School of Law's revamped legal writing program offers 1Ls solid foundation in legal research, writing, and analysis
January 3, 2014
Last spring, the University of Richmond School of Law hired five full-time faculty members to design and implement a brand new legal writing program. During the summer, the new faculty—Professors Christopher Corts, Tamar Schwartz, Laura Khatcheressian, Doron Samuel-Siegel, and Rachel Suddarth—engaged in an intensive planning process that focused on outlining pedagogical goals and researching curriculum materials. A summer of brainstorming, designing, and collaborating with legal research faculty led to the creation of a new approach to teaching students legal research, writing, and analysis.
The two-semester course, which every 1L takes during the first year of law school, was designed to teach students a range of skills that will be used in a professional setting. Students are taught to use an "analytical toolkit" to define legal issues, draft arguments, and analyze the law. Students also learn legal research skills, writing and editing principles, and gain experience in critiquing their own work.
One of the program's goals is to teach students to consider audience and purpose when writing legal documents. Professor Christopher Corts said the program has adopted a process orientation to legal writing wherein students are asked to replicate a process that can be adapted to different audiences and purposes. Professor Laura Khatcheressian noted, "The course's process orientation allows students to incorporate writing and editing principles and apply them to different types of writing within the law profession." Professor Corts added, "We have designed this program with the realities of a rapidly changing legal marketplace in mind and an increasing move in the marketplace to a client-centered service."
Professor Rachel Suddarth said one significant feature of the new program was replacing the traditional formal memoranda and brief assignments common in first year writing programs with a wide variety of shorter writing exercises that more closely mirror the writing performed in legal practice. For example, students in the new program will draft several letters to "clients," emails and memoranda to "law firm partners," a brief in support of a motion for summary judgment, a memorandum of law for a "trial court judge," and marketing materials for "law firm clients."
Professor Doron Samuel-Siegel emphasized the importance of assigning legal writing exercises with practical implications. She said, "The students seem to appreciate that they are doing practical work, and I think they're going to find that their assignments in this course will pay dividends when they enter legal practice."
Professor Samuel-Siegel said her students have responded extremely well to the course. "They're motivated, they're interested, they're curious. They're working very hard, without exception." She said they have covered a range of writing concepts, from broad legal analysis principles to more tailored principles down to sentence-level editing. She added, "From a very broad base of introductory material to the most minute of detail, it's been a pretty exciting journey."
The new legal writing program has adopted a collaborative model. Each writing faculty member had the opportunity to contribute to the development of the program. They also work closely with the legal research faculty who teach the research section of the course. Professor Tamar Schwartz said the collaborative process gave the group the freedom to create something new and different. "There was an opportunity here to create something that was ours. The collaborative model opened up avenues of inspiration, as we were able to draw from everyone's varied skill sets, and enabled us to come up with something different than if one person created the program alone."
Professor Samuel-Siegel said the collaborative setting allows each member of the team to have a great deal of investment in the program. She added, "I think it allows the creativity of the group to be somewhat unfettered." She also said the diverse backgrounds of the legal writing faculty members have enriched the experience. "There's rarely a subject that doesn't benefit from our differing experiences, whether it's trial work, regulatory work, or appellate work—it's a really broad base of expertise." Professor Laura Khatcheressian added, "I think all of us have a commitment to collaborating and sharing ideas so that we can all be better and so that the program can be the best that we can make it."
The writing faculty also collaborates with the legal research faculty members who, through this program, provide students with a foundation in legal research skills, including case research, statutory research, and using secondary sources. Professor Samuel-Siegel said working with the research faculty has been a seamless process and the experience that Dean Timothy Coggins and his colleagues bring to the program provides a strong complement to the writing work.
Professor Suzanne Corriell, Associate Director for Reference, Research and Instructional Services, said the new features of the legal research instruction include more hands-on activities and small group work facilitated by both research and writing faculty. Students were also asked to keep a log of the resources to be used for their final project. The log not only helps students track their sources, but it also allows instructors to evaluate the effectiveness of students' research strategies. She added, "I want students to learn from what works well, what doesn't work well, and then apply that in the future."
