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

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 Continue reading