Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Clinicians Can and Should Write, Here’s How

I love to write.  Inevitably though around this time each academic year, I wonder when to find the time to write: during work or personal time.  Having taught in positions both at law schools that require and support clinical scholarship and those that don’t, I am convinced that it is important for clinicians to write what they see and practice.  It’s our duty.  So we must find both the time and resources to do it.

The discipline of writing appeals on a deep level: as clinicians, we are uniquely poised to attest how laws apply in life, with sometimes disparate effect.  For us litigators, we get to observe how courts operate, not just the ideals to which they aspire, but the ugly moments when judges and lawyers forsake fundamental rights, due process, and dignity for the sake of efficiency.  How rich those opportunities are to reflect, analyze, and inform the public about what is really going on.  “All scholarship is witness”, a former Pepperdine President once said, and indeed, my best writing comes from my personal experience as lawyer, teacher, woman of color, and especially when I witness injustice happen to the most marginalized clients, and my clinic students and I get caught in the cross-fire.  In those opportunities, my writing comes alive. 

A former law school colleague, Christine L. Jones, once advised me to “write about what really bothers you.”  And when I have the effect has been undeniable through feedback and citations from those in agreement and not, and a commenting audience ranging from lawyers, professors, social workers, artists, law students, legislatures, and trade organizations—not to mention my mother and mother-in-law.  Our clinical scholarship impacts.

Many question, generally, the value of legal scholarship, and the “disconnect between the academy and the profession.”  But maybe that so-called disconnect is the very space where clinicians thrive, and as lawyer-professors, we can bridge the gap.  As Sherilynn Ifill (Maryland law) once blogged, “Our scholarship – if read – can be very helpful to judges and their clerks as they navigate the shoals of complex legal decisionmaking.” Ifill says, “Take, for example, the work of [her clinical] colleague Renée Hutchins, who in her 2007 article Tied Up in Knotts:  GPS Technology and the Fourth Amendment, . . . writes about whether and how the use of GPS devices by law enforcement should be assessed under the Fourth Amendment.  Her article was so illuminating in exploring this underdeveloped area of law that Judge David Tatel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals cited it in . . . U.S. v. Maynard, in which the court unanimously held that the police use of GPS tracking on a criminal suspect over several weeks constitutes a ‘search’ and requires a warrant.”

Others question whether writing interferes with teaching, but according to a recent article based on data from one law school, the answer is no.  To the contrary, scholars make better teachers. Looking at a number of factors, two researchers “analyzed 10-years of publicly available data on an ‘unbalanced panel’ of 50 Chicago Law faculty members” and found “no strong negative relationship between volume of publication and quality or amount of teaching.” Instead, “the data [albeit limited] mostly showed a positive relationship between scholarship quantity and teaching quality.”  That makes sense.  Writing often and well models the critical importance of this fundamental skill we seek to instill, starting with our 1Ls.  Even SCOTUS Justice Kagan believes “writing is one of the hardest things to teach.”  Our endeavors might inspire students to write more and better.

The good news for those clinicians thinking about writing and wondering how to find both the time and resources is that our clinical community is here to help.  Michele Gilman heads the Scholarship Committee of the AALS Section on Clinical Legal Education, which “offers every clinician an opportunity for supportive, non-evaluative feedback on a scholarly work-in-progress from a clinical colleague with shared substantive expertise.”  Many writers and reviewers have already been matched, and “if you have a work-in-progress and would like to be paired with a clinical colleague at another school, send a request to”  The committee also welcomes clinicians willing to mentor others to join their database.  I can personally attest that the Clinical Peer Network works: in 2009, Michele connected me with another clinical pillar, Mae Quinn, who helped me publish my first article.

Besides traditional law reviews and journals, more venues exist today to publish our clinical scholarship from the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) newsletter to the Clinical Law Prof Blog to the Clinical Law Review, which hosts its own annual NYC workshop and offers scholarships to participate.  Every year, those who do come away bursting with praise, and last weekend’s workshop was no exception.  Warren Binford had this to say about it:

I have twice participated in this workshop as a writer and gained so much from the experience. I always learned a tremendous amount from my colleagues' feedback on my papers. This year I participated as a co-facilitator, and it, too, was a very humbling and re-invigorating experience. We have such a supportive community and I appreciate the efforts of CLR and NYU to harness that positivity and support and focus it on nurturing one another as writers and scholars. It is so easy to get caught up in the needs of our students and clients, as well as all of the ups and downs of life. And yet, we all know that scholarship is the coin of the realm in academia and we must develop habits and systems to help us create the scholarship we need to stand securely shoulder to shoulder with our non-clinical colleagues (on top of everything else we have to do!). Thank you to the writers, facilitators, and organizers, and, of course, NYU for keeping us focused and helping us to grow through this workshop. Not only did I learn so much from the papers I read and the people I met, I was yet again inspired by our colleagues' courage, discipline, and, of course, scholarship.

So, back to my first question: when to find the time to write? Here’s some advice I got from Kate Kruse and Mae Quinn at the New Clinicians Conference in Cleveland in 2009: Kate suggested writing for twenty minutes each day.  It keeps the ideas percolating and even if that approach produces only one footnoted sentence a day, at the end of the week, you have a paragraph.  Mae, on the other hand, testified how helpful and fun she found destination scholarship retreats: extended time during school breaks when she focused on writing.  Having tried both methods, they work.  Find your own, and “Just WRITE.”

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Thank you, Tanya. Your comments are most helpful!

Posted by: Margaret Drew | Oct 7, 2015 5:51:06 PM

Well stated, Tanya. Writing is a creative outlet, an activist tool, and an opportunity for mentorship. Just do it, indeed!

Posted by: Jill Engle | Oct 8, 2015 4:43:32 AM

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