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Law School Lacks the Write Stuff

A few months back, we posted about the deterioration of legal writing and theorized that the proliferation of e-mail, texting and Twitter -- all of which encourage stream-of-consciousness ramblings and careless phrasing -- might explain the erosion of writing skills. It turns out there's a more serious cause: legal education, or lack thereof. 

Inside Higher Education reports that results of the 2008 Annual Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE)  show that nearly half of all law students believe that law school does not "contribute substantially" to their ability to "apply legal writing skills" in the real world. Though most students feel that law school offers adequate opportunities to write papers and memos, more than a third wished for hands-on experience in practice-related writing, such as drafting motions or transactional documents.

In addition, legal writing classes are frequently marginalized from the rest of the curriculum. From the Inside Higher Education story:

"Despite near universal agreement on the value of these skills and competencies, legal writing, for example, is typically featured primarily in the first year, and viewed by students as a sidebar in their doctrinal classes,” writes George D. Kuh, LSSSE director and professor at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, in his introduction to the 2008 results. “The low value placed on writing is symbolized by the facts that relatively few legal writing faculty are tenured or in a tenure-eligible role and are often paid less than other faculty members. Nevertheless, good lawyers must be good legal writers; it is a skill that will serve students well as they transition to the practice of law."

Computers aren't necessarily improving legal writing either. The LSSSE study found that few students used computers to download sample copies of briefs that could be used as a writing or study aid.  Instead, many students who use computers in the classroom do so to e-mail each other, surf the Web or play video games.

Martha Sperry of the Advocate's Studio acknowledges that law schools may not have enough time in the curriculum to include specialized coursework on all forms of legal writing. Sperry therefore recommends integrating legal research and writing into specific substantive courses so that, for example, students could learn to draft articles of incorporation while studying the basics of corporations law.

Still, I can't help coming back to my initial thoughts. At a time when we communicate in sound bites and blog-blurbs and lack the attention span to focus on sentences of more than 140 characters, can legal writing in its present form survive? Or is that the point: Should law schools be focusing on ways to ensure that legal writing keeps its relevance in the age of the Internet?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 7, 2009 at 11:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)


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