Article: Shifting frames to construct a legal English class

I want to share a really interesting article titled Shifting frames to construct a legal English class which was published in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes. The article was written by Marta Baffy, Director of the Two-Year LLM Program and Senior Lecturer in Legal English at Georgetown Law.

I first met Marta after watching her presentation on this topic at the Language and Social Interaction (LANSI) Conference at Columbia Teachers College a couple years ago, so I was excited to see the article in published form. Also, I apparently made a comment to her after her presentation that was salient enough that she felt moved to include it in one of her footnotes. So I’m excited about that as well since it is the first time I’ve ever been part of a footnote to my knowledge.

Below is an abstract of the article and also a little more information about Marta. Continue reading

What part of the case brief?

The other day in class, working with another one of the Lefkowitz v. Great Minneapolis Surplus Store, Inc. case briefs, I again asked the students what tense they noticed in the Issue section. The students pointed to past tense in the two questions conveniently labeled (1) and (2). But then there was an additional sentence that followed on the next line:

Defendant contends that it was a “unilateral offer” which could be withdrawn at any time without notice.

 A student correctly pointed out that present tense was being used. But then I asked, “Where’s the question in this statement?” The students talked for a minute and quickly concluded that that statement really didn’t belong in the Issue section.

Next question: So where does it belong? And more importantly, how do you know?

One student suggested the Facts section since it seemed to be providing information about one of the parties to the case. So I then asked, what tense do we generally find in the Facts? Past tense, yet this is present.

Also: When do the facts happen? In the past, before the trial starts. What does “contend” mean? Argue. When do you argue? During the trial. Hence, this sentence should not be in the Facts section. Continue reading

The legal “Issue” of present tense vs. past tense

case-briefFacts: Earlier today, I was teaching LLM students about reading and briefing cases. The previous week they had examined a number of case briefs and noticed various features and characteristics. For example, after reviewing the Facts section of several case briefs, they were able to confidently conclude that nearly all verbs were in the past tense. This will help them be cognizant of tense when they write the Facts sections of their own briefs, and it will also give them a grammar-based strategy to help them more successfully identify what the facts are and are not when they read a court opinion and attempt to write a case brief.

The previous week the students also came to notice characteristics of the Issue section of the briefs. They noticed that sometimes the Issue was written in present tense and sometimes in past tense.

Today I gave them two different case briefs of the well-known Contract law case Lefkowitz v. Great Minneapolis Surplus Store, Inc. and, among other tasks, asked them to analyze and compare the Issue section of the briefs. They quickly noticed that one was past and the other was in the present.

  • Past: Did Defendant’s advertisement constitute an offer?
  • Present: Under what circumstances does an advertisement for the sale of goods constitute an offer?

Issue:

  1. How do you decide if the Issue section of your brief should be in present tense or past tense?
  2. What are the implications in terms of meaning and in terms of grammar and syntax?

Rule: Past tense is used to indicate events that already happened and are completed. Present tense is used to indicate something that is generally or always true. Continue reading

LLMs and the intersection of typing, punctuation, formatting and proofreading

snoopy-typingAs a legal English professor, my primary focus is law and language. However, I’ve also come to realize the importance of teaching and incorporating the basic skills of being what I call a “professional law student.”

I became aware early on that many of my students did not touch type, perhaps because they are accustomed to doing all of their written communications on smartphones with their thumbs. This becomes a significant obstacle when students are required to submit numerous assignments in Word documents. I point out to the students that touch typing ability can be the difference between spending 6 hours researching and 1 hour typing versus 1 hour researching and 6 hours typing.

To address this, I’ve previously required students to register on typing.com where they must practice regularly and join a class I’ve set up to monitor their progress. I then give them periodic 1- minute typing tests in class using typingtest.com and track their progress. This has led to modest gains.

Additionally, I’ve seen the various ways that punctuation can be confusing for students in formal, academic writing. This confusion carries over into not just when to use which punctuation marks, but also formatting and spacing with regard to commas, periods, parentheses, quotation marks, etc. An interesting example: Professor Piper and I have both noticed that students often believe that the purpose of quotation marks is for emphasis as opposed to indicating the words of others. (Though based on our current President’s tweets, it’s clear they are not alone in this misperception.)

Further on the topic of formatting, I recently realized that two of my students were not recognizing the difference between text in italics and plain text. Italics is not just for aesthetics. It communicates something to a reader. It can indicate emphasis, or the word is a term of art, or a title of a publication, or a Latin word.

As a result, I’ve designed a new approach to helping students improve their typing that also is helping with punctuation and proofreading. I call it the Typing Challenge. I give the students several printed pages of a legal text. It could be a textbook, a case book, a legal memorandum, a law review article, a statute, etc. Each week the students must type at least 100 words. For every additional 100 words they receive bonus points. However, the catch is that if there are more than 3 errors, they receive no credit for their work.

