UM Law Recasts Its Legal Writing Program

U. Miami Law is moving from a traditional legal writing program staffed primarily by adjuncts and part-timers (with a few one- or two-year contract LRW instructors) to one staffed by full-time legal writing faculty. On balance, this is a good thing, maybe a very good thing.

The mixed full time/part-time model had many virtues, not least that it put our students in contact with some really great local lawyers who were all but donating their time. Yet it also had defects. Three of the defects were particularly notable. First, while some of the part-time practitioners were and are great lawyers and excellent teachers, quality control was an issue; from time to time there were complaints that some practitioners would slight their teaching when work got busy. Second, practitioner adjuncts tend to be free only in the evening, which many first year students find difficult after a long day full of classes. Third, as the number of VAP programs and full-time post-JD fellowships grows at other law schools, it gets harder to recruit excellent full time writing instructors for one or two year contracts.

Meanwhile, the job of legal writing instructor has become increasingly formalized and professionalized due to self-organizing and pedagogic reform by leading writing instructors, pressure from the ABA to upgrade the instructors' status, and the fact that full-time staff count much more for purposes of calculating headline student-faculty ratios than do part-time staff.

As a result of these and other trends, law schools are increasingly moving to a purely or primarily full-time faculty model for their introductory legal writing programs. The University of Miami School of Law is joining the trend,

The University of Miami School of Law has selected associate professor Rosario Lozada Schrier to launch and direct the school’s new research and writing program, Legal Communication and Research Skills (L-Comm). Schrier will work with a team of full-time Legal Communication faculty to provide students with critical research and communication skills necessary to excel in today’s competitive legal environment. The program will begin in the fall semester.

“L-Comm reflects Miami Law’s commitment to preparing students to become skilled and professional communicators,” Schrier says. “From their first day of classes, students will interact in the classroom as a community of professionals. In this collaborative setting, they will master the fundamentals of legal research and analysis and learn to communicate effectively with diverse audiences at various stages of legal practice.”

Faculty with varied practice backgrounds will engage students in a dynamic classroom environment that integrates technology as a learning resource. The program will develop research skills in the context of a client’s simulated problem, which will evolve through initial case assessments, consideration of potential alternatives to litigation, pretrial pleadings, and appeals. At each stage of the process, students will advocate on a client’s behalf using both written and oral skills, all with the goal of preparing students for the reality of legal practice. L-Comm will emphasize active student participation by featuring small classes and frequent interaction with faculty through small group and individual conferences.

I can't say, though, that I'm particularly thrilled with the “L-Comm” branding. I don't know exactly what it sounds like — a bad summer movie? a branch of the Army? a new leg-band communications device? — but it doesn't sound very law school to me.

And while 'legal writing' is undeniably a very important skill, as traditionally taught it presumes a good command of ordinary writing. Sadly, this is no longer (if it ever was?) something you can assume every law student brings to campus at orientation. How to address the deficiencies (or absence?) of high school and college writing programs without stigmatizing, depressing, or overloading the people who most need writing help remains a problem I have yet to hear that any law school has solved.

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14 Responses to UM Law Recasts Its Legal Writing Program

  1. TD says:

    I think this is a good thing. I taught LRW at American (here in DC) and despite my best intentions, depositions, last-minute hearings, and other issues forced me to reschedule a couple of classes, and to book horrible red-eyes back from West Coast to make it back to teach only to fly back out again. I felt that I was a good LRW prof, but wish I had more time and attention (therefore, I stepped down). It is a great thing to teach writing as a practitioner. I was lucky at UM Law about 10 (!) years ago when I was a 1L to have a fantastic LRW prof. Some of my junior associates here in DC, even from Tier 1 law schools, clearly did not have that pleasure.

  2. mfr24 says:

    this is a very good thing. dean white continues to be more obama than obama. most people in my generation can’t create a coherent thought, let alone express it well in writing.

    i loved my lrw professor and everyone else hated her. her clarity in showing us how to write (more) effectively and cite sources was apparently too easy and helpful for their blood.

    not to be the pot calling the kettle black, but a lot of students at um law, particularly in lrw, need a major kick in the behind. hopefully, a full-time lrw faculty can create more of an emphasis on legal writing and a better rapport between professors and students.

