Does the Traditional Seminar Paper Make Sense?

Returning to my curricular musings, I want to discuss a mainstay of the law school curriculum: the seminar paper.  The American Bar Association requires law students to complete a “rigorous writing experience after the first year.”   Most law schools satisfy this requirement by mandating that students write a research paper before they graduate.  Students typically write these papers as part of a seminar or independent research project, and many schools require these papers to be of “publishable quality,” similar to a student note in a law review.

I will start by confessing that I have not taught a traditional seminar, although I have supervised many independent studies.  I will also confess that I have often been disappointed with the results of these independent studies.  Maybe I just lack the crucial skills necessary to help my students blossom in this area, but I have talked to other professors at a variety of schools who have had similar experiences.  These discussions raise two questions in my mind.

First, are we setting students up for failure by requiring them to write a traditional seminar paper?  These requirements are premised on the belief that students can identify a cutting-edge legal issue, research it, and write an insightful analysis of thirty or so pages, all in approximately fourteen weeks.  And of course, students have to juggle all of their other coursework at the same time, often receiving only two or three credits in the seminar.  One of my colleagues commented that he wasn’t sure he could meet this requirement—indeed, professors often take a year or more to write an article, and we are well-versed with the underlying law and the writing process.  Our articles are longer and more involved, but it still may be no surprise that we are so often disappointed with the ultimate results.

Second, why do we want our students to write the equivalent of a student note as a condition of graduation?  I definitely understand the importance of writing in the law school curriculum (more on that in my next post), but is the seminar paper the best way to teach legal writing?   Most of our students do not want to be academics, and they may never write another scholarly paper in their lives.  I imagine that legal employers would much rather have their incoming associates spend their time improving their brief-writing or transactional skills as opposed to writing a scholarly paper.

On the other hand, the seminar paper may be the one time that students have to research a legal topic from start to finish and really wrestle with the policy choices underlying the law.  It is valuable for students to understand how the law is made and think hard about future developments in their chosen area of the law.  This critical thinking is part of the bundle of skills that will be important long after they have learned the basics of brief writing and contract drafting.  Additionally, law school is a graduate school, not a trade school, so perhaps requiring a scholarly paper is appropriate even at the expense of more practical training.  I don’t know that I am persuaded by these arguments, but they are certainly important points to consider.

It was a revelation to me that the ABA does not require students to write a research paper before graduation.  As noted above, the ABA only requires a “rigorous writing experience,” a requirement that gives law schools tremendous flexibility (unless there is some interpretation of the standard that I don’t know about).  Law schools put the scholarly paper gloss on this requirement, perhaps as a way of making clear that they were not trade schools.  In researching law school requirements around the country, I have noticed that at least a few schools have started to broaden this requirement.  At these schools, a wide variety of courses satisfy the upper-level writing requirement, from traditional seminars to practicum-style courses.  I increasingly believe that this is the right approach, but I would welcome other thoughts as well.

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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.