My teaching assistant, a 2nd year JD student, checks each one and provides feedback and comments using track changes (another important tool for students to become familiar with if they are not already). Errors can be for formatting, spacing, wrong font, different sized fonts, not noticing italics, capitalization, paragraph alignment, etc. in addition to spelling. This has forced students to pay close attention to all of these issues and becomes a noticing exercise for them. It also helps us flush out any misconceptions by the students. For example, some students will indent a paragraphs by hitting the space bar several times not realizing they should use the Tab button. One student included a hyphen in the middle of a word becausehe saw it used in a word that carried over to the next line.

This process also of course gets students in the habit of proofreading and familiar with the expectation of proofreading, all while giving them a chance to work on and improve their typing.

The result has been better awareness of spelling, punctuation, and formatting issues in their other submitted assignments. And the real beauty of it is that I spend very little actual class time on this!

Merry Christmas from your lawyer

Not just an accessible example of American legal humor, but a great example of American-style contract language and culture. It’s also giving me ideas for new activities around teaching English for contract reading and drafting as we get ready for 2017.

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Wishing everyone a happy and safe holidays and New Year from the St. John’s Legal English team!

Bar Exam Language and Strategies: Mirroring and reverse rule writing

Today’s BELS (Bar Exam Language & Strategies) class was exciting because we (Professor Piper and I) tried out a new innovation in teaching IRAC writing to our students in the BELS academic support program.

Last week as we reviewed the students’ bar essays, we noticed that often the rules in their Rule section didn’t match well with what they discussed in their Application/Analysis section. Some students discussed, mid-analysis, elements or definitions that they did not introduce when they explained the applicable rule. So we tried to make the point that the Rule section is like a menu, and the Analysis/Application section when you order and eat. You can’t order anything if it’s not already on the menu.

We also tried to emphasize the concept of mirroring the language from the rule in the application. More specifically, Professor Piper talked about linguistic mirroring (incorporating into the analysis section the exact words and phrases of the legal standard identified in the rules) in addition to structural mirroring (applying, to some degree, every element introduced in the rules, in roughly the same order of introduction). For example, if the rule is that there is a duty to act as a reasonably prudent person, then the application should say something like, “Here, when the defendant jumped into the street to avoid the falling piano, he acted as a reasonably prudent person” rather than “Here, when the defendant jumped into the street to avoid the falling piano, he acted carefully.”

To help build awareness of mirroring, we devised an exercise wherein students had to infer and extract rules from sample analysis paragraphs.  To begin, we gave the students the Application/Analysis section from five different model answers for the same question. After presenting them with the analysis portion of each essay, we asked them to try to write the rules they think the author wrote, based on language clues  they read in the analysis. Near the end of the activity, they discussed which essays made it easier to reconstruct the author’s rule paragraphs. Finally, they matched the actual rules of the model answers to their own estimations of those model rules, and thought about which authors did the best job in mirroring their own rules in the analysis portion of each essay.  In addition to valuable practice writing out rules, the students also started to notice which model answers did a good job of mirroring. This became evident because it was much easier to reconstruct the rule when the model answer made use of mirroring.

This really drove home a sense of awareness of how much stronger a bar essay answer looks and feels when the pieces connect in a logical way that increases predictability and clarity, especially from the perspective of the person reading and grading the essay.

In this way, we continue to try to dig into the discourse and language issues unique to bar exam writing for our non-native English speaking LLM students.

Lawyer-client practice for LLM students

20161110_161115Yesterday for the second time we completed another successful U.S. Legal Studies (USLS) + Transnational Legal Practice (TLP) Program + American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) Program collaboration activity based around lawyer-client practice.


20161110_161019The activity
: The USLS and TLP students are the lawyers and the ALDA students the clients. Each lawyer is part of a group or firm of two or three lawyers. And each client is actually two or three ALDA students.  The clients are given a fact pattern which they study, review, and discuss prior to their meeting with their lawyers. The clients then join the USLS and TLP students’ Legal Writing class and are matched with their lawyers at separate tables. The lawyers then need to lead the meeting and ask questions to learn about the client’s issue. The clients tell their story (and occasionally have fun making up facts where necessary and appropriate.)

20161110_161032The lawyers have 45 minutes to try and understand the client’s situation, identify the legal issues in the fact situation and help the clients figure out who they can or can’t sue and evaluate the strength of the case.

Following the activity, a group discussion was held to reflect on the experience. Everyone had a good time and expressed appreciation for having the opportunity to step into their roles and really think through the situation.
20161110_161105For homework, the ALDA students were tasked with writing a follow-up email to their lawyers confirming their understanding of the main points of the discussion. And the TLP students have been tasked with writing a client letter describing the issues and offering their evaluation and recommendations for how to proceed.

20161110_095808This is an activity that will certainly continue each semester as the students greatly enjoy
it and derive great benefit in terms of experience, critical thinking, and language use.