Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Ten Tips to Create a Legal Writing Course That Prepares Students for The Real World

In the past year, COVID-19 has transformed how legal education – and legal writing – is delivered to students. Online instruction replaced in-person instruction, professors and students were forced to adapt quickly to an alternative learning format, and grading policies were adjusted to account for the unique hardships that online learning engendered for many law students. And all of this occurred while administrators, faculty, and students were living in fear of a virus that has killed more than 570,000 citizens in the United States.  

Notwithstanding, the challenges involved in transitioning to online learning – along with the challenges of transitioning to in-person instruction post-COVID – need not compromise the transformative and practical instruction that legal writing courses can effectuate, regardless of whether through online or in-person instruction. Indeed, several universal principles or designs can ensure that students learn real-world writing and critical thinking skills in online and in-person contexts. Those principles are below and can be useful to both new and experienced legal writing faculty to ensure that legal writing courses provide students with the competencies to succeed in law school and the legal profession.

1.    Connect legal writing to the real world – a memo and appellate brief are not sufficient.

The best legal writing courses and curriculums connect pedagogy and assignments to the real world.  To do so, legal writing professors should require students to draft and re-draft the most common litigation documents in their courses, including complaints, answers, motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment, trial briefs, and appellate briefs.[1] And these assignments should be given in the order they would be drafted in practice.

To accomplish this objective, legal writing professors should, either individually or collaboratively, draft a detailed hypothetical fact pattern that includes substantive issues from all first-year courses and requires students to “litigate” a hypothetical case from the complaint to appellate brief in the first year of law school (or the first three semesters). The assignments could be administered as follows:

Semester One

Client meeting

Legal research assignment (one or more issues in the hypothetical)

Predictive memorandum (closed research)

Re-write of the predictive memorandum with one or more issues added (open research)

Complaint

Semester Two

Answer (which allows students to self-critique their complaint consider a legal issue from an opposing perspective)

Motion to Dismiss

Motion for Summary Judgment (with previously prepared discovery provided)

Re-write of the Motion for Summary Judgment

Oral argument

Semester Three

Appellate Brief

Re-write of Appellate Brief

Oral Argument

Appellate court opinion (students assume the role of judge and draft an opinion affirming or overturning the lower court)

This format will allow students to gain experience in drafting and re-drafting the most common litigation documents in the order that they would be drafted in practice, thus enabling students to understand the ‘big picture’ of how law is practiced, and gain experience in applying predictive and persuasive writing techniques to various real-world documents and contexts.[2] Perhaps most importantly, this approach enables professors to focus on persuasive advocacy from day one, in which students will be required to, among other things, formulate a theme and theory of the case, distinguish relevant from irrelevant facts, and synthesize the law to present a compelling legal argument. Of course, this would not eliminate instruction on predictive writing; it would simply incorporate the predictive writing component into the litigation and sequence it appropriately.

2.    Prioritize integration over separation – legal writing assignments should be connected to doctrinal courses

When drafting a multi-issue hypothetical that allows students the opportunity to litigate a hypothetical case from the complaint to the appellate brief, law professors should include issues from the students’ required first-year courses. Doing so will enable students to apply the legal doctrines that they are learning in their required courses to real-world contexts and help students to understand how these doctrines operate in law practice. Furthermore, by applying foundational legal doctrines (e.g., personal jurisdiction, negligence) to a real-world fact pattern, students will simultaneously improve their writing and critical thinking skills and learn how to effectively analyze legal issues, which will maximize their performance on end-of semester-exams and enhance their ability to think like lawyers.

For example, a multi-issue fact pattern in a first-year legal writing curriculum can include issues such as negligence, personal jurisdiction, assault and battery, proximate causation, and supplemental jurisdiction. By connecting the assignments in legal writing courses to the topics students are learning in doctrinal courses, the legal writing curriculum will be an essential and integrated part of the curriculum.