  3. LawLibrarian says:

    I, too, think that legal writing is an essential component in becoming a good practitioner. I would like to point out, however, that the class has two components – writing AND research. The best legal writer also needs the skills necessary to become a good, cost-effective researcher.

  4. Just me says:

    LawLibrarian is 100% correct.

    The problem (or maybe just part of the problem) is that law schools admit students from all walks of academic life. Unlike medical school where you are essentially laughed out of the admissions process if you do not have a science background, it is my recollection that law schools accept students with almost no concern for their educational background. A History degree (for example) is based primarily on research and writing. This sort of background prepares a student for the research and writing done in law school. A Biology degree, for all of its many virtues, does not prepare students in the same way.

    If law schools intend to continue to accept students with degrees in mathematics, engineering, biology, etc. (I know fine lawyers with degrees in each of these fields), law schools should be prepared to offer more writing and research instruction.

  5. michael says:

    In my unscientific experience grading law exams and papers, the issue issn’t the major so much as the quantity of writing required by the university. Places that let everything be done via multiple choice provide poor preparation for law school writing. Intellectually, however, subjects like Math or various sciences can be superb preparation.

  6. Vic says:

    Well the problem is made greater in many cases due to the good intentions of faculty at Universities and grad schools. Students not only leave college unprepared, but are often still largely illiterate coming out of their undergrad programs. The reason for this is faculty that is more concerned about political correctness than teaching.

    Kids who leave High School unable to construct a sentence in English SHOULD feel stigmatized. That is unacceptable in the real world and is a recipe for failure. Many of these students got that way due to lower schools that ALSO feared stigmatizing students who didn’t perform for one reason or another. Some of these kids have real learning problems (but I doubt many of these go on to college), but the majority of these functionally illiterate young adults simply didn’t FEEL like performing, and nobody ever made them. This is especially true for people smart enough to get into law school. “A” students are world-class experts at doing just what needs to be done to get the grade. For those that are ONLY interested in the grade, it is easy to do the minimum and skate by on brains. By the time they get to Law School, someone should be willing to call their bluff.

  7. michael says:

    I have not made a study, much less a systematic one, of college practices, but from my unscientific perspective as a law school prof dealing with the outputs from the college/university system, the writing problem seems to have a lot more to do with multiple-choice tests substituting for essay-exams and for term-paper-writing than it does any form of ‘political correctness’. Unless of course multiple-choice tests have suddenly become politically correct?

    The stigmatization problem at the law school level (which is where my original post raised the issue), is very much an issue of competitive pressure — between students and between law schools. Imagine a law school that required remedial writing for any student who failed to place out of it by passing a writing test. That means the students most at risk anyway will now have to take an extra course in their first year, further burdening them at a time when they feel most overworked and competitive. Will the course appear on transcripts? If not, some people are doing extra work and not getting credit. But if it appears on a transcript, it’s a red flag to employers, which is worse. I’m not surprised law schools don’t go this route, logical as it may seem, as it is certain to drive away many applicants who would prefer to avoid any risk of being so stigmatized.

  8. Vic says:

    Well Law School is really too late to be dealing with the problems of the functionally illiterate. We agree there. (and the real problem students likely never make it that far anyway)

    However, at the grade school level, there is massive pressure not to single out kids who can’t perform. There is a constant debate about whether kids who can’t even perform at the grade level they had two years previously, should be allowed to advance. Unfortunately, political correctness (don’t stigmatize kids or single them out) usually wins to some extent. Unbelievably, some of these kids who can barely write coherently manage to go on to college. Some then get wired correctly by someone who cares, others just slip through, and some even go on to grad schools.

    But the failures of the lower education system need to be corrected. Teachers, who for various reasons, not all of them motivated by political correctness, often let their failures progress into the world – and that’s where it matters!

