Teaching summarizing to LLM students: Some recent thoughts

i-love-to-summarizeAs I’ve discussed in a previous post, teaching LLM students to summarize can be deceivingly difficult. Summarizing requires control of language as well as an intuitive understanding of what is expected the relevant audience in a summary. Additionally, it’s difficult to explain to others how we learned to summarize–somehow we just learned it–and that, in turn, tends to further inhibits our ability to teach summarizing to others.

And now I have one more layer of complexity to add that I hadn’t previously considered: The category of “summary” actually consists of a number of different kinds of summaries, each with their own purposes, contexts, structures, styles, and expectations.

The source of this new thought (for me) was a presentation I recently watched (viewable on YouTube) titled “Teaching Effective and Varied Summarizing” by Ann M. Johns, Professor Emerita of Linguistics and Writing Studies at San Diego State University. In the presentation, Professor Johns makes a point of listing some common summary forms in the academic community such as a functional summary detailing the structure of a written or spoken text, the one-sentence summary of content (often of a paragraph or paragraphs which can lead to a full summary of the text), an abstract, a problem/solution summary, an argument summary, a plot/story summary, a summary + critique, and synthesis, among other types.

As I contemplated this list of summary types, I started to think and wonder about the types of summaries relevant to the law student discourse community. A case brief was the first and most obvious to pop into my mind. Also, a summary of facts in a legal memo as well as a summary of relevant cases and a summary of the memo’s recommendation.

But I’m about 20 years removed from my law student days. So I decided to ask three JD students and one LLM student to keep a “summary journal” for a week or so during which time they were to list any instances where they summarized something in connection with their law school work and activities. The results are in the chart below. Columns 2 (Summary type) and 3 (Situation/Context) contain the words of the students. Column 1 (Category) is my attempt to categorize the information they provided me.

Category Summary type Situation/Context
Application – summary of information needed List of documents supporting the application Bar Exam
Class preparation – argument summary Summary of my argument to answer some questions for class Civ Pro
Class preparation – Case brief 2 Case Brief for class Civ Pro
Class preparation – Case brief 2 Case Brief for class Intro US law
Class preparation – Case brief 7 Case Brief for class Contract Law
Class preparation – Case brief Briefed Cases: summarized the facts and reasoning of cases assigned for Evidence class. Evidence
Class preparation – Case brief Summarized 13 cases for Intellectual Property class – summarized facts; summarized procedural history; summarized legal reasoning Intellectual Property class
Class preparation – Case brief Summarized 11 cases for Business Organizations class – facts, legal reasoning Business Organizations class
Class preparation – concept map Concept map Civ Pro Civ Pro
Class preparation – Role Play Summary of the background fact and of the argument for the Role play Transnational Legal Practice
Class preparation – Rule summary Rule for Venue Civ Pro
Class preparation – summary of reading Summary of the material to prepare for class Transnational Legal Practice
Class preparation – Summary of reading Chapter Reading: summarized chapter reading by taking notes on the chapter while reading International Law and Legal Research textbook. International Law; Legal Research & Writing
Class preparation – Summary of reading Summarized class readings to help answer questions for in-class worksheet (class not specified)
Exam preparation – flash cards Flash card for midterm real property Applied Legal Analysis
Exam preparation – outline Outline Real Property Applied Legal Analysis
Exam preparation – outline Outline Venue Civ Pro
In-class – Note taking Notes during the Role Play in class Transnational Legal Practice
Moot Court – facts summary Summarized fact pattern for international moot court competition. Moot Court
Work – Client conversation summary Summarized what occurred during a meeting with one of my clients and an ADA of Queens County. Internship
Work – Client conversation summary Phone Call Reports: summarized the substance conversations that transpired with a client over a telephone call. Internship
Work – Progress/Status Report Clinic Weekly Reflection: summarized the work done and progress made on each of my cases in the Consumer Justice for the Elderly Litigation Clinic. Clinic
Work – Progress/Status Report Summarized what I did at my internship during the previous week – tasks completed; research conducted; results Internship
Work – Summary of legal research Legal Research Memo: Summarized legal research performed on a specific issue in a client’s case and produced a memo summarizing that research and conclusions. Legal Research & Writing

What to take away from this list? One big takeaway, at least for my teaching purposes, is that law students summarize a lot. This may seem obvious to many of us. But for new LLM students, being able to show them a list like this can have great impact. They often view “legal English” in terms of vocabulary. But a list like this will help me better illustrate to them that legal English requires a great deal of summarizing. It is an indispensable skill that can never be practiced enough.

Additionally, one of the patterns that pops out is how much summarizing relates to class preparation, and specifically to case briefing. This knowledge comforts me as I have been spending a great deal of time digging into the discourse and language of both court opinions and case briefs. I not only explain the concept of case briefing, but I expose my students to multiple case briefs written by different authors for a given case. I want them to see and read multiple samples of the variety of ways that facts are summarized, that issues are written, and that arguments are summarized in order to help them absorb the language they will need to write similar summaries. However, it also makes me more aware that a summary of the facts is a different form of summarizing than a summary of the analysis, and the two forms will have different characteristics.

Finally, the list seems to present additional forms of summary to focus on in future curriculum development that were not previously on my radar screen. Summaries of client conversations and legal research as well as outlining strike me as particularly useful summary forms to teach explicitly. Once a particular category of summary is selected as a focus, then authentic samples can be gathered or generated with the help of JD students and then analyzed to determine the characteristics worthy of being noticed by non-native speaking LLM students.

This is just a first step, of course.The above list only represents the summarizing activity of four students over a one-week period. I plan to continue to gather summary information from law students and analyze it further. And I would be happy to aggregate it with any information gathered or contributed by others who read this post and then share it on this blog at a later point. So please feel free to contact me if you’re interested in collaborating. I plan on posting more on this topic in the future.

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