By Sophie M. Sparrow from University of New Hampshire School of Law
The semester is more than half over for many of our students. If students haven’t already completed a course-related writing assignment, now is a great time for them to do so. Because writing exercises are exceptional at helping students develop and refine their analytical skills, many of us give students writing assignments. Ideally we design these exercises to promote a variety of complementary goals, similar to what athletes do when they cross-train.
Among other objectives, writing exercises can be designed to help students
- identify a client’s goal;
- respond appropriately and creatively to a client’s problem;
- engage in factual investigation;
- research and evaluate sources used by lawyers in the field;
- draft documents that are used in practice;
- work quickly under tight deadlines;
- follow instructions given by a professor in the role of a supervising attorney;
- review and give feedback to peers; and
- engage in metacognition – reflecting on what they learned from the process.
One way to cross-train students is to have them write within an experiential context. For example, rather than write an essay responding to a hypothetical scenario, students could draft a letter or contract clauses in response to a client’s request for advice about protecting employees from stealing trade secrets. To add complexity, students could
- interview the professor acting as the client, and elicit the relevant facts about the client’s business and goals;
- research the law about trade secret protection and employment in an identified jurisdiction;
- find and modify sample contracts and letters to reflect the client’s goal;
- complete preliminary analysis within a few hours, much as they would have to do in practice;
- follow particular directions, such a writing a letter in the form of a business email to the client;
- assess their work against a rubric or scoring sheet distributed afterwards by the professor;
- read and comment upon their classmates’ documents; or
- reflect about what they learned from the exercise and how they would approach it differently in the future.
Cross-training with writing exercises can be done efficiently. First, not every writing assignment needs to receive individual feedback. Feedback can be given by peers, distributing scoring sheets and rubrics, and discussing the analysis with the whole class.
Colleagues who teach legal writing and analysis have a wealth of ideas, resources, and expertise designing effective writing exercises. Similarly, clinician colleagues have excellent ideas and samples. Legal writing texts, practice materials, bar exam assignments, and former exams are all sources of complex writing exercises.
Depending on the goals of the writing assignment, students can complete much of the process outside of class, coming to class to review classmates’ work and receive feedback. Giving writing exercises can take time away from doctrinal coverage, but it’s well worth it, especially if the writing exercises focus on challenging topics that appear in practice. After all, legal employers routinely wish law graduates could write more effectively and efficiently. Let’s help our students get there.