A long-winded discussion of summaries and paraphrasing

I have been working with my new international LL.M. students on summarizing and paraphrasing skills, to get them ready for a first research memorandum assignment.  I decided to spend some time on this because I have noticed that even when writing a single case brief exercise, some students do not feel free to depart from the court’s words. As a result, students can spend hours wrestling 6 pages of case law into a 3-page summary that really only needs to be a few ordered dots of thought the size of an index card.  So we have been working to condense information into different styles of case briefs, using the same legal text until they feel comfortable putting the case aside and writing main points from memory.

Stephen spied one of my latest worksheets, and we started an email discussion about how to distinguish the two concepts in a meaningful way, to make students aware of how we expect them to manipulate source material in writing assignments. Finally, I arrived at this, which I think will work. I am interested in learning how other instructors introduce and practice these ideas with the class.  Continue reading

Article: “St. John’s LL.M. Programs Stand Out With Language Support From Day One”

Here’s an article that was just posted on the St. John’s website today that provides some context and an overview of our language support capabilities in connection with our LLM programs.

“St. John’s LL.M. Programs Stand Out With Language Support from Day One”

Rui “Barry” Zhang smiles broadly as he explains one of the big differences between his legal education at China Youth University of Political Studies (CYU) in his native Beijing and the education he’s receiving as a graduate student in St. John’s Master of Laws (LL.M.) program. “In China, it’s like they give you a map and tell you to go find the treasure,” he says. “Here, they give you the treasure and you draw the map.”

It’s a treasure hunt that couldn’t be undertaken, Zhang adds, without the practical skills that he and his LL.M. classmates gain through the Law School’s exceptional language support—or Legal English—programs.

These offerings are specially designed to meet the needs of students in St. John’s Transnational Legal Practice (TLP) and U.S. Legal Studies (USLS) LL.M. programs, who earned (or are earning) their first law degree outside the United States. TLP students typically

CLICK HERE to read the rest of the article.

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

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.

 

Reading Support in Law School

We recently decided to set up a Reading Support program for our LLM students. This was in response to a recent conversation I had with a student I had taught in our summer course who is now full swing into our LLM coursework. Her comment echoed the challenges that a number of her classmates have voiced: It’s hard to keep up with and comprehend all the reading.

In particular, she cited Continue reading

Bar Exam Language Support Course: Things we learned

Professor Kathryn Piper and I just finished the Bar Exam Language Support (BELS) course this past week and we wanted to share a few takeaways and things we learned given that this is a new course and, we believe, the first ever bar prep course at a law school that incorporates language learning pedagogy and perspective.

  1. Working with familiar topics: By using bar exam prep questions that the students had already studied and written answers for in a separate bar preparation course, we cleared away most of the obstacle that is background knowledge. This meant that we had the luxury of being able to truly focus on helping them with their writing. If we had used unfamiliar questions, and they in turn wrote poor answers due to lack of comprehension of the question or topic, or inability to remember the rule, then we would not have been evaluating their writing, but rather their knowledge or their comprehension. And it would have meant that we would have spent time teaching the relevant bar exam topic rather than working on writing. Working with familiar topics to enable a better focus on writing opened the door to identify and work on the actual writing issues faced by our non-native English speaking students (NNES).
  2. Speed is king: By the end of the first day of class, discussion of the bar exam writing process with our students made clear to us that speed and language processing were the biggest challenges for our students, all of whom were NNES. The speed issue manifests itself Continue reading