Timothy Coggins, Associate Dean for Library and Information Services and Professor of Law, said the presence of full-time writing faculty has resulted in a more productive collaboration with the legal research faculty. He added, "I think the students are benefitting very significantly from that collaboration."
Dean Coggins said the research portion of the program has always been very practical. "You've got to know how to do the research before you can get to the point where you can analyze sources." He also said he hopes his students take away a good understanding of how an effective legal research process can help them find the cases, statutes, regulations, and other materials they need in order to write a paper or answer a legal question. He stressed the importance of teaching a research process that students can apply to different research topics.
This fall, the legal writing faculty also collaborated with first-year doctrinal faculty to enhance the program. Professor Samuel-Siegel commented, "The students got to see immediately an explicit intersection between what they're learning in the doctrinal courses and their writing skills. It's a credit to the willingness and excitement of the faculty as a whole for the program." Professor Corts added, "The level of institutional commitment has been outstanding."
The switch from adjunct faculty members to full-time professors has also dramatically increased the amount of contact 1L students have with their writing faculty. Professor Khatcheressian said increasing students' access to the legal writing faculty is one of the most beneficial features of the new program. Professor Corts said the new approach is consistent with the School of Law's student-centered environment. "Being full-time faculty, there is something powerful that happens just by virtue of who we are when we show up—the fact that we're present, we have offices, and we are available to students." Professor Schwartz added, "Who we are and the time we can devote to the students changes the whole dynamic."
Students have the opportunity to meet with faculty during open office hours and also engage in 20- to 45-minute individual conference sessions for each major writing assignment. During the conferences, each student works through his or her draft paper with the professor. The student and professor work together to identify strengths, weaknesses, and strategies for improving the writing.
Professor Suddarth explained that the conferences are an efficient and effective way for students to receive individualized feedback on their writing. She added, "We can meet each student exactly where they are and provide targeted and immediate feedback on what that student is doing well and where he or she needs to improve. We want students to realize that revision and rewriting are a natural part of the writing process and to start engaging in self-critiques of everything they write."
Professor Khatcheressian added, "The students really benefit from intensive feedback. It's easy for writers to get so close to their work that they are unable to see any areas of confusion, because they know exactly what they meant when they wrote it. Our conferences allow the students to take a step back and see their work through a reader's eyes." She said she hopes her students discover that writing is the kind of work that's never really finished. "They need to understand that the first draft is truly only a starting point. They should revise many times."
Professor Schwartz said she hopes her students walk away with the confidence of knowing they are flexible enough to respond to different needs and able to put themselves in the shoes of the reader. She added, "This is the skill that they will use throughout their careers."
Another important component of the legal writing program is professionalism. Professor Corts commented, "From the very beginning, as we begin to talk about what it means to research a legal issue, we're trying to set it in the broader context of the world in which they will inhabit as professionals." Throughout the course, students have the opportunity to draft a variety of documents used in the workplace, including email communications. Assignments also require students to work within real-world scenarios, such as those with time and cost restraints.
Professor Corts said the skills students learn in this class are a long-term investment. "When you show up, day one, the thing that distinguishes you from your peers and helps you advance in this profession, and to get the results for your clients, is your ability to write." Professor Samuel-Siegel also stressed the importance of service to clients. "It is essential that the students leave with a strong understanding of what it means to communicate on behalf of others and to advance others' interests."
The writing professors said they are teaching students life-long skills that must be developed over time. Professor Schwartz said this process doesn't conclude at the end of the semester, the year, or at the end of law school. "They need the tools and skills, and the mental capacity of self-critique, and receiving critique, and knowing what to do with that information." Professor Corts said he hopes his students will gain confidence in their ability to understand all of the moving pieces and to be sensitive to the demands of being in a service profession. With this new program, it is the faculty's goal to prepare students with the core skills they need to succeed in legal practice and to continually update the program to meet the evolving needs of the legal profession.