Category Archives: Teaching Legal Writing

Texas Law graduate Lou Sirico wins legal-writing award

I’m pleased to announce that Professor Louis Sirico of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law is the 2016 winner of the Burton Award for outstanding contributions to legal-writing education.

Professor Sirico is a long-time and staunch supporter of legal-writing education and of legal-writing teachers and is admired for his work in the field.

He is also, by the way, a graduate of The University of Texas School of Law. Well done, Lou!

Recommended book: The New 1L

I recommend a new book from Carolina Academic Press:

The New 1L: First-Year Lawyering with Clients

edited by Eduardo R.C. Capulong, Michael A. Millemann, Sara Rankin, and Nantiya Ruan.

From the publisher’s online catalog:

In The New 1L, leading teachers in the field describe how, in the first year of legal education, they teach students to act, as well as think, like lawyers. In their courses, clients are central—not extraneous. Working under a lawyer’s supervision, students interview clients, conduct factual investigations, draft pleadings, and write memoranda and briefs. The authors argue that, in isolation, theory and practice are incomplete, and first-year educators must integrate the two. They discuss the benefits and challenges of this new 1L approach, and also provide a range of successful models for any teacher who wants to adapt this pedagogy to a first-year course.

The innovative courses the authors describe bring about collaborations between classroom instruction and legal research and writing (LRW) and create interactions with clinical teachers and lawyers. These collaborative teaching models are essential to the future success of legal education, the authors contend. These models include LRW courses that base assignments on actual legal work, core courses that add practice components to traditional theoretical instruction, courses adding skills instruction and actual client work to the 1L curriculum, and courses that invite 1L students to enroll in clinics.

Yes, I’m a Lawyer

Do you ever lie about your profession? Seriously. When someone asks what you do for a living, do you always say “I’m a lawyer”?

I do, of course. And I always sign my name with esquire. Even on checks. And I insist that everyone call me counselor.

Wife: Do you want any more salad, counselor?
Me: Nothing further at this time.

But there was a time when I didn’t want my membership in the bar to be the first thing a stranger learned about me. Often, I’d just as soon downplay my job—though I admit it took me a while to learn how. When I first came out of law school, I’d routinely do this:

Stranger: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a lawyer. Or attorney. Strictly speaking, the distinction between the terms is disappearing at the present time. Moreover, there are the terms barrister, solicitor, and counselor, inter alia. Nonetheless, any and all of said terms can be utilized by laymen to refer to one who holds, possesses, or retains a juris doctorate.

That usually got a bad reaction.

But it wasn’t just my choice of words. I soon began to realize that as a lawyer, I wasn’t beloved by all. After a few years of law practice, I began to see that people had preconceived notions about lawyers and that telling someone I was a lawyer wasn’t always a good way to start off the relationship. So I fudged.

That was hard to do when I practiced law at a law firm. What could I say? But as a newly trained lawyer, of course, I was able to talk around the truth. That’s what they taught me in law school, right?

Stranger: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a . . . well . . . what do you do?
Stranger: I’m a nurse. And you?
Me: I’m in finance. . . . I work with banks . . . lending . . . that sort of thing.

That was true, at least partly.

I didn’t say I represented the banks as a lawyer. I didn’t say I sued borrowers. I didn’t say I prepared for filing original petitions directed to defaulting debtors. That could come later, after the stranger had seen I was a decent person.

On the other hand, how decent was it to fudge on the truth in our first conversation? Still, I justified it. It was better than getting the typical reaction—usually something like this:

Stranger: An attorney, huh? My brother-in-law’s an attorney—a real jerk, too.

Or this:

Stranger: No offense, but I’ve had enough of attorneys for a lifetime. My ex’s attorney was a real jerk.

Yes, the “j” word came up a lot.

So when I got into academia as a legal-writing instructor, I took full advantage of the chance to obscure my profession. I started telling people I taught writing. Just “writing.” Not “legal writing.” That way I could pass myself off as an English teacher. Cool. Besides, try explaining legal writing, and you usually get a snide remark.

Me: I teach legal writing.
Stranger: So you’re the one who teaches them to write like that.

I still had awkward moments and lessons to learn. I found out that fudging about your profession didn’t always go smoothly. Once, I told someone I was a “writing instructor,” but she heard “riding instructor.”

