Cheryl Stephens, Plain Language Legal Writing
John Brown on the manifest-error standard of review

Why Johnny can’t write

I had occasion today to peruse the web sites of two law schools, just to see what their legal-writing programs look like and who teaches them. At both, it appears that 100 percent of the teaching is done by fellows. A fellowship is a one-year contract typically extended to someone who is just embarking on an academic career, and whose main interest is in an area other than legal writing. It appears that teaching legal writing is part of their initiation into the academic world—something they have to go through before moving on to whatever field really interests them. If you ask any of them what they hope to be doing two years from now, the answer will not be “teaching legal writing.”

The result of this system: no law student receives teaching in legal writing from anyone who has more than minimal teaching experience or who wants to make a career of teaching legal writing.

[Paragraph deleted from original post.]

Comments are open. Fire away.


p.s.  Please read the thoughtful comments by Wayne Schiess and Alan Childress.

I have deleted the second-to-last paragraph of this post, because as originally written, it was unfair to the fellows in these systems. My point is to question the system, not to criticize the people in the system. Unfortunately the deleted paragraph could fairly be read as criticizing the people, which was not my intention.


Wayne Schiess

Yes, a few law schools still do this. It is not so much an initiation the fellows have to pass through. It's more like this:

"Gosh, here we have aspiring young legal scholars. It sure would be great if our law school could help them get started in academia; then we'd be known as a feeder school for young legal scholars. But these young scholars are so young and inexperienced. What can we have them do to justify a salary while their main focus is writing that first article, networking, and defining their scholarly interests? I know. They can teach legal writing!"

I know these fellows are smart, and most probably could teach legal writing. But there are three main problems:

1. Their hearts aren't in it. It's not what they want to do, ultimately.
2. Their focus is on their own (scholarly) writing, not on teaching legal writing.
3. They turn over every year or two.

I once applied for a job as director of legal writing, and in one interview a professor told me he wanted to start a fellows program like the one described here. He asked me what I thought. I swallowed hard and said "It is a good way to develop young scholars, but it is not a good way to teach legal writing."

For an insider's view of exactly what the post and my comment are talking about, read this article:

Ilhyung Lee, The Rookie Season, 39 Santa Clara L. Rev. 473 (1999).

Alan Childress

Ray, I can only speak for my experience at Tulane, but I think the Forrester Fellows program has worked well. We get amazing applicants with relevant experience and skill in legal writing, and we perform an intense hiring process akin to other hires but geared toward interest and ability in legal writing (though in this market they also often have unbelievable credentials fit for any teaching job). They are given one year contracts (just in case something goes wrong!) with an eye toward repeating for a few more years, but we do anticipate that new blood will eventually come in. I happen to like the turnover and lack of burn out. The program is administered, and one section taught by, a long-term and experienced professor-director of legal writing who was first in her class at Loyola, has had other offers for more traditional classroom teaching, but has chosen this academic specialty. The product and service I have seen from this system is, to me, the best I have ever seen at Tulane. I have no problem with the fellows' developing a long-term career in legal scholarship and teaching (and they have gone on to various sorts of that) as long as their main focus is their work for us while here, and in almost all cases I have observed that it has.


Considering that most legal writing programs spin into a symphony of cheating and silliness, something is definitely wrong.

First of all, most teachers (be they fellows, adjuncts, or whatever) cannot articulate objective criteria for “good writing.” They don’t even seem to see it as a skill. The best they can muster is “IRAC.”

Second of all, some students will come to the program with knowledge of bluebooking, tables of authority, and exactly what is required. Some won’t.

Third, many students will have their work reviewed by sympathetic lawyers. Sure this is cheating, but this is the real world.

Fourth, Often, half the game is sucking up to the writing assistants.

Fifth, There is almost no serious academic discourse on writing as the art of persuasion. There are cutesy antidotal articles out there, but nobody has ever attempted any serious analysis of what writing (i.e. what words, arranged in what orders) have convinced decision-makers that something was (or was not) “the law.” I have somewhat snarkily-posited on other blogs whenever the Federalist-Society-types have whined about losing some case that their loss is due to “bad legal writing.” But, at some level, academics, while paying lip service to legal writing, have never considered whether writing actually changes what “the law” is.

Sixth, judicial opinions are usually unclear. There may be good reasons for this, but they are. Unfortunately, they are what most students are reading.

So there you have it. The system is broken.

I actually interviewed for one of these fellowships after some time in private practice, and there's just one point in Professor Shiess's comment to which I want to respond that I want to respond to. ;-)

He writes that the school aministration has to ask itself, "What can we have [the fellows] do to justify a salary . . ." Let's just say that, based on the offered salary, there wasn't much to justify! Nobody goes into teaching for the money, though..

I can also say that if my single interview experience is any indication of more widespread practice, we shouldn't worry too much about the fellowship model. I was grilled pretty extensively by a large panel of interviewers about my motives for applying (including questions about my willingness and ability to take such a huge cut in income). My passion for legal writing was explored throughly by the panel, and I was also told very clearly that the position had almost no chance of leading to any other teaching position at the school. In short, I think the school did everything it could to hire fellows whose hearts were in it.


From the other side as a student.... well I had a terrible time in legal writing and even over a year later I am still not sure if it prepared me. My instructor did not use IRAC, she went far beyond it, but speaking to my instructor was useless. She could not tell me how to improve my writing to her specifications. It was frustrating in the extreme and I am still climbing out of the holes that class dug me during my initial year.

It has also psychologically scarred me in that I am now utterly paranoid whenever I have to write something that I will get it back with a post-it on it that says "what on Earth is this drivel?" My hands literally shake when writing.

Let me point out while not a memeber of a 1st tear school she actually was quite accomplished in legal writing from various places across the country and had been doing this for a long time.

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