3.    Require students to read excellent writing

Before students write, they should read excellent legal writing texts and documents. After all, students need to understand what good writing is before they can become excellent legal writers. For example, professors should require students to read Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick and Chief Justice John Roberts’s brief in Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency, which is a perfect example of outstanding storytelling and persuasive advocacy.[3]

4.    Make the Rule of Three a cornerstone of legal writing instruction.

The Rule of Three is an effective technique to maximize the persuasive impact of an argument. This technique instructs students, when making legal arguments, to identify three reasons that support a desired outcome or remedy. Social science research demonstrates that the Rule of Three effectively simplifies and organizes an argument for the audience, and appeals to the audience because people respond positively and attentively to arguments that are delivered in sets of three.

5.    Teach students how to re-write and edit, not just write

Excellent writing requires excellent editing.

Indeed, to write effectively, students must understand and embrace the writing process, which consists of the: (1) first draft; (2) rewriting phase; and (3) revision phase. Thus, legal writing professors should instruct students on macro and micro level editing, including issues such as organization, conciseness, word choice, grammar, and style. Put simply, if students do not understand how to re-write and edit effectively, they will not write persuasively.

Perhaps the best way to train students in re-writing and editing is to provide them with a legal brief written by a practicing attorney and require them, individually or in groups, to re-write and edit the document, and explain why their edits made the document flow better and present the arguments more persuasively.

6.    Include time-pressured assignments

As every lawyer knows, legal documents must often be drafted under strict time constraints. Thus, law students should gain experience in drafting real-world documents under the pressures that attorneys face daily.[4] For example, legal writing instructors can require students to draft a rule section explaining the law of defamation and give students, either individually or in groups, twenty-four hours to complete the assignment. Doing so enables students to continue developing their legal writing skills while simultaneously coping with the pressures that they will encounter in law practice.

7.    Include simulations and require students to argue opposing viewpoints

When using a multi-issue hypothetical that requires students to litigate a case from the complaint to the appellate brief, legal writing faculty should include simulations, such as a client interview, presentation of the law to a partner, settlement negotiations, and trial and appellate court oral arguments.  The point is to train students to communicate effectively and interpersonally, which essential to excellent counseling and advocacy.

8.    Truly ‘Flip the Classroom’: Turn the students into teachers

Students should be challenged in the legal writing classroom and curriculum – and treated as peers. One way to do this is to truly flip the classroom by requiring students, as part of an assigned group, to teach particular classes that discuss topics such as IRAC/CRAC, case synthesis, and binding versus persuasive legal authority. Doing so will ensure that the ‘teaching students’ master the relevant material and gain experience in public speaking and communication. Also, this exercise can empower students and create an environment in which they are views as peers in a collaborative learning process.

9.    Stay away from politics

No one cares about your political views.  More specifically, no student wants to enroll in a course where they will be subject to ideological indoctrination. Students learn best – and are motivated to learn – in a classroom where they feel welcomed and accepted. As such, classrooms should be places in which all views – liberal, conservative, libertarian, and whatever else – are welcomed and respected. Thus, to promote diversity of viewpoint and experience, law professors should never make statements or design assignments that strive to advance a particular point of view or agenda. Doing so is antithetical to creating a diverse and inclusive classroom environment.

10.    Be available – always

Great professors care deeply about their students’ success and demonstrate that commitment by being accessible and available to every student – even in the evenings and on weekends. Indeed, getting to know each student individually – and establishing productive relationships with each student – inspires trust and motivates them to work hard and succeed. For these reasons, go the extra mile and be available to students whenever they need advice or assistance. It shows that you care, which inspires students to excellent lawyers – and citizens.  

Ultimately, the best legal writing professors realize that their mission is not about them – it is about improving the skills and lives of their students. These tips will help in achieving those objectives and make the legal writing curriculum a place where students learn to become great lawyers and great people.

 

[1] See Adam Lamparello & Megan Boyd, Legal Writing for the Real World (LexisNexis, 2014).

[2] See Adam Lamparello & Charles E. MacLean, The Guide to Experiential Legal Writing (Carolina Academic Press, 2015).

[3] See Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency, Petitioner’s Brief, available at: 02-658.mer.pet.pdf (findlawimages.com)

[4] See, e.g., Kathleen Elliot Vinson & Sabrina DeFabritis, Under Pressure: How Incorporating Time-Pressured Performance Tests Prepares Students for the Bar Exam and Practice, 122 West Va. L. Rev. 107 (2019).

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2021/05/ten-tips-to-create-a-legal-writing-course-that-prepares-students-for-the-real-world.html

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