    Look, we can all whine about whether Johnny Freshman can read and write like you, but then issue is whether they can function successfully in the world. Political correctness has created a huge educational underclass that will have huge disadvantages moving beyond entry level positions. I don’t know if you have any friends that are teachers in metropolitan public schools or not (I have a number of them), but it is frustrating as hell to hear the inside scoop on what is going on in education right now. What’s even MORE frustrating is that many of the teachers take virtually no responsibility for the system and push the failure off on parents and lack of money.

    All losing sight of the near certainty that the girl who had her first baby at 14, who effectively or literally missed a couple of years of school, who can read and write at maybe a sixth grade level by the time she either graduates or leaves school, has a near zero chance of ever being prosperous. All because teachers, with good intentions, think it’s more important not to stigamize her now, and don’t care that she will be stigmatized her whole life instead. I made a lot of very stupid decisions early in life, but I became successful because I was also smart enough to overcome the effects of these decisions. Most people don’t have that advantage. For every me, there are dozens of others who will never overcome, have never been taught to overcome, have never been taught to work hard, and most importantly, have never been taught that life isn’t inherently fair.

    Sorry – this is well beyond your original post.

    To tie back to that: A person who truely can’t function at a law school level, should either be taught, or asked to leave. The law school should make a choice as to which one. If a student doesn’t want to have “remedial english writing” on his law school transcript – well they can either leave law school (for which they are unprepared anyway), or recognize it as adding value to their education. Yes, it may mean a stigma in the job market (for that first job), but life is NOT fair and some people, for reasons that may not be in their control, will have to work twice as hard as other people to get to the same level. That fact can never be just wished away.

    That said, LRW programs tend to take a back seat to everything else taught in the first year, but ultimately are the most important skills training that a lawyer will ever get. No where near enough practice writing and researching in a lawyerly way is involved. And some sort of REAL moot-court type practice should be mandatory (not the minimalist LRW style moot court, that is purely motivated by a need to sort people for the moot court teams in the upper years). You’d be amazed at some of the briefs I have read – writen by lawyers who cite overruled cases, cases which are being used for their dicta, cases which don’t even say what the lawyer asserts they do because the lawyer cited the discussion of the lower court rather than the holding here. Lawyers and even judges using dicta as precedent is a HUGE problem, and seems to often be a key factor in creating new bad law. A lawyer should not be able to get through three years of law school with no more than LRW propping up this most critical skillset.

  9. michael says:

    To address only your last paragraph: I think this view — which may lawyers share — suffers from litigator myopia. There is no doubt that a big fraction of our graduates will be litigators. But there’s also no doubt that a very substantial portion will not be. The case for making future tax lawyer or estate planner take mandatory advanced moot court is exactly the same as the case for making future litigators take mandatory estate planning and making both groups take admiralty. Our grads go on to do a very wide variety of things. Different preparations are ideal depending on their plans (and then plans change…). It is not reasonable to optimize the curriculum for one specialization at the expense of all the others. Rather, especially in a large law school such as ours, after a common foundation in the very basics (the first year, plus a very few later requirements) we present an academic smorgasbord and invite students — adults, all — to pick and choose based on their interests and expectations.

  10. Vic says:

    But should a person be able to get through three years of law school without EVER having to write a motion or a real memo of law? (Trust me the LRW “briefs” are about as realistic as Lady GaGa)

    While I agree that “Advanced LRW” would be litigator centered, that’s not a bad thing:

    1). Even non-litigators (not necessarily all, but many) have legal writing as part of their job. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a legal brief written by a non litigator that barely made an argument for something, much less addressed the obvious counter-arguments. Makes me wonder why we even need lawyers for some of those jobs.

    2). Non-litigators are sometimes called upon by litigators to assist in complex cases. When that happens, it is often quite frustrating for litigators to deal with lawyers who just don’t know how to form an argument or write a legal brief. Law school sometimes tends to emphasize agreements and compromises between parties. While litigation may get there, a big part of HOW it gets there is good argument. I had a recent client get absolutely furious because a specialist lawyer we needed for his problem kept arguing that the other side was right. (frankly, they were, but you still make the argument you can – you don’t just throw up your hands and give up!)