She: Oh, it must be challenging working with those animals.
Me: Yeah . . . I guess . . . .
She: You always have to let them know who’s boss, right? Use the whip if you have to, I suppose?

But I’ve matured. I’ve learned to accept my profession—and to shrug off the critics. Now, in my 23rd year of teaching, I’ve abandoned the equivocating. I’m finally able to tell the truth. I’m proud to be a lawyer—a legal-writing instructor. So when asked, I now say what I feel, from my heart:

Me? I’m a legal-writing instructor. As a field, legal writing comprises drafting, advocacy, and expository analysis, though that three-pronged regime is subject to critique on the ground that it is not comprehensive. Furthermore . . . .

True writing classes are rare

High-school classes that teach writing are rare. College classes that teach writing are rare. Graduate-school classes that teach writing are rare. In fact, for most of my first-year law students, the required legal-writing course is the first class they’ve ever taken that is actually and seriously about writing.

I can’t prove my assertions, but I offer three anecdotes.

1. Pre-AP English isn’t about writing.
I know a 10-grader taking Pre-AP English. The course focuses on literature, not writing. The course covers a dozen books and plays, and the students learn about mythology (The Odyssey, The Iliad), Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet), religion (The Inferno), war (All Quiet on the Western Front), and more. They read and annotate these works, do group projects about them, and take tests on them.

What they don’t do much is write about them.

Yes, they usually write an essay as part of the test on each work, but that’s a timed, in-class writing project. Better than nothing, but not terribly practical. It’s really more about what they know than how well they can write. And besides, I’m convinced that high-school and college essays and the grading of high-school and college essays foster a formal, fancy, show-off type of writing, the kind everyone claims to hate but that many academics do and reward.

What’s more, for two of the works, the teacher had students prepare an essay outline and turn that in as the writing project. Not much writing practice there.

(I’m not complaining. I’m describing. Do you want to grade 100 10th-grade essays on The Iliad? Neither do I. Do you want to let 10th graders do the essay untimed at home and then try to catch all the plagiarism? Neither do I.)

2. College writing courses aren’t about writing.
I once attended a university-sponsored training session called “Creating Outcome Assessments for Writing Assignments.” Anyone teaching a writing course was invited, and about 25 teachers were there. We each introduced ourselves and named the course we were teaching. I was the only person whose course title included the word “writing.” The others were teaching history, literature, sociology, and so on. But each course required a paper, so it was a “writing” course. I realized they weren’t teaching writing; they were teaching history (or whatever) and had to give a writing assignment.

So who’s teaching writing? Maybe all the writing teachers already knew how to create an outcome assessment, so they had no need for the training, and that’s why none of them were there. Maybe. Or maybe there are very few classes that actually focus on teaching writing.

3. Master’s classes aren’t about writing.
One of my students told me no one had ever commented on her writing to the degree her legal-writing teachers had. In earning her master’s degree, she had written a lot of papers and a lot of essays, but she almost never got mechanical or structural comments on them. What was most important, she learned, was that the paper presented a great idea, an original idea, something new. That’s what mattered.

Of course, the paper couldn’t be sloppy, full of writing errors. But no one in her program was concerned about that; they were all average to above-average writers. So although the course grade was based almost entirely on writing papers, there was no classroom instruction on writing and very little feedback on the actual writing the students did.

My point?

Many of us assume someone else taught students how to write. We look backward to college, to high school, to middle school. We assume someone taught them writing. We assume they learned it. We assume they know the basics (and some of us define the basics fairly comprehensively, possibly forgetting what we once didn’t know). But what if no one ever taught them writing? I’m beginning to think no one ever did.

And why not?

Maybe it’s because teaching writing is a pain in the neck. It’s hard, and it’s easier and more interesting to focus on something like The Iliad or history or a new idea. It’s easier to assume someone else taught them writing, so we don’t have to.


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Visiting lectures at Arizona State

I am pleased to report that my visit to Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law was wonderful. I gave two lectures there, and both were well received. I visited a first-year LRW course and took some questions. I attended the writing faculty’s weekly meeting. It was a fantastic experience.

Spending time with the outstanding faculty in their Legal Method and Writing program was a great opportunity.

I offer a personal, special thank you to Professor Susan Chesler and Associate Dean Judy Stinson.


The visit and my two lectures while there were made possible by support from ALWD through a grant to support the Legal Communication & Rhetoric Visiting Scholars Program.