Kathleen S. Bean's blog

Kathy's Excellent Adventure at Legal Aid, at Work in the Classroom

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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!

A Professor Working in a Law Office?!

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A law professor helping out in a law office?  Can that work?  

Well, from the law professor’s perspective, at least, the answer is yes.

Two years ago Jeff Been, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Louisville proposed the Brandeis Partners for Justice Fellowship, a partnership between the University of Louisville’s School of Law and Legal Aid.  A faculty member from the law school spends a block of time at Legal Aid during the academic year or summer term. The arrangement lets the faculty member get familiar with some of the issues facing our graduates and others at Legal Aid, and also provides a reminder of what the daily practice of law is like.  In turn, the faculty member has the opportunity to contribute a bit to the mission at Legal Aid. 

I’m in my third week as the Brandeis Fellow at the Louisville Legal Aid Society and, thanks to the great staff at Legal Aid, thus far there has been plenty for me to do.  Several tasks have come my way because of my teaching specialty, which is legal writing.  Thus I’m busy revising the office manual for case handlers and working to reorganize a tenants’ rights manual for the housing unit.  I’ve also had the opportunity to look at some documents drafted by staff members, which provides a reminder to me of the volume of writing that lawyers produce in the practice of law.  

I’ve done some quick research projects, which I always enjoy, and am working on a more substantial issue that will take some time.  And yes, I’m already thinking, “Wow, this would be a good topic for an article.”  I may be doing some community outreach – contacting organizations that provide services to low-income individuals to explain some of the services available at Legal Aid.  Plus, just this week one of the lawyers let me tag along to district court, where the lawyer had two cases scheduled.  Both were quick and noncontroversial, but it was fun to be in the courtroom and watch the proceedings.

I am the second UofL Law School professor to participate in the Brandeis Partners for Justice Fellowship program – the first was Grosscurth Professor of Law John Cross.  John worked with the Legal Aid Society's consumer law unit to organize and conduct workshops on bankruptcy for over 100 clients.  I’m sure John will agree that the Partners for Justice Fellowship is a great opportunity.  I am confident I am gaining a fresh perspective that I can take into the classroom when I next teach.

I’ll try to provide an occasional update!