In Defense of the Legal Writing Curriculum

BY PIA OWENS

I’ll come right out and say it: I don’t think FYLRW is all that bad. Last week in The Record, Katie Mapes criticized the legal writing and research program as being simplistic, condescending, and hard to take seriously. I’ve heard other 1Ls, across multiple sections, make similar complaints. I agree with some of their points (for instance, FYLRW? We need a snappier acronym) but overall, I think the problems with the course can be fixed without dramatically revising the curriculum.

First of all, let’s talk about Neumann. Mapes isn’t the only one who hates this textbook. I agree that some of the readings aren’t particularly helpful – rewriting, good! plagiarism, bad! – but the book does contain useful information on how to write and structure legal memos and briefs. There’s no need to take offense because you feel that the level of writing insults your intelligence. Look at the content. When you’re in the middle of your memo and you realize that you have no idea how to write the rule application section, you can look to Neumann. That’s what it’s for. Neumann may not be Learned Hand, but when it’s 2 a.m. and you’re frantically flipping through those pages, you may start to appreciate the book’s simplicity.

Next, let’s consider a series of related complaints:

1) FYL is hard to take seriously, unlike substantive subjects like Contracts and Torts.

Maybe this needs to be emphasized more in class, but in terms of our legal careers, legal writing and research is probably the most crucial subject we’re taking this year. You can learn about securities or adoption or copyright on your own, if you know how to conduct research. You’re not going to get very far on that Contracts exam if you have no idea how to structure an argument. And ten years from now, you might not remember the elements of battery, but you’d better be able to analyze cases and come to a logical conclusion.

2) FYL is pass/fail.

Thank goodness for that. We’re all learning a brand-new skill here. We come from different backgrounds – some of us are excellent writers but weak on logic, others are strong on analysis but have never written a paper longer than five pages. Having FYL as a pass/fail class removes the pressure to get the highest grades possible and lets us focus on improving our skills. Besides, aren’t you freaking out enough about finishing your memo? Now imagine that you were getting a letter grade on it. Not a pretty picture, is it?

3) FYL isn’t taught by a real professor.

Who would you rather have teaching you how to write an office memo – someone who’s been writing books and law review articles for the past twenty years, or someone who has actually been in the trenches recently and has had to produce work product? Our FYL instructors are experienced practitioners who are also committed to teaching. The full professors may be brilliant, but once you get tenure, you’re probably not qualified to teach this class.

Finally, Mapes argues that the class is condescending and that students are treated like children. She gives examples: her class goes through each textbook exercise in excruciating detail; her instructor leaves names on workshop drafts to ensure that students put effort into them. I agree that treating Harvard Law students like fifth-graders is unnecessary. My experience has been totally different, so I can only assume that this is a problem in her section and not with the curriculum as a whole.

The class isn’t perfect; what class is? In fact, I have some suggestions of my own.

I’d like to see a lot more feedback, especially at the beginning of the course; when you’ve never written a memo before, it’s difficult to revise a draft without knowing what you did wrong. I know I wasn’t the only one who did a complete rewrite and then wondered whether it was better or worse than my first attempt.

I’d like class time to be used more efficiently. Each section has FYL at the end of the day – it can be hard to concentrate after a few hours of class. So keep us engaged and give us short, focused exercises to work on. Having us work together is good, but break us up into pairs instead of large groups so we don’t spend the whole time arguing.

I’d like to see Neumann used as a supplement and a reference for classwork. Instead of assigning a chapter on persuasive writing, have us try to write something using the textbook as a guide. Neumann is like a car manual: it’s only mildly interesting when you read through it, but it can be a lifesaver when you’re trying to fix something.

All of these suggestions can be implemented without huge changes in the curriculum. Sure, the instructor-student interaction may be lacking in certain sections, and the textbook is simplistic. But as a whole, the legal writing and research program isn’t broken – it just needs a tune-up.

Pia Owens, 1L, is from Watertown, MA.

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