Introducing Writing Critique

One challenge of introducing international LL.M. students to legal writing is coaxing them to evaluate and comment on examples of English writing. This is a necessarycritique practice in my writing course; students look at model answers for format and organization, notice cohesive devices and subject headings, and read examples of strong and weak analysis to compare to their own work. Students also conduct peer reviews, and revise and resubmit drafts of their work, incorporating comments from the professor and their
teaching assistants. So, students should start learning to critique, and to respond to critique, early in the course.

Critique is often daunting to international students, I think for two reasons. First, they do not have enough confidence in their English writing and reading skills to believe they can improve upon any example. Second, they  might feel uncomfortable finding fault with a classmate’s work, particularly if that classmate is a lawyer, judge, or other professional in their home country.

So a few weeks ago, I decided I’d have my new class start with me.  After a session discussing case briefs, noticing “canned” brief examples, and breaking down a case into its parts, students are ready to write their first case brief. I haul out a dog-eared, ink-smeared copy of my first assignment from law school writing class: a case brief.  It is short on analysis, and long on irrelevant facts. It is long in general.

I ask them what they think of my work.   One pipes up, “It is good work, professor.”

“Oh? Thank you, but look again.  How long is this thing?”

They flip the pages.

“More than two pages.”

“Right . . . How many sentences do you see in the facts?”

I wait while they count and report the number.

“Okay . . . and how long is the analysis section?”

I don’t have to wait as long for their reply.

“Right. So, if we were classmates in this class, and the professor asked us to do a ‘peer review’ today, what suggestions would you give me to make this a better case brief?”

Now I get replies like, “maybe explain the court’s reasons more” or “I don’t think you have to write as many facts.”

In about 10 minutes, they’ve done the unthinkable: Critiqued a professor’s writing, in their non-native language. We continue, offering strategies about how they can avoid the same mistakes I made, and then I assign their first brief.

Flash-forward to two weeks later: A first-semester student bounces into my office to tell me she “sees something strange” (a typo) in my writing assignment. It seems the class is growing comfortable with this critique idea.

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