    3). Non-litigators STILL need to be able to research effectively. Legal research training is almost entirely lacking in law school, unless you seek it out. Way back when I had my LRW class, the problem was such that all you had to do was go to a digest, look up a couple of obvious key words, and the work was done. The “case” was carefully crafted to be self contained within the digest listing, and we were constrained from straying afield. As a litigator, I look back at it now and see that it was basically a worthless class. All it really taught was that there IS a library, the ARE digests that can sometimes help (but which must always be looked beyond), and there’s some required form to legal writing. Because of the carefully constructed situation, it never even taught Sheppardizing a case (I had to figure that one out on my own).

    While these may be lesser used skills among non-litigators, I think that a more intensive LRW that actually TAUGHT LRW would be at least as helpful to everyone as Mediation & ADR (courses which get a lot of emphasis at some schools).

    Oh, and EVERYONE should be required to take Administrative Law. Especially now. I’ve seen more than one case go south because neither the judge, nor the other lawyer, actually understood Admin Law. Individual Rights Con Law would be a plus too (I don’t think this is usually a required course anywhere – Miami?).

    I do applaud Miami Law for what it is doing to revamp LRW though.

  11. michael says:

    I think everyone should be required to do a sustained piece of legal analysis culminating in written work product in order to graduate from law school. But that does NOT mean a brief. Indeed, UM, like many law schools, has a writing requirement as a perquisite to graduation. This requirement can be satisfied in many ways, including student notes for journals, seminar papers, independent writing projects, and certain workshop papers.

    All the reasonable arguments you make for what non-litigators might need to know about litigation can just as easily be turned around to become arguments about what litigators need to know about underlying substantive law. Should we require everyone take basic tax? Secured transactions? Employment discrimination (lots of lawsuits there…)? And so on.

    And, yes, I do think almost everyone in their right mind should take Administrative Law, but I don’t see it as any more fundamental than, say, Business Associations (aka ‘Corporations’ in some law schools), and we don’t require that either, just recommend it. Start requiring everything I think most people should take in law school, and you’ve chewed up pretty much everything but the last semester of law school.

  12. Vic says:

    Well maybe one telling indication of what should be required is what is required on the Bar Exams of the various states. While a very good argument can be made that the Bar Exams are largely a jump-through-the-filtering-hoop exercise, they can sometimes be a good indication (topically) of what the profession thinks is important. You will find such things as Tax law, business law, advanced fed or state Civ Pro, advanced Con Law, Crim, Trusts & Estates, etc. I’m not sure that it would really be a wasted exercise to start requiring some of the more basic of these professional skillsets.

    Certainly some sort of complex statute-based class would be helpful to ANY lawyer. (I know it would have been helpful for the drafters of some of these monstrosities!)

    On the other hand, you will learn far more about any subject (including all the required ones like Torts, Contracts, Property, etc), while studying for the Bar Exam than you will ever learn in the purposely inefficiant teaching model used in law schools, so maybe it is better to just leave well enough alone on requirements. As you note, it’s a slippery slope for sure!

    Given my Druthers though, I would add some variant of Business associations to the “should be required” list. Not sure immediately if the concepts of agency and fiduciary duty -basics for any lawyer – are really taught elsewhere. Maybe in a Trusts class.

    On a personal note: I’m glad you seem to be getting better, though I have no doubt it’s still difficult. Are you ever going to give us an account of what happened?

  13. Law Grad says:

    I agree with the Professor about the name of the program. A bit cheesy. But whatever.

    This is a good change because of the student-faculty ratio. It’s also good because there will, as the Professor wrote, be more consistency among instructors.

    That said, it’s important not to have unrealistic expectations about what any such program may accomplish. There’s only so much one can learn in a year; learning to write well takes years. As long as the program gives students a good introduction to the basics of legal writing, then it’ll be a success.

  14. Great Law Group says:

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