Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Student essay--law school should simulate law-practice collaboration

In this essay, one of my students writes about a truth we all know but that is hard to accommodate in an academic setting:

In this essay I will argue that the final graded assignments in the first-year legal writing courses should be group projects, rather than individual assignments. I proffer four reasons: first, individual assignments are unrealistic simulations of what a new lawyer will experience; second, individual assignments fail to develop key skills; third, the grading of individual assignments can be based on minute errors that would be caught by a group; and fourth, individual projects are an unnecessary use of professorial resources.

First, the final assignment is an unrealistic simulation of what a new lawyer will experience in the workplace because, with rare exception, no new lawyer will work by himself. Many law school graduates will work for large firms or for the government, where they will have a supervising attorney, several other junior attorneys who work alongside that attorney, as well as support staff. Even those who become solo practitioners usually have support staff. These other attorneys and support staff will be able to assist the new attorney in creating any given document.

Second, because the final assignment is an unrealistic simulation of law-firm life, it fails to develop key writing skills. Writing a paper as a team is a far different exercise from writing a paper by oneself. Writing as a team involves delegation of duties, communication of strategy, and, perhaps most importantly, an effort to synthesize the paper so that it speaks as one document. I speak from personal experience (having been a paralegal) when I say that these skills are rarely present in graduating lawyers (or senior lawyers for that matter).

Third, the grade a student receives on a legal writing assignment might arbitrarily relate to problems that could be corrected in a group. For example, suppose a student cites the publication date of a statute from Westlaw instead of its hard copy counterpart. If the two dates are not a match, the student will be downgraded. In a group setting, this sort of error could be easily caught by another team member. Thus, group assignments would prevent students from being downgraded on the basis of minutiae that they were not fortunate enough to catch.

Fourth, individual assignments are a waste of professorial resources. Currently at the University of Texas School of Law each legal writing professor must grade approximately one hundred papers. However, if we, hypothetically, divided the class into groups of four, then each professor would have to grade only twenty five papers. Moreover, because individuals are less able to catch small mistakes in citation or grammar, professors are spending time correcting these issues. That would not be necessary in a group setting, as the additional proofreaders would better identify these mistakes in the drafting of their project before it was ever submitted.

Based on these four reasons, I conclude that the first-year legal writing assignments should be group projects.

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