Precision and Concision: Lawyering Program Teaches Skills and Valuesby BRIDGET MEEDS | ILLUSTRATION by HARRY CAMPBELL | PHOTOGRAPHY by LINDSAY FRANCE & FRANK DIMEO
Lawyers work in almost every facet of culture, from commerce to governance to everyday aspects of family life. But one thing all lawyers share, no matter what aspect of the law they employ, is a skill set—one based on solid legal writing, research, and oral advocacy abilities.
Recognizing that fact, Cornell Law School has devoted significant resources to training law students in those real-life skills employed by practicing attorneys. Lawyering, a year-long required first-year course, provides the foundation of that training.
These skills were once taught by adjuncts in a short, compressed course. But in the late nineties, the Law School decided to expand and deepen the program, recognizing the need to provide students with more extensive training.
“The focus of Lawyering is on writing and research,” says Joel Atlas, clinical professor of law and director of the Lawyering Program. “We hope that students who finish the course step out of the classroom in May with the foundational skills necessary to excel at a summer job in a law office.” In fact, it is clear that Atlas’s intentions for his students extend far beyond that.
He notes that students “come in with good writing skills and very strong analytical skills. The real challenge for them is to transition from being good writers to being good legal writers.” A key, he says, is inculcating in them the core values of “precision and concision.”
“In legal writing,” continues Atlas, “it is important to winnow out facts and law that are not critical to the case and present to the reader only what the reader needs to know.”
Lawyering, which covers legal writing, analysis, research, professionalism, and interviewing and oral presentation skills, begins by introducing the students to predictive legal writing. Later, they practice persuasive writing.
“In the first assignment, students are usually posed with a set of facts that present to them either pending or prospective litigation,” says Atlas. “Students have to present the facts and law in a neutral way, and then apply the facts to the law as well as they can to predict the outcome of the case.”
Kacie Lally ’11 took the course during her first year and served as an Honors Fellow (teaching assistant) for the course during her second year. In summer 2009, she interned for Judge Bruce M. Selya of the U.S. Court of Appeals and in 2010 was a summer associate for Gibson Dunn in New York City. (She will return to Gibson Dunn in fall 2011 as a litigation associate.) She says that both positions required her to write memos again and again, and she cites the Lawyering program as invaluable preparation for that work. “Getting the groundwork, knowing what to do, and practicing it was one of the most helpful things I’ve done in law school.”
“Kacie was well prepared and she had a very successful summer at the firm,” says Laura O’Boyle, an associate attorney at Gibson Dunn who supervised Lally. “Her performance was very strong and, based on that, we extended an offer for her to join us.”
“We’re looking for students who are strong writers and can learn to be strong advocates,” says O’Boyle. “We think that that starts with strong research and writing skills.”
In the Lawyering course, students develop research skills beginning with an assignment that requires them to discover information from outside sources. The research-skills component of the course is taught by law librarians, who, as Atlas says, “are state of the art in their knowledge.”
Students’ oral skills are also honed through simulated interviews. “We use the facts that are uncovered at an in-class interview as the facts of one of the assignments,” says Atlas. “We’re teaching how to parse the relevant facts from the irrelevant facts.”
Along with practical skills, the Lawyering course helps students learn the mores of the profession. “I tell my students on the first day of class that your reputation as a lawyer has begun to develop today,” Atlas says.
One key aspect of the Lawyering program sets it apart from the programs at many peer institutions. Rather than employing adjuncts to teach, Cornell’s course is taught by full-time professors who have significant experience in the private, government, and public-interest sectors as well as civil and criminal practice. And, Atlas adds, “every member of the Lawyering faculty is absolutely devoted to excellence in teaching.”
Faculty include Andrea J. Mooney ’92, “a skilled teacher who has a real passion for and deep knowledge of learning theory;” John Mollenkamp, “an experienced and extremely enthusiastic teacher who is on the cutting edge of using technology effectively in the classroom;” Michelle A. Whelan, a highly skilled attorney who offers “very strong practice experience as a partner in a major law firm;” and Lara G. Freed, “a creative teacher who also has a strong practice background and who taught for three years as a legal writing teacher at another law school before she came here,” says Atlas. Also on the faculty on a visiting basis is Walter G. Bublé ‘99, “an excellent teacher” who previously served as the Law School’s academic support director.
The faculty members also teach upper-level seminars in judicial opinion writing, litigation drafting, and deposition taking, as well as a clinical course. This year, they have added one-credit courses in oral communication, depositions, negotiation, client counseling, and interviewing.
In fact, the faculty members are collaboratively writing A Guide to Teaching Lawyering Skills (Carolina Academic Press, forthcoming 2012), which will be the first book devoted to the teaching of legal writing and will cover topics such as curriculum development, teaching techniques, the use of teaching assistants, and professional development.
Beyond their work at the Law School, all of the Lawyering faculty participate extensively in activities and discourse among national and regional legal-writing teachers, Atlas adds. “Over just the past several months, every member of the permanent Lawyering faculty has presented at an academic conference.”
Atlas sees the faculty and its dedication to pedagogy as the core strength of the program. “We all want every class session to be Cornell quality,” he notes. Class sizes are around thirty-four students per section, providing a very low teacher-student ratio.
“Because we all have practice experience, we’re able to design the curriculum based upon what we perceive to be the skills needed by a junior attorney,” says Atlas. He also regularly speaks to alumni to find out how the marketplace is changing, and those conversations shape the curriculum.
“One thing I was told routinely from members of the Law School Advisory Council was that even junior attorneys who could write an effective legal memorandum were often not well-equipped to engage in a thorough discussion of the memorandum after the fact,” says Atlas. In response, Atlas’s team integrated simulated oral presentations to supervisors as part of the curriculum.
“In my work experiences, my supervisors were depending on me to have thought about all the issues I had written about and to know what to do,” says Lally. “Having that experience of being questioned really closely in Lawyering and having to think on my feet was pretty helpful.”
Students also take part in a traditional moot-court exercise during the spring semester. “It was one of the first experiences in law school where we as students were able to interact with each other in terms of our work,” says Lally.
Another powerful aspect of the course is the Honors Fellows program, in which second- or third-year students serve as teaching assistants. In these positions, which Atlas describes as “highly coveted,” Fellows evaluate writing, confer with students, role play, and generally offer first-year students a valuable resource as educational mentors.
“Honors Fellows also learn tremendously from being critiquers,” says Atlas. “Many Honors Fellows have told me that serving as an Honors Fellow has been the most educational and rewarding part of law school.”
“I learned more as a teacher than I did as a student!” laughs Lally. “Giving people direction on how they can improve their writing really made me think.”
Atlas is keenly aware that Lawyering is crucial to a student’s success after law school. “I tell my students in the first class that my goal for you is not just that you’ll be able to succeed at a summer job, but having gone through my course, you will stand out from among the other summer interns,” says Atlas.
“If I could say that there was one class that was totally applicable to what I did, it would definitely be Lawyering,” notes Lally.
Atlas recognizes that, in the current economy, “it’s more important than ever that we excel as teachers to make sure that students are well prepared. Over the last several years, there’s been a trend towards incorporating more practical skills into the curriculum. Since the recession, employers seem to have a greater interest in new graduates having off-the-bat skills that can be put to work. I think that economic forces might accelerate the integration of practical skills into the Law School curriculum.”
Atlas adds, “I’m extraordinarily pleased that Dean Schwab and the administration have been so supportive of the program and have been willing to devote substantial resources to it.”
Expand Article Collapse Article