Legal writing: Teaching analogy and comparison language to LLM students

I recently finished reading an excellent and exciting article titled Beyond Contrastive Rhetoric: Helping International Lawyers Use Cohesive Devices in U.S. Legal Writing, by Elizabeth Baldwin, a professor of legal writing who has an MA in Applied Linguistics and works with LLM students at the University of Washington School of Law. I say exciting because each page that I read seemed to open my eyes and my mind and spark new ideas about teaching legal writing to LLM students.

In the article, Elizabeth–one of the founders of the ETLEP legal English Google Group together with Alissa Hartig, Lindsey Kurtz and me following the 2015 Global Legal Skills Conference in Chicago–distinguishes between coherence (top down: does it make sense?) and cohesion (bottom up: does it feel connected and logical?) A text can be coherent, i.e., you understand what the writer is saying, yet lack cohesion, i.e., the ideas feel disjointed and unnatural in some way you can’t quite put your finger on.

The article explains how cohesion can be lexical (e.g., use of repetition and synonyms) as well as grammatical (e.g., use of conjunctive words and phrases to connect information between sentences; use of a subordinated clause to front information so that it feels connected to information in the previous sentence).

However, the article really grabbed my attention at one point when it described a particular cohesive device that involves use of the pattern: [determiner + abstract noun]. (Determiners include a, an, the, this, these, my, your, which, other, and a bunch of other words you know but just didn’t realize were determiners.) An example might be a sentence along the lines of:

“E-mails, faxes, and texts are all prohibited under the 2017 Horowitz Miscommunication Act. These forms of communication were cited by the legislature….”

In connection with this pattern, the article also discussed the concept of superordinate (i.e., categorizing) words. In other words, these abstract nouns are typically umbrella categories for more specific items or ideas listed in a previous sentence. As I started looking at an article on my computer, and as I started paying attention to the email I was in the process of writing, I began to notice and appreciate the frequency and value of this cohesive device.

I also realized that this notion of superordinate nouns was giving concrete form to something I had noticed my students tend to struggle with: analogizing and then expressing the analogy in appropriate English.

(Note: I just realized that I used a [determiner + abstract noun] at the beginning of the above sentence with “…this idea…” as a way to connect it to the description of the idea in the prior paragraph.)

In the American common law system, lawyers and law students are regularly required to analogize by comparing cases, fact situations, and legal concepts. For example, Are the facts in your client’s case more similar to Hartig v. Kurtz or Baldwin v. Horowitz? Or, in the case of a legal writing question I like to use with my students, is a banana peel thrown on the ground more similar to coffee poured on the ground (not a littering violation) or a candy bar wrapper thrown on the ground (littering violation)?

Academic and legal cultures from other countries may not require their students to engage in this type of analogizing to the same degree, and students from those countries may not have been trained in that type of analogizing. As a result, various LLM students may struggle with the language in English for analogizing and comparing. Part of that language involves a range of phrases and sentence structures such as:

  • X is similar to Y in that it….
  • Whileis blah, Y is yada
  • Whereas X and Y are both yada yada, X is blah while Y is yada…

However, another part of the language of analogy and comparison is knowing appropriate superordinates or umbrella category words to use. This is an issue of vocabulary but also requires a developed sense of how various words interrelate.

This line of thought got me thinking about SAT analogies. And it occurred to me that SAT analogies might be a great way to help students practice and develop the grammar, syntax, and superordinate vocabulary–not to mention the critical thinking skills–needed for effective analogizing.

SAT analogies are also a wonderful form of comprehensible input. That is, their stripped-down nature allows for an efficient focus specifically on the skills and language of analogy and comparison. Barriers to comprehension such as grammar, syntax, background knowledge, and extraneous vocabulary are not present.

Additionally, SAT analogies can serve as a potentially helpful tool for assessing critical thinking of LLM students. If a student understands the meaning of all the words in a series of simple analogy questions yet still struggles to get the right answers, then there might be some deeper learning issues which need to be addressed before mixing critical thinking development with language development.

