Legal Writing: Connecting IRAC, syllogisms and analogies for LLM students

This past week for the frist time I did a full unit of syllogism and analogy activities with my legal writing students to prepare them for the concepts and language of IRAC-style writing. And it not only went very well–it also taught me something new.

Previously, I had taught the concept of IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis/Application, Conclusion) first and then had the students work on it through the Jogger/Banana Peel question. This question is the vehicle through which I have been teaching students IRAC-style discourse as well as the written language of that discourse. It involves a jogger who throws a banana peel on the beach after passing a sign that indicates a fine for “littering.” A police officer sees this and has to decide whether to issue a ticket, remembering that her supervisor did give a ticket to someone who threw a candy bar wrapper on the ground but did not give a ticket to someone who poured coffee on the ground.

In my approach, the students come to understand the IRAC concepts and signal words, but they still struggled in many ways with the underlying style of argument expected. For example, they would see the exercise as a simple application of a rule. The jogger littered; there’s a rule against littering; hence, the jogger should get a ticket. To not give a ticket would be to undermine rule of law and all that is good in our society, etc. Or, if they focus on the coffee and the candy bar wrapper, they make conclusory statements without really explaining or showing how those ideas connect. (Or rather, they don’t do it in a way that meets expectations for our writer-responsible writing culture.) Continue reading

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: Continue reading

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

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.” Continue reading

Teaching legal thinking to LLM students: Oral vs. written

SocratesAs I continue to work through the “multiple model answer approach” in my experiment with teaching legal writing to LLM students this semester (aka the banana peel/jogger question), I’ve also begun exposing the students to multiple recorded oral model answers for the same question. That is, I’ve recorded a number of native English speaking law students (or law school graduates) answering the the banana peel/jogger question.

I’ve incorporated the recordings by assigning the students one recording at a time for homework. The students are also provided with a transcript of the recording (typed by me) that they initially review for comprehension and also to try and identify the IRAC components. Then they are required to Continue reading

Experiments in Teaching Legal Writing: Getting students to write more

morecowbellOne of the challenges I’ve noticed with my students’ writing is getting them to write in greater volume. I’m not sure if it’s a cultural issue, or simply the way these particular students learned about writing.

The issue has been particularly noticeable in the “Summary of the Day” activity. The students, in their summaries of the prior day’s class, inevitably include far less information and detail than I, as a reader in a higher education environment, would expect. And the same applies so far in their answers to the critical thinking question about the jogger who throws away the banana peel on the beach and whether that’s considered littering.

I think this happens in part because my students are from cultures that (as I understand it) tend to be less explicit. Or if it’s not a cultural issue in that sense, they’re definitely not familiar with the level of explicitness expected in American law school.

Regardless, the conclusion I’ve reached is  Continue reading

Experiments in Teaching Legal Writing: The Natural Academic Method

bananapeelThis semester I’ve decided to try a new approach to teaching legal writing and critical thinking to my students in the ALDA Program. I’m getting ready to begin the experiment next week, but I thought it might be fun to introduce it here and then share my experience with it as I go. Any and all suggestions, comments, and perspectives will be extremely welcome as it evolves.

The idea is to work with a very simple, straightforward legal-ish critical thinking question that students must write a response to. The question–taken from Legal Analysis: 100 Exercises for Legal Mastery, Practice for Every Law Student (which was recommended to me originally by my colleague Professor Jane Scott)–involves a jogger at the beach who throws a banana peel on the ground. A police officer sees this and has to decide whether to issue a ticket for littering, taking into account that she previously observed her supervisor issue a ticket to someone who threw a candy bar wrapper on the ground while not issuing a ticket to someone who poured coffee on the ground.

The experimental part is Continue reading