Experiments in teaching legal writing: The Yogurt Precedent Phase

sc-french-vanilla-low-fat-yogurt-6oz_0When I first introduced the jogger-banana peel critical thinking question to my students, one of my strongest students commented during the class discussion that this wasn’t really legal writing. I responded that this was in fact legal writing, explaining that the “Issue Rule Analysis Conclusion” (IRAC) approach is a distinctive feature of legal discourse, it is expected by law professors in their students’ writing, and it is not typically used in other forms of academic discourse.

However, showing is always better than telling. So I’m excited–after having my students analyze, label, evaluate, and linguistically deconstruct nine different model answers to the jogger-banana peel question, plus write multiple drafts of their own answer along with a re-write arguing the other side–to introduce them tomorrow to the next phase in the process. I’ll call it the “Yogurt Precedent Phase.”

In the Yogurt Precedent Phase, the students will be given a new question very similar to the original question. Except that instead of a jogger dropping a banana peel on the beach, a hiker scoops some yogurt onto the beach. The other twist is that one of the model answers has been deemed to be a court opinion. And the students will be required to write a new answer that analyzes and factors in the banana peel court opinion.

This will hopefully be the moment where the notion of legal writing, case law and precedent start to become more clear for my students–especially for the one doubter. And I think it will become more clear for them because I’ve been able to remove major barriers of comprehension in order to let them focus on the writing process.

They have already read and discussed the “court opinion” in previous classes (without realizing it was destined to be a court opinion). They’re familiar with all of the vocabulary (e.g., how biodegradable, organic, and natural are used somewhat interchangeably yet have differences), arguments, discourse organization, and key words and phrases to signal different parts of the discourse (e.g., Issue: whether/if; Rule: present tense, not specific to the facts of the case; Analysis: phrases of comparison and contrast; Conclusion: “because”). They recognize the difference between a conclusory statement and a statement supported by argument. They’re more familiar with cohesion devices. And they have a sense of appropriate length and how to get there.

All they have to do now is think about the differences between yogurt, banana peels, and coffee. And then they can devote their primary cognitive energies to figuring out how to organize their writing to communicate their thoughts.

Of course, once they’re done with that, I’ve got a carton  of “yogurt model answers” for them to start deconstructing to help me keep the writing process smooth, organic, and helpful with language digestion.

 

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