Legal writing program grows

To strengthen its legal writing program for first-year law students, Yale Law School now has a judge offer feedback on student writing in weekly workshops and instruct students who also work as teaching assistants.

The addition of John Walker ’62, a visiting lecturer and senior judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, to the program this semester is the latest of the Law School’s efforts to improve its legal writing instruction. Until it added a second instructor in Noah Messing LAW ’00 in January 2009, the Law School had only one dedicated legal writing instructor for first-year students to supplement students’ regular classes. This recent expansion of the Law School’s legal writing program also highlights the school’s unique approach to teaching first-years, said original legal writing instructor Rob Harrison ’74, as Yale is one of few law schools in the country that does not teach legal writing as a separate, year-long program for first-year students.

“Our legal writing program, under the direction of Rob Harrison, was strong but always oversubscribed,” said Robert Post LAW ’77, dean of the Law School, in an e-mail Tuesday. “With the addition of Noah Messing in 2009, and with innovative assistance from Judge Walker … our students now have an array of options for taking their legal writing to the highest levels.”

Walker, who has been a judge for 25 years, said he feels that his experience as a judge makes him a valuable resource for the Coker Fellows — third-year teaching assistants — and first-year students.

“I am a consumer of briefs and memos,” he said. “If you have been a judge for as long as I have, you know what makes for a powerful brief, and you understand why some briefs are more successful than others.”

Harrison said Walker was added to the team of first-year legal writing instructors to provide a new perspective for students. As a judge, Harrison said, Walker is constantly confronted with writings from lawyers who are “trying to hook him into ruling a certain way.”

“If we were teaching students how to fish, we could have added another fisherman to teach them how to catch fish,” Harrison said. “It is quite another thing to have the fish teach you himself.”

Coker Fellow Margaret Hsieh LAW ’11 said in an e-mail Tuesday that Walker met with each pair of Coker Fellows to assess one strong and one average piece of writing from their small group. Walker was an expert editor, Hsieh said, and after the meeting, she said she felt more confident about how to help her students become better legal writers.

“Judge Walker had critiqued the memos in a way that respected and nurtured the inherent strengths of each student’s original work,” Hsieh said.

Walker, who has also expanded his upper-level seminar on oral advocacy and legal writing from one semester to two, now additionally meets with each small group of about 15 first-year students to critique their memo and brief writing and provides instruction to each pair of Coker Fellows.

During their first semester, Law School students take one of their required courses in a small group. These small groups can elect to spend one hour each week on skilled training, which may include research or writing instruction. At Stanford Law School, first-year students take part in the year-long Legal Research and Writing Program in addition to their regular courses. The program emphasizes theories of rhetoric and persuasion, said Jeanne Merino, the director of the program. Students at Harvard Law School also take a year-long course called the First-Year Legal Research and Writing Program, said Susannah Tobin, director of their program.

Harvard students receive one-on-one instruction and feedback on their writing from Climenko Fellows, a group of high-achieving, recent law school graduates, Tobin said. Although Stanford Law School does not have judge on faculty to teach legal writing to first-year students, they regularly invite judges to the law school to speak to students, Merino said.

Aside from Walker, another judge — U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz — also teaches at the Law School. This year, Kravitz and Walker are co-teaching an upper-level seminar on legal writing and oral advocacy.

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