Thoughts about choosing a law school, pt. 3

Legal writing programs get staffed in 3 meaningfully different ways.  One model relies primarily on part-time instructors (generally adjunct teachers or graduate student fellows) supervised by a director of the program who is sometimes, but not always, a full-time specialist in legal writing.  A second model uses a director (sometimes, but not always, a full-time specialist) who works with faculty teaching doctrinal courses like torts or contracts to integrate writing exercises into those doctrinal courses.  A third model uses full-time faculty who specialize in teaching legal writing.  Each has its pros and cons.

Model 1 is inexpensive for a school to operate.  Adjunct faculty don’t get paid very much, so this saves faculty positions for people who will teach other subjects.  Devoting slots this way arguably benefits students in a couple of different ways.  It might mean lower student-faculty ratios in upper level classes or a wider variety of courses from which to choose.  And, it could mean more faculty publishing and advancing the school’s scholarly reputation.  (Note:  This second point may be hotly contested depending on one’s perspective.  Conventional wisdom holds that tenure-track faculty who teach outside of legal writing publish more than legal writing faculty.  This is partly because many legal writing faculty hold non-tenure track positions for which publication is not a requirement.  This may be changing as legal writing faculty have begun to hold tenure-track positions and publishing more.) All of this comes at a cost, however.  Full-time faculty who specialize in legal writing develop considerable teaching expertise.  Perhaps more than any other type of law school faculty, full-time legal writing teachers think and write about how to train lawyers.  With all due respect to those who teach legal writing as adjuncts or fellows, I think that full-time legal writing faculty will, on the whole, teach better classes than part-time faculty.  An adjunct has another job that is his primary income.  He understandably pays more attention to that than his students.  And, adjuncts frequently teach for only a few years.  Just when they’re starting to figure things out, they move on.

Model 2 has intriguing possibilities for excellence that may not always be realized.  When full-time faculty teach writing as part of a doctrinally focused course, the integration could lead to a deeper understanding of legal problems and how to write about them.  Class discussion can explicitly tie big substantive questions to challenges in writing memos or briefs.  If this works, it probably creates an excellent legal writing class.  Unfortunately, the faculty I know who have taught in these programs report that the promise is not always realized because faculty who teach doctrinal classes do not, as a whole, make legal writing a priority.  They prefer to concentrate on their substantive law specialties and their scholarship.  Only an unusually dedicated non-legal writing specialist professor will spend the time necessary to become a top-flight legal writing teacher.  Some undoubtedly do it, but others I’ve spoken to find the obligation to teach writing a burdensome distraction from teaching and writing about subjects they prefer.

Model 3 uses only full-time faculty who dedicate themselves to teaching legal writing.  The obvious benefit is the development of expertise I mentioned earlier.  Not every law professor will agree with this, but I think that top-flight legal writing teachers bring great value to their students.  Those who don’t agree may say that any of us (meaning non-legal writing law professors) could step right in and do just as good of a job, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.  A good legal writing course combines the reading and analysis of cases with instruction on how to write about the law.  It isn’t obvious that “just any” professor would immediately do a good job of it.  If experience matters in teaching torts, it probably matters in teaching legal writing too.  So why don’t all law schools employ a full-time staff of legal writing teachers?  Well, it’s expensive.  Full-time legal writing teachers occupy faculty slots that could be used for teachers in other areas.  A school may not think that legal writing is sufficiently important to warrant the expenditure.

From the standpoint of a prospective law student, it’s worth deciding how important legal writing will be to you.  You will have to candidly assess your writing ability, how easily you will adapt to legal conventions, and your willingness to experience stress if you’re behind fellow summer associates/new lawyers who have had more training.  To be clear, I’m not saying that legal writing should be your primary method for choosing a law school.  But, if schools are fairly close in other ways, the legal writing program is one important and frequently overlooked way to identify the right school for you.

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5 Responses

  1. Larry Rosenthal says:

    Professor Yen:

    These posts are terrific! Applicants — and even those already in law school — often fail to appreciate the importance of legal writing to preprofessional legal education. I fear, however, that these posts have overstressed the importance of the 1L writing course. Even the best 1L course can only begin to develop legal writing skills — it has no hope of getting students to the point where their writing is of sufficient merit to enhance their marketability. I think applicants should carefully investigate the writing opportunities for 2L and 3Ls. Are they only in remedial courses, do they involve producing scholarly papers of little interest to potential employers, or are there opportunities to develop the kind of writing skills actually used by practitioners that enhance a candidate’s ability to get a high-quality job? My own school has recently increased the amount of writing required of upper-level students, and imposed a practice-oriented writing requirement, in an effort to address these issues.

    Larry Rosenthal
    Chapman University School of Law

  2. Matt says:

    This is very interesting and seems very reasonable, Alfred. I’d like to hear a bit more on how far you’d push the point. When deciding between roughly equally ranked schools this seems like a point that should reasonably be given a lot of weight. But I’d assume that most people would think that it should be given only a little weight in deciding between, say, a top-10 and a top-50 school, given the expected difference in job opportunities between average graduates from each school (leaving aside whether these differences are reasonable or not.) Would you agree? Obviously, personal and even idiosyncratic factors matter in these decisions as well, but I’d be interested to have you say more about how much weight you think this factor should have and how it compares with other considerations.

  3. MJG says:

    I agree with your analysis about legal writing courses. It is particularly interesting with the dust-up at the University of Texas Law School, which much of that focused on the school’s allegedly inferior legal writing program.

  4. Alfred Yen says:

    Matt, I agree that between a top 10 school and a school ranked around 50, factors other than the legal writing program would probably drive the choice towards the top 10 school. But between #20 v. #30 (or even #35), I think the individual student needs to decide what matters to her. As I mentioned in my first post, there’s not much difference per U.S. News between #20 and #30, so the fit between what a student needs and what the school offers matters more. I think that your “generic” student is well served by looking for good writing programs, all other things being reasonably close (which of course they never are).

  5. Matt says:

    Thanks Alfred- that seems perfectly sensible.