Making Legal Writing Instruction Pervasive in the Law School Curriculum
Great Lawyers are Great Writers is the University of Ottawa Legal Writing Academy's slogan. Our experiential learning approach gives our students the tools they need to become the professional writers their careers require.
The pointfirstwriting.com modules allow us to interleave legal writing instruction as modules in substantive upper-year law courses and for assignments in legal writing seminars. The modules support a blended learning approach that delivers instruction face-to-face and online, allowing students to control their learning's pace and path.
Also, the modules provide a stand-alone, self-study resource that law students and graduates use during internships, pro bono activities, summer jobs, and as articling students and new associates in law firms.
Modular teaching is effective for time-pressured law students with diverse learning needs and prior knowledge to home in on specific skills when they need them and learn at their own pace. Just-in-Time-Teaching means students review and practice the legal writing skills they identify. Learners can refer to module components anytime they write, whether for an assignment or an employer. The website's 24/7 availability addresses adult learners' need for self-directedness, readiness to learn, and immediate application. The modules' real life writer and mentor narratives tap into learners' intrinsic motivation.
The modules use
- infographics, comic strips, graphics, checklists, audio, and video to add variety to the learning experience
- visual and auditory storytelling to introduce fictitious characters and emotions to strengthen learning
- activities that require the learner to play a role in the story
- practice cycles that briefly introduce a concept and then immediately follow up with application exercises
- immediate formative feedback in the form of sample answers, annotated documents, and automated feedback on skills-testing activities to help learners determine which skills they want to work on.
About the Modules
Legal Memos Made Easy is a resource for both writing predictive legal memos and developing targeted skills, such as writing strong introductions, clear issue statements, and well-organized and complete facts. Professor and students can start with any of the component parts anywhere and use all or part of the module to focus on sub-skills, such as organizing research (Getting Ready to Write) and writing specific memo components (Crafting the Memo's Parts).
Two Sample Memos, create a writer-mentor experience based on real life narratives using embedded text, audio, and video "Practice Tips" . Each memo has a background story told by either a series of lawyer-client emails or a brief audio interview. In the Practice Tips, Anna, a summer student (Hopper v Summervale), and Ben, a first-year associate (Bradley v Tech World), explain their writing choices and then hear experienced lawyer-mentors comment on the work, answer often-asked questions, and elaborate on memo writing challenges.
Crafting the Memo's Parts gives more in-depth instruction on specific memo components. Students can complete interactive, online exercises and receive immediate feedback in the form of sample answers and a writing mentor's comments or rewrites.
Edit Your Own Work: Learn an efficient 5-layered strategy demonstrates a practical, five-layered approach to editing any legal document. Each layer concentrates on a different editing task to keep students from becoming overwhelmed by trying to fix everything all at once. We start each layer with a brief overview and short exercises that students use to self-diagnose their skill level. We then describe and demonstrate editing strategies pre-tested by our students. As they go through the layers, students construct a personal editing checklist that they can modify as they master different editing steps.
Instructors and students adapt the module for their teaching and personal objectives. Each layer has mini-editing topics and skills exercises. The modules prompt users to apply the self-editing techniques directly to a writing sample of their own and to work with a colleague to receive and give peer feedback.
Application exercises include
- editing a sample text by removing, rearranging, and adding words and phrases
- annotating a peer's text for its context, audience and purpose
- reviewing a document's logical flow by highlighting structural elements
- summarizing a text's strengths and areas for improvement in an email to a peer
- highlighting transition sentences and words
- replacing overused transition words with more precise ones
- using word processing tools to search for nominalizations and replaceing them with precise verbs, matching nominalizations with verb equivalents
- highlighting and replacing passive voice with active voice
- crossing out empty phrases and redundant words
- rewriting jargon in ordinary language
We are planning other modules, including
Point First Writing – instructing students how to take advantage of writing strategies that help readers quickly understand and remember key points
Fabulous Factums and Brilliant Briefs – instructing students on creating powerful, persuasive legal writing
Experiential Blended-Learning Modules in Substantive Upper-Year Courses
The Content Expert and Writing Expert Team
Our legal writing professors duplicate a realistic legal problem based on material supplied by the professor teaching the substantive law course. Our blended-learning unit creates a team approach where content-expert professors set the knowledge-based learning goals and the writing professor sets the legal writing goals.
