Thursday, July 3, 2014

LWI Conference Guest Blog Post: Dan Real Tells Us About Jean Sbarge's Great Presentation on "The Read Shoes"

Dan RealWe're happy to share a guest blog post from Daniel Real of Creighton University. We also welcome your guest blog posts on other conference sessions that were particularly useful.  

I also had a chance to attend the presentation by Jean Sbarge and thought it was just great, including how she filmed a law partner reading and commenting on a memorandum.


Here's the post from Daniel Real:

Yesterday was the final day of substantive presentations at the Legal Writing Institute 2014 Conference in Philadelphia (#LWI2014).  The week was filled with wonderful presentations on a variety of topics and presented attendees with many instances of having to make difficult decisions about which presentation to attend.  Fortunately, materials associated with many of the presentations have already been added to the Legal Writing Institute Website (, and more are sure to be added in the coming days.

One of the unfortunate aspects of any conference is that busy schedules and travel necessities often prevent many attendees from being able to see some of the final presentations.  This year I was fortunate enough to be able to stay through the end of the conference and attend presentations on the final afternoon.  Although all of the presentations I attended this week were great and reflected a lot of effort on the part of presenters, and although attendance at the final couple of afternoon sessions was good, I thought it worthwhile to jot down a few thoughts about one of these final afternoon sessions that some may not have been able to stay to see. 

Professor Jean K. Sbarge of Widener University School of Law gave a presentation titled, "The Read Shoes:  Stepping Into the Reader's Shoes Through Video, Case Illustration, Drawing, and a Model."  I found it to be a wonderfully useful presentation with some very concrete methods for assisting students with the all-important task of putting themselves into the shoes of the legal readers they are hoping to reach and using that to help craft and improve their work product. 

We all tell our students -- on multiple occasions -- how important it is to "put yourself in the position of your reader and ask yourself whether this accomplishes your purposes and is effective."  That's really important.  But it's also a difficult skill for students to master.  I've tried a variety of different exercises in the past to assist students in this regard, including some peer review work; some interactive discussions in class of a poorly crafted analysis and discussions about how the students, as first-time readers, struggle to follow it and how to improve it; etc.

I think the notion of writers putting themselves in the place of their readers is such an important concept, and I always welcome any new ideas on how to do it.  Professor Sbarge had some great ones in this presentation.  She presented four concrete exercises that can be used to help students to better understand how to put themselves in that position and use what they learn to improve their writing.  I will highlight just two of them here.

The first exercise that Professor Sbarge demonstrated is an exercise that may be familiar to students of other disciplines:  the "back-to-back drawing" exercise.  This is a simple and fun exercise that would be a great icebreaker at the beginning of a semester and would provide a basis for returning and reinforcing periodically throughout the semester.  The exercise is simple, and involves students pairing up for an exercise in thinking very carefully about how to communicate detailed directions to a listener/drawer.  The two students sit with their backs to one another, and the "instructor" student is provided with a drawing that incorporates a variety of geometric shapes.  The "instructor" student then must provide directions to the "listener" student about how to draw a replica of the provided drawing.  The "instructor" student may not look at the drawing in progress, and the "listener" student may not ask questions or seek clarification.  The exercise forces the "instructor" student to make decisions about how to organize the instructions, how to be clear and explicit, and how to lead the "listener" student to reproducing a drawing that the "listener" student has never seen -- all highly similar to a legal writer leading a legal reader through an analysis.

A second exercise that Professor Sbarge demonstrated involved asking students early in the semester to sit down and think of a "legal reader role model" that the student can envision as a specific audience for his/her work.  The role model can be a real person (one student chose Johnny Cochran) or a fictitious person (one student chose Jack McCoy from Law and Order).  The idea is for the student to really think about this "role model" and have a reason for selecting this person as the model reader.  Then, throughout the semester, the student is encouraged to consider that role model when working on legal writing assignments.  What would Johnny Cochran think of the way you have developed the theme for your client here?  Would Jack McCoy be satisfied with that level of review and editing?  Would your reader accept jumping to that conclusion without explanation of how you got there?  At the end of the semester, Professor Sbarge then asked for volunteers to reflect on the semester and how their use of the legal reader role model impacted their work. Students who volunteered answers included thoughts about being motivated to review or edit one additional time or to think in a different way about effectiveness.  Sure, the legal writing professor is always a great "role model" legal reader.  But if students take the time to think about another concrete and tangible reader, reflect on why that reader is being chosen, and use those thoughts throughout the process, there is an added dimension of understanding about the legal reader's needs.

I know I intend to find ways to implement some of these ideas, as I will with many ideas from many presentations.  It was another great week of discussions on pedagogy and scholarship, fellowship with colleagues from all over, and recharging motivational batteries.  In short, another highly successful conference -- kudos to all involved in planning, execution, and presenting this week!

Daniel L. Real
Assistant Professor of Law
Creighton University School of Law

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