With all the above in mind, let’s look at an example picked at random from a Google search:


1. law : anarchy
2. hunger : thirst
3. etiquette : discipline
4. love : treason
5. stimulant : sensitivity

The approach I’ve used so far with students is to first see if they can get the right answer. If they can, then the next step is to ask them to express the right answer in a sentence. This may require teaching them the “X is to Y as A is to B” sentence structure. This is not a sentence structure frequently encountered in legal writing or casual conversation, but it also doesn’t hurt to learn it and be aware of it. So the student would need to write:

Medicine is to illness as law is to anarchy.

The next step in my approach has been to ask the student to try and re-write the sentence in a different way, using different words and/or reorganizing the sentence. This may lead to incorrect sentences which then offers an opportunity to work through student’s language issues with them. I also come up with my own paraphrase and additionally ask several other native English speakers (i.e., colleagues and JD students) to write their own paraphrases of the same sentence in order to get a variety of appropriate answers produced by native speakers. I then give these to the students so they can review and analyze. Below, for example, are two alternative ways to express the original sentence:

  • Medicine has a relationship to illness in the same way that law has a relationship to anarchy.
  • Medicine and law are related in the same way that illness and anarchy are related.

The umbrella category step comes next. I ask the student to explain their answer in writing. This is where many students struggle, though they may not realize it. A student answer may be something like:

Medicine and law are similar because they both go with illness and anarchy.

To the student, this may sound fine. And grammatically, it is. However, in terms of logic and in terms of what we expect in an answer, the answer is not sufficient. Instead, we would expect an answer with some sort of superordinate term. For example:

  1. Medicine is a solution for illness just like law is a solution for anarchy.
  2. Medicine and law are both ways to address the problems of illness and anarchy.

This is the chance to explain to the student that they need some sort of category word in their explanation. Of course, if the students struggle to come up with appropriate category words, then the process of reading the sample sentences produced by native English speakers and identifying the superordinate terms will be helpful for building their vocabulary in this regard.

Again, it’s also helpful to get sample answers written by other native English speakers so that the students can subsequently review and analyze the vocabulary and language in order to absorb the various ways of expressing the same terms and ideas.

And what’s nice about using SAT analogies is that there are tons of SAT analogy practice questions on the web that you can find via Google. And they also often have explanations for the correct answers which themselves are great samples of explanatory language and superordinate terms as well as an opportunity for multiple exposures to this kind of language. For example, this one:

This is a classic function/purpose bridge—the purpose of MEDICINE is to prevent or cure ILLNESS. Ask yourself the following questions:

Is the purpose of LAW to prevent or cure ANARCHY, or disorder? This works, so hold on to Choice (A).
Is the purpose of PRIDE to prevent ENVY? No, in fact there is no strong connection between these two words. Eliminate.
Is the purpose of COURTESY to prevent BEHAVIOR? No, so eliminate.
Is the purpose of LOVE to prevent TREASON? No, so eliminate.
Is the purpose of a STIMULANT to prevent SENSITIVITY? No, a STIMULANT increases SENSITIVITY. Eliminate.

You could have eliminated choices (B), (C) and (D) if you had to guess for this one. None of these word pairs have a strong, defining connection. The pair of words in the stem always have a strong connection between them, and so the correct answer must as well.

Discussing the analogy with a student and subsequently having them read the above explanation can help reinforce vocabulary and grammar as well as the discourse of explanations, i.e., what information is expected in such an explanation.

Once students get the hang of this activity, it can be used as a warm-up and/or as a form of self-study outside of class. The more analogy problems and explanations that LLM students do and the more sample explanations and answers they read, the easier it will become for them to then implement the [determiner + abstract noun] cohesive device in their own writing.

Granted, this is just one of a number of cohesive devices to work on and hardly solves the cohesion issue on its own. But it can be an engaging step in the right direction. In the meanwhile, I’m going to dive back into Elizabeth’s article to see what other ideas might pop out.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment here or contact me directly with any thoughts, comments, suggestions, etc. about the topic, the activity, or the article. Also, if anyone tries out this activity or has other related activities, it would be great to hear about them.

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