A generous gift from David J. Beck, ’65, establishes David J. Beck Center for Advocacy and allows the Law School to make its legal writing program stronger
[Editor’s note: Since this article was published, the Law School has created the the David J. Beck Center for Legal Research, Writing, and Appellate Advocacy — information about which can be found on the Beck Center website.]
Lawyers are writers. Whether writing a brief, composing a letter to a client, or researching and preparing a memo, lawyers must be able to use the written word effectively. But specifically teaching legal writing did not become common at most law schools until the 1970s and 1980s. The Law School currently requires first-year students to take two credit hours in legal writing and research, and also offers electives in writing subjects to secondand third-year students. And now, thanks to a generous gift from David Beck, ’65, a founding partner of Beck, Redden & Secrest LLP, the size of those classes has been reduced, allowing the UT Law faculty to devote more time and effective effort to teaching future lawyers the vital skill of writing well.
This summer, Beck donated $2 million to the Law School. Two hundred thousand dollars of that gift will be applied each year through 2013 to pay for hiring additional instructors for the legal writing program. Beginning in the 2010–2011 academic year, $50,000 will be used every year through 2013 to establish the David J. Beck Appellate Advocacy Competition, an upperdivision competition for Law School students. One million dollars of the gift will be an endowed gift to the Law School to help fund the programs in the future. Improving legal-writing instruction and offering the yearly advocacy competition will comprise the bulk of the work of the David J. Beck Center for Advocacy. This remarkable gift is already playing a crucial role in the Law School’s legal writing program and in the lives of students.
According to Wayne Schiess, the director of the legal-writing program at the Law School, practicing lawyers often say that though law schools do a fine job teaching legal reasoning and knowledge of the law, they believe students’ writing skills could be stronger. “The almost uniform position of the practicing bar is that legal writing is important,” Schiess said. “And that law schools could do more to teach it.”
The Law School’s current legal writing and research classes give students an opportunity to learn skills they’ll use in law practice through assignments that mimic the sorts of tasks young (and old) lawyers routinely face. Schiess said teaching students legal writing is not so much a matter of building basic, sentence-level skills—although there is some of that, he said—as it is of introducing them to the distinctive conventions and styles of argument acceptable in the legal profession through written legal analysis and legal research. “Some of our students—but not all—are already accomplished writers,” Schiess said. “And yet we are persuaded that legal writing and written legal analysis are different enough from other kinds of writing that they should be taught in their own course.”
For new law students, Schiess said, learning legal writing involves moving away from a more “report”-oriented way of writing that may have been acceptable in their undergraduate classes. “The key difference between legal writing and the sort of writing they’ve done in their college classes is that undergrad papers tend to be information reporting: you report the information you’ve found on a particular subject. Legal writing asks you to apply the research to a problem. We definitely expect our students to report, but they must also show what the law requires, make predictions, and prove those predictions with analysis. They’re learning to do that in their heads in their other classes. Practicing lawyers have to convey their analysis in writing.” Those are the basic goals of the first-year course. During the second and third years, students can choose from a variety of classes, including Brief Writing and Oral Advocacy, Advanced Legal Writing, Transactional Drafting, Writing for Litigation, and the Teaching Quizmasters class (open to teaching assistants in the writing program). The Law School also offers students assistance in developing their writing skills through the Law School Writing Center.
Kamela Bridges, ’91, a lecturer and legal writing instructor at the Law School who was a partner at Locke Liddell & Sapp LLP before coming to the Law School in 2000, said legal writing skills have become even more important as fewer and fewer lawyers ever find themselves in a trial setting. “Writing is becomingmore important,” Bridges said. “Fewer cases make it to trial because of the expense of trying cases. We’ve created a process that’s too expensive to use.” Indeed, a 2003 American Bar Association study found that only 1.8 percent of all civil cases in federal court went to trial, down from 11.5 percent in 1962. Similarly the study found that the percentage of federal criminal prosecutions resolved by trials also declined, to less than 5 percent in 2003 from 15 percent in 1962. Criminal trials also fell during the same time period. What all this means is that much less of the new young lawyers’ work will be of the traditional oral advocacy kind, the sort much of the public most associates with lawyers, and much more of the work will involve legal writing and research and written argument. “Writing skills are critical,” Bridges said. “So anything we can do to help the students is important. Our classes are designed to get them ready to write like a lawyer tomorrow, because practitioners really care about writing ability. Fortunately, we get high-caliber students, people with good fundamental skills, so we get to start at a high level.”
