and the bar can engage in serious discussions with the law schools to advise them whether or not, say for the next 20 years, that [sic] they have the proper approach for teaching those whowill soon be the trustees of the law as active practitioners. That is urgent.”
Given the small size of LRW classes; our knowledge of individual students; and our familiarity with their class participation, writing, oral skills, and personality, we have a unique perspective on our students’ abilities at any given time. Here too, the assumption that we are not in the same position as a Property or a Contracts professor to comment on their ability to “keep up,” “contribute to class discussion,” or “think through difficult concepts” is inaccurate.
We recognize the primary mission of the Committee is to admit students who can compete at an elite institution. Nevertheless, discounting recommendations from LRW faculty could deprive potential transfer students of critical faculty input. LRW faculty often know 1L students the best in terms of what matters most – their achievement, motivation, raw talent, analytical skills, ability to communicate effectively, and measured progress.
Because the post reaches a far wider audience than those students who will eventually matriculate at Yale, we are concerned about the extent to which it suggests that the Yale Law faculty considers LRW professors to be lesser faculty in some sense, passing on to the next generation of law students a bias that LRW and its faculty are not worth their time, attention, or care.
For these reasons, we urge you to reconsider your practice of discounting recommendations from LRW faculty and welcome them as informed and reliable accounts of the transfer students you might soon welcome at your door. We also respectfully request that you amend the post in question accordingly.
As legal educators, we all share the goal of offering the best legal education possible to our students. Our purpose here is to clarify the contribution LRW professors make toward achieving that goal. We thank you in advance for your consideration of this letter.
As I was thinking through our system for grading first-year legal writing, I came across a great article by Leslie M. Rose, Norm-Referenced Grading in the Age of Carnegie: Why Criteria-Referenced Grading is More Consistent With Current Trends in Legal Education and How Legal Writing Can Lead the Way. The article contends that traditional curve-based grading is insufficient in many ways and that objective, or criteria-referenced, grading is more consistent with the current movement to improve legal education.
From the article:
As legal education moves toward more integration between skills and doctrine as recommended by Best Practices and the Carnegie Report, the traditional methods of law school assessment will be more difficult to justify. The changes that are starting to happen in law school make grading reform more urgent, as norm-referenced grading is largely inconsistent with the positive movement toward curricular innovation, learning goals, outcomes assessment, and the humanizing law school movement.
One author has noted that the ideas represented in the draft standards—“articulating the knowledge and professional skills that students should learn in courses, designing curriculum to serve those goals, assessing students’ progress with reference to those goals and sharing that evaluation with students”—are consistent with the “signature pedagogy of legal writing,” a pedagogy that other law school programs might find it useful to adopt.
Criteria-referenced grading will require some increased effort at the start, but it is likely to reap great rewards in both improved student well-being and academic success. It is the right thing to do for students, and for the profession as a whole. Legal writing professors can lead the way by becoming “proponents of conducting evaluation in the service of learning.”
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Thankfully, I stumbled across a wonderful piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times’ “Draft” series addressing just this issue. He implores young writers to “learn to play with every sentence you make in your head, shuffling words, searching for accuracy, listening for rhythm.” This piece makes a great read as we begin the semester.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
In a thought-provoking new article, Ellie Margolis and Kristen Murray urge us to "Say Goodbye to the Books: Information Literacy as the New Legal Research Paradigm".
Here's their summary:
"Legal research technology has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years, and it is time for law school legal research programs to catch up. Students entering law school are increasingly less comfortable with using print materials, and at the same time, electronic search technology is no longer modeled on a print-based system. Current legal research pedagogy, developed in the context of a print-based research environment, is waning in utility and may soon be moot. In order to give law students the skills to conduct effective legal research, and to adapt those skills to future technological development, we need to rethink how we teach and assess legal research.
"This article argues that we should make information literacy the foundation of legal research instruction. By reframing the goal of legal research instruction as increasing the information literacy (specifically, the legal information literacy) of our students, we will be able to leverage the research skills they already possess and instill in them skills that are transferable to the legal research tools of tomorrow. The article first traces the history of how legal research is taught and introduces the idea of information literacy as a new way of thinking about legal research instruction. It then presents the results of our survey of incoming law students’ research training, habits, practices, and beliefs. Finally, it discusses how the theory of information literacy and our survey results can be used to rethink the way legal research is taught. With this in mind, we can begin to develop methods of research instruction that result in an increased level of legal information literacy, no matter the students’ starting points."
Monday, August 20, 2012
Legal writing professors Lisa McElroy, Kris Tiscione, and Amy Vorenberg have prepared a letter responding to the Yale post about legal writing (which was discussed on this blog over the past few days). Subscribers to the legal writing listserv can see the letter there and click on a link to sign it if they wish to do so.
In the ongoing listserv discussion about the Yale post, Ralph Brill wrote that many doctrinal professors do not know what legal writing professors do. We may be pigeonholed as simply teaching grammar, when actually we spend little or no classroom time on that topic. Over on the Legal Skills Prof Blog, Scott Fruehwald has posted a clear explanation of our work, emphasizing that we teach students legal analysis and how to express it effectively to readers. Numerous articles and studies, including a study of judges' views, have emphasized the key importance of those skills in the legal profession.