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

Presenting at Southeastern Association of Law Schools Conference on Tues 8/1

On Tuesday, August 1 at 10:15 a.m. I will have the honor of being part of a panel discussion at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Conference. The panel, organized by Kirsten Schaetzel of Emory Law school, is titled “International Learners and Legal Writers: Pitfalls and Promising Practices” and also includes Marta Baffy of the Georgetown University Law Center and Catherine Schenker of American University, Washington College of Law

I will be speaking specifically about ideas and approaches for teaching IRAC (Issue Rule Application Conclusion) discourse to non-native English speaking LLM students in ways that incorporate ESL concepts and pedagogy. 

This is my first time attending SEALS and needless to say I am very excited amd looking forward to it as well as the chance to interact with and learn from colleagues at other law schools. 

Here is a full description of the panel:

At many law schools today, the number of international students is increasing. These students come from different legal and educational systems and may have trouble understanding and learning the conventions of American legal discourse. This panel, composed of legal writing and English as a Second Language specialists from various law schools, examines areas in legal writing that may be troublesome for non-native English students. Beginning with an overview of cultural differences in writing conventions and expectations, panelists present how they teach different aspects of American legal writing. Panelists cover teaching summaries of legal rules and their various sources of law; IRAC discourse organization and answering essay exam questions; and understanding fact-pattern exercises and responding to them. 

If you happen to be attending, then hopefully we will see each other. Stay tuned for a post conference report. 

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

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

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

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