I have now taken the better part of two legal research and writing courses (though the term paper still looms) and on the whole I have found them to be a beneficial to my legal research both in other classes and in the workplace. However, if there is one thing that I find these courses a bit short on, it is direct feedback and a corresponding opportunity to put this feedback into practice, and observe and evaluate the end results.
While I was an undergraduate I had the opportunity to participate in a writing intensive class as both a student and a teaching assistant. One of the major strengths of the course was that it allowed for a great deal of feedback from students and the instructors. A draft of the term paper was due half way through the term, and the class then turned to work-shopping these papers. Students and instructors were required to offer comments, questions and suggestions.
As a student, I found that my quality of writing greatly improved throughout the term, and that I was given meaningful opportunity to gauge my improvement. As an instructor, I found that throughout the semester nearly all of the students improved their writing, quality of reasoning and depth of research. However, it should perhaps be noted that the class was widely loathed and many found it to be far too much work.
These past experiences have led (not “lead,” as I would have written a few weeks ago. Thanks, Kim!) me to wonder if a similar approach would be valuable in a legal research and writing class. I think it certainly could be, and that there is tremendous benefit to having early drafts of papers work-shopped by peers and instructors.
There could also be a number of problems with this kind of methodology. It could force students to rush their research instead of spreading it out over the term. This could result in poor research and in the end a poor paper. It would also drastically alter the pace of the course. The classes focused on legal research would have to come fast and furious at the start of term.
There is also the fact that academic writing is very different from legal writing, not only in style but in the way it’s put into practice. In academic writing it is common to spend a lot of time researching and writing a paper and receiving feedback prior to completion of an end product. In the legal world, economics often demand a more expedited and solo affair, and by the time a memo reaches somebody else’s eyes, it is often seen as largely finished product.
Is law school supposed to merely mimic the “real world” though? In many respects it certainly doesn’t and perhaps it shouldn’t. I contend that the purpose of a legal research and writing course is not to mimic the “real world” as much as it is to make us better equipped to handle the tasks before us once we’re there. This may include taking a more prolonged and co-operative approach to an assignment than we would typically be afforded. That way we can maximize our potential, having hopefully corrected many mistakes by the time law school wraps up. That is not to say that the legal research and writing classes do not already serve these ends, but just that the change in methodology proposed could perhaps further them all the more.
Other problems may concern how to evaluate such a course. How much should the first draft be worth versus the final product? How about participation? Would unfairness result where more knowledgeable students are over-burdened in helping the less knowledgeable? Does this pass some negative threshold in the balance between co-operative learning and a merit-based system? Would the workload and instructor evaluation be too burdensome?
Perhaps I have supplied more questions than answers, but I would be interested to hear what everyone else thinks.