The Beck gift will allow the Law School’s legal writing instructors— Schiess and Bridges as well as Robin Meyer, Beth Youngdale, Sean Petrie, and Elana Einhorn plus four part-time instructors this year—to devote more time to teaching each of their students the fundamental skills of legal writing and research because they will be teaching fewer of them per semester. Before the Beck gift allowed the hiring of the four part-time adjunct faculty, each legal writing professor taught around one hundred students. Now instructors teach half the number. “Each teacher has fifty students,” Schiess said. “Two groups of twenty-five. Meeting with twenty-five students instead of fifty or one hundred is dramatically different. Students are more engaged.”
Stephanie Debrow, a third-year student, said she thinks the changes will be an immense help in allowing the faculty to be more effective. “I found it very easy to get lost in the shuffle of the large 1L writing classes,” she said. “I think the best thing about the advanced legal writing classes is that they provide you with the opportunity to get very specific individualized feedback on your writing. UT Law has some very talented writing faculty that do a great job of offering a wide variety of practical advanced writing classes. Being able to receive feedback at several points during my research and writing was extremely helpful and allowed me to work out some of the problems in my writing before getting too far into a memo.”
Leslie Oster, the Law School’s assistant dean for strategic planning and a legal writing instructor this year, said she hopes Beck’s gift will spur a series of moves to strengthen the Law School’s legal writing program. “Adding instructor positions to bring down the student-teacher ratio is a first step in making the program even stronger,” she said. “But it’s the first in a cascade of changes possible, including the addition of additional credit requirements so instructors can better cover advocacy training and brief writing in the first year. [Currently, first-year students are able to take Brief Writing and Oral Advocacy as an elective during the spring semester —ed.] The changes will allow them to spend more time with their students and give them more feedback on their writing, which is an important first step in making our program even better.”
Legal Writing Faculty
Wayne Schiess directs the legal-writing program and teaches legal writing, legal drafting, and plain English. He is a frequent seminar speaker, and he has published more than a dozen articles on practical legal-writing skills, plus four books. In 2007, his legalwriting blog at Legalwriting.net was named one of the ABA Journal’s “Blawg 100: The best Websites by lawyers for lawyers.” He graduated from Cornell Law School and has practiced law at the Texas firm of Baker Botts LLP.
Robin Meyer is a 1988 graduate of the Law School, where she was a Teaching Quizmaster and a member of the Texas Law Review. She joined the Law School faculty in 1992 after four years of practice with the Austin firm of Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody. She teaches Legal Research and Writing and TQ Seminar. She is coeditor (with David W. Robertson) of The Correspondence between Leon Green and Charles McCormick 1927–1962 (Rothman, 1988).
Kamela Bridges is one of the Law School’s legal writing specialists. Prior to joining the faculty in 2000, Bridges was a partner at Locke Liddell & Sapp LLP. Her practice focused on civil litigation and appellate law. She is a member of the Legal Writing Institute and has served on the screening committee of the Scribes Brief Writing Award.
Beth Youngdale is a 1992 graduate of the Law School, where she was a Teaching Quizmaster. Prior to joining the faculty at the law school, she was head of student services at Tarlton Law Library. Before coming to the law library, she was an assistant professor and reference librarian at Baylor Law School. She teaches Legal Research and Writing and Teaching Quizmasters Seminar.
Sean Petrie graduated from the University of Texas at Austin’s Plan II program, received his JD from Stanford Law School, and clerked for U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in Austin. He has also worked as a litigation and intellectual property attorney. He has taught legal writing at the Law School since 2005, and still practices law, primarily insurance litigation for local firms.
Elana Einhorn is a Texas civil-appellate specialist who joined the faculty in 2008. In addition to her experience as a practicing appellate attorney, she has over ten years’ experience working with judges in state and federal court as a staff attorney and law clerk. She received her JD from the Law School with honors, Order of the Coif, in 1989 and her BA from Florida International University with high honors in English in 1986. She is board-certified in civil-appellate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.