Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Teaching Legal Writing in the Coronavirus Era

The spread of the coronavirus has resulted in law schools transitioning to online learning. The delivery of legal education online certainly presents challenges for law students and legal writing professors (and professors generally). Below are tips (some rather obvious) that can hopefully contribute to facilitating a reasonably smooth transition to teaching legal writing online, and in a manner that: (1) maximizes students’ attainment of relevant learning outcomes; and (2) creates a supportive learning environment.

1.    Be clear about the requirements and expectations going forward

The spread of the coronavirus – and the transition to online legal education – will cause many students to experience increased stress, uncertainty, and anxiety, the severity of which will vary based on each student's circumstances. Indeed, these effects will impact some students more directly and substantially than others.

To facilitate the transition to online education, professors should communicate clearly to students the requirements and expectations regarding assignments and grading, particularly if assignments or grading policies have been modified. For example, many law schools have decided to transition to pass/fail (or credit/no credit) grading for all courses. As such, professors should explain to students the criteria that distinguish passing from failing grades (e.g., a passing grade is the equivalent of a ‘C’ or better).

2.    Provide students with writing checklists to make them aware of your grading criteria and to help students edit their work

Professors should consider creating a one or two-page checklist that sets forth the criteria (essentially, the rubric) that they will use when assessing the students’ work. Doing so will enable students to focus their writing and editing on the most relevant aspects of an assignment (e.g., effective topic sentences, proper IRAC structure), and help them to produce their best work.

3.    Draft a one or two-page summary each week highlighting the major points of that week's classes

As stated above, the transition to online learning will likely cause many students to experience increased stress and anxiety due to, for example, increased family obligations and financial difficulties. Indeed, students may have less time to devote to their studies or simply struggle to focus on their work, particularly if they are living with family members or home-schooling children. For these and other reasons, students may struggle to complete reading assignments or otherwise dedicate sufficient time to mastering the material.

Drafting a one or two-page summary of the major points covered each week (with examples) will simplify the material and help students focus their attention on the most relevant legal writing skills.

4.    Shorten the remaining assignments

In courses where students are required to write, for example, a pre-trial motion, appellate or trial brief, professors should consider shortening their assignments if the circumstances warrant. For example, professors may consider requiring students to write only the legal argument section of a pretrial motion or appellate brief. And professors can consider incorporating smaller, problem-based assessments to focus on areas that may not be required in a summative assessment.

5.    Consider reducing or even eliminating the research aspect of an assignment

Some students will have reduced access to internet service and to electronic platforms such as Westlaw, Lexis, and Casetext. As such, professors should consider closed universe assignments that provide students with relevant legal authority.

6.    Be as accessible as possible and provide as much feedback as possible

The transition to online learning will significantly impact students’ ability to meet with their professors for individualized feedback and support.

Two approaches may lessen the resulting impact on students. First, professors can hold a few optional classes for the entire class, in which the professor provides generalized feedback on the students’ work and offers suggestions for improvement. Second, professors can, at the outset of online learning, hold 10-minute conferences in which the professor provides support and feedback to each student (based on, for example, prior assignments). And in providing feedback, be mindful that students lack access to some, if not all, of the support services (e.g., a writing center, face-to-face interaction, academic success) that were previously available. This should cause law schools who remain on a grading system to consider adjusting their grading curve upward or permitting students who are particularly disadvantaged the option to take one or more courses on a pass/fail basis.

7.    Consider holding online legal writing classes only once per week

This suggestion may not apply to some law schools, but at law schools where legal writing courses are held two or more times per week, professors should consider switching to a once-a-week format. Doing so will enable law professors to devote sufficient time to discussing the relevant material and reduce the burden on students who may struggle to coordinate their schedule in light of personal circumstances.

8.    Take ten minutes at the end of each class to show that you care

Certainly, this is a difficult time for law students and law professors. One way to help students is to devote ten or fifteen minutes at the end of each class to simply asking the students how they are doing and encouraging them to share their respective experiences. Doing so will help to create a constructive ad supportive learning environment.

9.    Be optimistic and inspire students

Many students will probably rely to some degree on professors and others to provide support during this difficult time. This places professors in a position to offer encouragement, optimism, and inspiration to their students, and to show students that they can succeed despite adverse circumstances.

10.    Balance compassion with rigor

Certainly, this is an extraordinary time that requires compassion and understanding for students. At the same time, compassion should be balanced with rigor. Professors should continue to challenge students to put forth their best effort and reward those who produce the highest quality work. Indeed, just as this is a time for compassion, it is also an opportunity to teach students that, no matter what circumstances they may face in life, they must possess the mindset and coping skills to succeed despite adversity.

11.    Take care of yourself

Law students and law professors should be particularly mindful of their physical and mental health during this period. Exercise. Eat healthy foods (and junk food in moderation). Practice mindfulness techniques. Communicate with friends and family. Do things that make you happy (listening to Elvis Presley’s music is likely to create substantial happiness) and remember that this, too, shall pass.

Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink


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