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It’s 9:20 p.m. on a Thursday night, and I stare at the glazed-over eyes of my students as they sit limply behind their laptops in a small, fluorescent-lit classroom at American University’s Washington College of Law. I am standing at the front of the room trying to teach citation. As for the students, I can tell they are counting the minutes until they can go home. I look at what I have written on the board: 124 S. Ct. 2531 (2004). How do I make the basic elements of a case citation interesting? After all, we law school professors know that learning how to write well is as important a skill as these students will ever learn, and the ability to communicate clearly is crucial to their success as lawyers, whether they become human rights activists, corporate lawyers or public defenders. And while the students might not agree just yet, most of the legal world understands the growing importance of writing well. In return, law schools are working harder to produce lawyers who can do just that. Increasingly, the push for better writing is coming from the outside. “The demand for improved writing is coming not just from the profession but from our clients,” notes Jeremy Mullem, a full-time legal writing instructor at Washington College of Law. Clients “will recognize shoddy or lazy writing for what it is, and providers of services recognize that they have to improve quality.” THE REAL WORLD So what are law schools doing? One specific trend is that schools are recognizing the kinds of writing real lawyers actually do. As a result, they’re shifting the focus away from litigation-related writing — traditionally the center of many writing courses — and toward other, developing areas of the law, such as intellectual property, digital and Internet law, and communications law. Since not every lawyer goes into litigation, schools are now offering courses that include components of contract drafting and negotiations. “A significant number of students are looking for more client-centered introductions to legal skills,” Mullem notes. In addition, they are asking for “particular introductions to things like transactional drafting.” Christy Desanctis, the director of the George Washington University Law School‘s legal writing program, says that GW is adding a negotiation component to the legal writing curriculum. This is in response to “complaints that [the curriculum] is largely litigation-based,” she says. “We’re trying to build in other fields that are universal enough so that everybody’s going to need it, but it speaks to the people who aren’t die-hard litigation-focused.” At Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, legal writing instructors “consistently emphasize, through a variety of real-world practical assignments, that excellent writing is the number-one professional skill required of the calling — regardless of the actual job,” says Victor Williams, co-head of the legal writing program. For instance, students spend the first semester learning the basics of legal writing and then track an actual Supreme Court case during the spring semester. The students read through the entire record of the case and then draft a Supreme Court brief. The classes hold mock oral arguments on the case and then attend the actual oral argument when the case comes before the Supreme Court. At George Mason University Law School, Alison Price, head of the legal writing program, breaks her class up into “law firms” and has her students “representing clients.” She finds that this makes the students feel like real lawyers. One of the ways that law schools are finding are most successful in introducing students to the real types of writing they will do as lawyers is to hire practicing lawyers to teach courses as adjunct professors. Both the George Washington University Law School and AU’s Washington College of Law encourage their adjunct legal writing professors to be creative in bringing their own experience into the classroom. WCL’s Mullem says that adjuncts have “great latitude” in deciding the best way to teach some of the material and “some adjunct instructors will wind up substituting materials that they’ve found or developed for some of our materials.” D.C.-area law schools, after all, benefit from a corps of accomplished lawyers who are practicing at a high level in government or private practice and who also enjoy teaching. George Washington University and the Washington College of Law both have adjunct-heavy programs. “Using adjunct faculty can be very valuable,” Mullem says. “What adjunct instructors bring is everyday, real-world [legal] experience, [which] I think can be extraordinarily useful for law students.” Adjunct legal writing faculty can give students an idea of what legal writing techniques work. Desanctis says that GW has increased the amount of training for the adjunct faculty to “increase uniformity” in the way the curriculum is taught. Since the GW program has 45 adjunct legal writing professors, Desanctis says ensuring consistency in assignments and topics covered across the sections is important. But at the same time, she says, “We give the adjuncts the flexibility to carry out the syllabus in their own way and bring as much of their practical experience as possible into the classroom.” In addition to using practicing lawyers to bring a real-world flavor to writing courses, some schools are simply increasing the amount of time devoted to writing. George Mason University Law School, for instance, has introduced a four-semester writing program, rather than the usual two semesters. The first semester offers a basic introduction to legal writing, while the second concentrates on pretrial forms of writing. For instance, in the second semester, students do a client interview and draft interrogatories. This system also works well for students, says Price of George Mason, because they “do a lot of things that they may do in their first-year summer jobs.” The third semester focuses on appellate writing, and the fourth semester is a drafting class, in which students draft client letters, contracts, and settlement agreements. They also do a negotiation exercise. George Mason hopes to make at least some of the drafting classes area-focused, with one class that deals with intellectual property, and another with litigation. ALWAYS PAINFUL Law schools are also expending more energy in the art of persuasion — convincing the students themselves that writing matters. Part of the built-in difficulty of writing programs in law schools is the general setup: At most schools writing is only a two-credit course with an enormous workload. In writing classes students are expected to write papers, take citation quizzes, do research assignments, and participate in team activities. “Legal writing is always going to be painful for everybody because it is a small amount of credit and a lot of work,” Price notes. Part of the task, then, is to “give the students more a sense of appreciation” for writing, says Price. “It’s easier to teach when students are interested, and when they’re interested, they’ll challenge themselves and the material to a much greater degree,” adds Mullem. At WCL, the legal writing faculty “work hard from day one to convince the students that writing is important,” he says. At the school’s first-year orientation program, a judge, a practicing lawyer, and an upper-division law student all talk about the fundamental skill of writing. All that persuasion might be paying off. Despite all their complaining, Mullem says, “Ninety percent of our students need little convincing that writing is important. The problem they usually have is balancing the demands of a rigorous research and writing course with those of their other classes. However, the thing that really ‘sells’ writing for most students is their understanding that it is the critical skill employers will expect them to possess.” Williams of Catholic University says that students are starting to get the message. “What I’m finding in the past couple of years,” he says, “is that the students come in wanting and even expecting a program that will facilitate them in refining their writing overall.” Of course, most students won’t recognize the value of what they are learning until they get out into the working world. Mullem says he gets “notes and e-mails from former students saying, ‘This was really, really useful, and I was more prepared than the other law students.’” The message, he adds, is “extraordinarily rewarding to hear.” Price says that she, too, gets “a lot of good feedback” once the students have their first summer jobs. That, she says, “makes all the complaints worthwhile.” Susan Zentay is a lawyer and freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C. She is also an adjunct professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.

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