Kathy's Excellent Adventure at Legal Aid, at Work in the Classroom
My time at Legal Aid is over. The first lesson I learned was that most lawyers are too busy to blog! But now that I’m back in my faculty office, I’ve had more time to reflect on my experience and how it might influence my teaching.
While I don’t currently plan to dramatically change how or what I teach, my experience confirmed the importance of several topics I cover in Basic Legal Skills (our school’s first year legal writing course). Some of these I will continue to emphasize. At least two or three of them will get some increased emphasis.
Organization. I am more convinced than ever that organization is the most important skill to teach in Basic Legal Skills. Lawyers produce a variety of documents regularly and they must often write these documents quickly. They do not have time to revise and edit as much as a student does (or at least can). Judges often anticipate standard organizational patterns when they begin to read, e.g., IRAC or some variation of IRAC for a fact-based analysis. These standard organizations are expected because they are usually the most efficient and effective. Lawyers who use these patterns thus make it easier for the judges to follow their arguments. In turn, the arguments can often survive the small lapses that are inevitable with the time pressures of practice.
Headings. I was also reminded of the great number of short motions lawyers file and how quickly judges skim these at motion hour. This reminder will make me focus more on the importance of headings, even in, and perhaps especially in, short documents. It also reinforces how important organization is.
Thesis paragraphs and topic sentences. Along with the importance of well-drafted headings, I was also reminded of the weight that can be carried by well-written thesis paragraphs and topic sentences. I was often asked to review documents that needed to be filed that same day. I always turned to thesis paragraphs and topic sentences, including headings. Again, judges – especially trial court judges – read quickly. Skimming should be anticipated by the writer. Thesis paragraphs and topic sentences, including point headings, are likely the starting point for a judge, and if these are poorly drafted, they might also be the ending point. They should thus be crafted with care, to get the major points across and further, to encourage the judge to read more.
Theme or story. Unlike student work in Basic Legal Skills, which is always about facts and law I know well, the documents I reviewed while at Legal Aid, both long and short, were about clients, law, and facts not familiar to me. The most compelling arguments I read had theme or story that came across to the reader. Even in some very short documents, the best of them included theme or story that provided an overriding big-picture point for their arguments. This is one area I will emphasize more in my teaching next year.
Preparation matters. Finally, I saw situations where lawyers didn’t necessarily have the strongest case, but they had the best preparation. Preparation is often rewarded, especially by judges who are moving quickly. My students should anticipate some increased emphasis here!