Does the Traditional Seminar Paper Make Sense?

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5 Responses

  1. This is a good question. It may be helpful to distinguish two moves. The first is to have students satisfy the writing requirement with a research paper, rather than something that looks more like attorney work product. The second is to insist that research papers look like law-review articles. You raise good points for and against the first move; we might also consider whether we’re unnecessarily asking that students academic work product look like our own.

  2. Mike Madison says:

    For reasons related to those in the post, I have tried two variations on the traditional seminar paper in my IP seminar. For several years I assigned full-length law review articles as the readings, paired thematically, and then had my students write a series of short (5-6 pp) papers reflecting on each pair in response to a prompt from me. Each student wrote 5 or 6 papers over the course of the semester — 30 to 35 pages in all. More recently, I have required that my seminar students produce a full-length research paper in the mode of a chapter of one of the “Stories” books (in my case, IP Stories), using an older case of their choosing. We read the IP Stories book over the course of the semester and use the published “stories” as benchmarks for the students’ own work. This model has been a great success, in terms of student enthusiasm, in terms of research skills learned and used, in terms of quality of the work product (some of which is more scholarly and some less — which is fine by me), and in terms of my learning new things about old cases.

  3. Larry Rosenthal says:

    I have abandoned traditional seminar papers, even in my seminars, for some of the reasons identified in the post. We are engaged in preprofessional education, and a critical skill for lawyers entering the profession is the ability to write as an advocate. An academic paper is at best a poor proxy for the kind of writing that recent graduates must do. There is, of course, some value in having students “research a legal topic from start to finish and really wrestle with the policy choices underlying the law,” but there are opportunity costs associated with every curricular decision, and in the preprofessional context, developing the skills necessary for professional success should surely be the top priority. After all, the practice of law rarely involves the kind of research and policy debate found in a traditional seminar paper; those skills strike me as more important for a public policy master’s program than a law school. Moreover, most students expect law school to postion them for professional success, and a quality writing sample of the type that young lawyers are expected to produce is about the best evidence of a relevant professional skill that a potential employer can be given. Since we are training lawyers, not academics, my view is that we should help students develop the kind of writing skills expected of lawyers, not academics.

    Larry Rosenthal
    Chapman University School of Law

  4. Hillel Y. Levin says:

    In response to the title of your post: No, it doesn’t. At least not as the primary (or only) way to fulfill a writing requirement.

  5. Jeremy A. Blumenthal says:

    I’d quibble some with the distinction between training students to write as advocates “versus” as academics. I’m not sure how many of my students will be writing briefs and persuasive motions right out of the gate; much of their work, for instance, might be a research memo for a senior associate or partner who has asked for an objective sketch of a particular legal point. There, it’s crucial to be able to present both sides of an issue and identify flaws in one side or another, only then put forth a particular argument. I see that as closer to what an academic article does—though I can certainly see how it could be characterized as “persuasive writing;” if so, no quibble.

    That’s not to say that they should expect to give a 20-page law-review-ish summary/background of a discipline or topic in such a research memo (“The roots of the heat-of-passion defense reach back to the fourteenth century….”). They need to write concisely and relevantly. But I do try to teach student writers—via seminar papers and/or independent studies, and often via exam questions as well—that much of the writing they will do will be objective, not “persuasive,” and I see the seminar paper as a good vehicle for that.