Many professors assign a predictive legal memo, a foundation document used to advise clients and plan future actions. Legal Memos Made Easy is the before and after-class resource for the memo writing assignment.
Some professors assign policy briefs, factums, and other persuasive documents. We use team-teaching for these assignments as well. Stay tuned for supporting modules on persuasive writing.
Two-Class Module Format and Writer's Note
1. Legal Analysis and Writing Process Class – Students read the file and assigned cases and then bring to class a mind map, case and factors charts, or an outline applying the assigned case law and statutes to the legal problem. Before class, we refer students to these three prewriting organization techniques demonstrated in Getting Ready to Write in Legal Memos Made Easy. During class, students discuss and refine their analysis as they learn about the audience and purpose of the assigned document.
2. Edit Your Own Work Class – Students apply a five-layered editing approach to their first draft. The professor leads mini-exercises focused on the structure, continuity, and clarity of the student's work. Students give each other feedback and discuss how they might revise their work.
Post-Module Revision and Writer's Note - Students use the website resources and class feedback to then revise their document. They resubmit the revised document together with a structured self-reflection assignment that identifies their writing strengths and challenges, gives examples of some of their revisions, describes newly-learned writing strategies, and sets writing goals for their next work. Edit Your Own Work: Learn an efficient 5-layered strategy is the before and after-class resource students can use to review and work on editing skills.
Assignments in Legal Writing Seminars
Legal writing professors assign module components throughout the term for students to practice writing skills relevant to any legal document. Since legal memo skills transfer to all other forms of legal writing, professors can assign the module's sub-parts multiple times for practice and review. For example, Legal Memos Made Easy includes sub-topics to help students:
- organize their research
- identify legally relevant facts and describe them either chronologically or thematically
- practice different formats for issue statements and brief answers
- decide how much detail to include in legal analysis
The five layers in Edit Your Own Work covers writing skills that help students:
- confirm the document's context, audience, and purpose (The Big Picture Read)
- make their points stand out with strong introductions, headings, and well-organized paragraphs (Structure)
- use transition words, phrases, and sentences to connect their ideas (Continuity)
- remove word clutter, ambiguity, and other barriers to their reader's understanding (Clarity)
- produce high-calibre, professional documents (Final Proof)
Professors direct students with specific writing needs to sub-topics, such as:
The pointfirstwriting.com modules address a recognized gap in legal education and self-study. Employers report that law graduates lack experience transferring their legal knowledge into practical legal writing. Graduates report they had needed additional legal writing instruction during law school.
We wanted a writing resource for students and graduates to consult anytime to both pinpoint their writing strengths and master difficult legal writing challenges, such as crafting effective issue statements and brief answers, or break writing habits using empty words and phrases or passive voice sentences. We present material in manageable chunks so that users can gradually build up the skills, without becoming overwhelmed. My Checklist in Edit Your Own Work gives students a practical tool to consolidate the newly-developed editing approaches. We created a practical writing resource to motivate time-pressured students and new lawyers to take a relaxed, life-long learning approach to improving their legal writing.
Students working in law firms as interns or summer students report that the sample memos, short explanations, and exercises in Legal Memos Made Easy gave them realistic examples and techniques they could apply immediately on the job. Students and new associates found the modules' real life narratives and writing examples relevant to their work. During pilot testing of Edit Your Own Work, new law firm associates reported becoming more confident they could produce better documents.
Let Us Know How You Use Pointfirstwriting.com
Creating the pointfirstwriting.com modules and pilot testing the blended learning activities invigorated us and inspired us to explore more teaching techniques. We would love to hear from you on how you use the website materials and any ideas you have for future modules. Stay in touch.
Best wishes for great writing.Professors Virginia McRae and Ellen B. Zweibel
University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law
57 Louis Pasteur,
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5