Most attorneys would agree that strong writing skills are an important component of practicing law. Indeed, a common complaint of attorneys managing junior associates is the quality of their legal writing. Not only do attorneys bemoan the writing skills of newer attorneys they supervise, but even judges have taken opportunities in their written opinions and orders to reprimand attorneys for, or at least to comment on, significant deficiencies in technical writing and citation.
While law students theoretically recognize the importance of their required legal writing courses, many find it difficult to fully engage with material they perceive as “dry” or “boring” compared to exciting doctrinal topics such as criminal law and torts. Students also express an inability to become passionate about a “fake” client in a contrived, hypothetical legal situation that has no impact on anyone other than themselves.
Rather, students find many experiential-based courses far more interesting and important because their work has the potential to impact a real client. For example, when students participate in live client clinics, externships or internships, they typically begin to appreciate the import of those key concepts learned during their first-year legal research and writing courses. Bridging that gap between passion and legal writing skill-development is the challenge for legal writing professors, including this one.
In an effort to bridge that gap, some of us have successfully integrated social justice issues into the legal writing classroom or curriculum as a backdrop for teaching fundamental writing skills in a more practical context. Some legal writing professors collaborate directly with attorneys, including law school clinics, externship programs, pro bono programs, or legal aid organizations. This type of collaboration creates a symbiotic relationship whereby the students have a practical and realistic platform in which to improve and hone their writing skills while attorneys directly benefit from obtaining free assistance completing important research directly for use in a current legal matter.
At Florida Coastal School of Law, for instance, students hone their skills while completing advanced research and writing analyses for legal aid organizations presenting discrete issues in active cases. At its inception, this program operated as a student organization, called the Public Interest Research Bureau, in which upper-level students voluntarily handled research and writing projects in addition to their class load. Now, the program operates as the Public Interest Research Clinic, a credit-bearing upper-level law clinic, focusing on research and writing in the context of practical application.
Legal writing professors nationwide have realized the benefits of collaborating with outside organizations to incorporate social justice issues into the writing curriculum. Those who have taken such efforts consistently report students become more fully engaged and passionate about the research and writing projects they undertake.
Developing a successful collaboration between a legal writing classroom and a legal aid organization is certainly time-consuming and challenging. Under usual circumstances, developing a pedagogically sound writing problem for law students requires the consideration of many variables. When using live client issues, however, those considerations become more complex, requiring a careful balance of learning goals and the realities of unpredictable law practice and client management. The benefits of such collaborations, however, are certainly worth the time and complexities involved. According to Professor Karen Millard, who directs the Florida Coastal Research Clinic, students have a more vested interest in the work they perform compared to the projects students complete in their required writing courses. She attributes this to the knowledge that the work will directly impact a person without resources to otherwise receive legal assistance.
As discussed in “Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law,” not only do students become more invested and passionate when their writing directly impacts a client matter, but integrating legal writing instruction with social justices issues directly responds to current reforms in legal education to incorporate experiential learning opportunities and help students develop a professional identity while in law school. When handling live client issues, students achieve a deeper understanding and retain the information longer because they are able to make a direct, practical connection between the skills and the application of those skills.
Most importantly, and of significance to the mission of Florida Coastal School of Law, when legal writing professors and their students support the research needs of underrepresented people, law schools play a crucial role in the effort to bridge the justice gap while also engendering in students a passion for public interest work. This invaluable lesson was specifically affirmed by Alexis Torres, a 3L student in the Florida Coastal Research Clinic: “My involvement in our Public Interest Research Clinic instilled in me a sense of pride that can only be realized through such a unique educational experience, while also opening my eyes to how my passion to help those less fortunate can be embraced through public interest law practice.”