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Friday, October 10, 2008

Who Should Teach LRW?

Broadly speaking, there are three choices that schools have in choosing LRW teachers.  In some schools, the programs are taught by professors or full-time instructors; in other schools, part-time faculty teach LRW; and in still other schools, the program is taught by fellows who will, after 1-3 years, go on the tenure-track market.  To be sure, there are variations on these models, but I think these are the broad contours.

Each of these models has its benefits.  On the one end of the spectrum, having permanent, full-time (tenure-track or contract) LRW faculty means that the program is taught by Legal Research and Writing professionals.  They know what they are doing; they are committed to it; they think a lot about it; they attend conferences, contribute to the literature, and stay on top of developments; they become experienced over time; and so forth.  It also shows a commitment on the part of the school and reduces the likelihood that students get the message that LRW is a step-child.

On the other end of the spectrum, fellowship programs offer many ancillary benefits to the schools, the fellows, and the students.  But I want to focus on the actual teaching of LRW.  (Obligatory conflict of interest reminder:  I was an LRW teaching fellow at Stanford.)  I do sometimes wonder whether this model is good for teaching LRW.  Here are some problems with it:

  • Fellows don't really want to teach LRW (I had a great time doing it, but it wasn't my long-term career goal);
  • Fellows are not committed to LRW teaching, and consequently don't attend conferences, stay on top of the literature, and so forth;
  • Fellows may not have a great deal of practical lawyering experience;
  • Fellows operate with time constraints, committed as they are to publishing and going on the market.

So I do wonder whether this is the optimal model for LRW teaching.  That said, I think this model carries at least some benefits.  Fellows may bring an excitement to the LRW classroom; they may view the fellowship (as I did) as an opportunity to learn how to teach, and therefore be very committed to doing a good job; they may be approachable for students; they may realize that their performance evaluations from faculty and students will play a role in their marketability; and the very fact that they are not far removed from having practiced as junior attorneys may make them uniquely suitable to preparing students for that role.

It could be that these positives, together with the ancillary benefits to the schools, makes this an attractive option.  Further, a good program, with strong gatekeeping and a good director and mentoring (as we had at Stanford), may well mitigate some or all of the risks and negatives.  If pushed, however, I think that from the standpoint of LRW teaching, the fellowship model presents the greatest risk. 

Let me hasten to add that I think very highly of the Stanford program, the people who run it, and my colleagues; we all took the job quite seriously and were reasonably good at it.  But none of that changes the fact that the model represents a risk, and that overall, dedicated and potentially permanent LRW faculty may be a better model strictly from the standpoint of teaching.  Indeed, as I have argued, as the doctrinal faculty becomes more and more specialized--and more and more removed from practice experience--it may be especially important to have LRW instructors who bring a different set of experiences and skills to the table.

One final word on the subject: whatever the model, LRW instructors need to have some basic practice experience.  They don't all need to have been litigators, despite the fact that LRW programs usually focus on the litigation context; indeed, given that many (probably most) of our law students will not be litigators, it is important to have instructors with a diverse range of lawyering experiences.  But they absolutely must have some practical lawyering experience.

I am curious what others think about these issues.  And I am especially interested in what students have to say.  Please chime in!

Posted by Hillel Levin on October 10, 2008 at 10:04 AM in Hillel Levin, Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I'm a skeptic. The benefits you describe for having fellows teach LRW -- excitement, commitment to doing a good job, desire to get good evaluations, and recent experience in practice -- can all be obtained by hiring the right kind of LRW professionals. The idea that any newly minted JD / clerk can teach LRW effectively -- just because they are smart and may some day make a good tenure-track faculty member -- is an insult to the many committed LRW teachers out there who take their jobs as teachers seriously. (I'm not suggesting you are supporting this view, just that it is out there and offered in defense of such programs).

Top schools like the one you did a fellowship at exploit desperation on the part of tenure-track job seekers to fill LRW needs cheaply without having to hire permanent legal writing faculty, who would acquire salary seniority as well as political power within a faculty. It may not really matter what top schools do (in that they would probably simply stop teaching legal writing if they weren't worried about the ABA accreditation requirement), but the spread of such "fellows" to other schools would be a disservice to students and legal education. In my experience, students at (even the top law schools) aren't as good at writing as they think they are. They need all the help--professional help--they can get.

Posted by: Geoff | Oct 10, 2008 11:15:45 AM

Let's not forget the Yale model -- as i understand it, upper-level students are the primary instructors in legal writing -- the ones who provide the majority of written feedback to students, although there are professionals who give periodic lectures. I think G'town also had this model until recently; don't know about others.

Posted by: Jason Solomon | Oct 10, 2008 11:50:42 AM

The fact is that teaching LRW is difficult, labor-intensive and can be quite tedious. It is much easier to "burn out" on a diet of teaching only LRW and more difficult to be a productive scholar when teaching such a feedback-intensive class. Despite the central importance of the skills, LRW has been historically undervalued by law schools, offloaded onto a cheap source of labor: originally third-year law students and, beginning at a time when they couldn't find jobs, female law school graduates as contract or non-tenure track teachers. Kathryn M. Stanchi & Jan M. Levine, Gender and Legal Writing: Law Schools' Dirty Little Secrets, 16 Berkeley Women's L.J. 3, 7 (2001); Jan M. Levine & Kathryn M. Stanchi, Women, Writing & Wages: Breaking the Last Taboo, 7 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 551, 556-59 (2001).

If a school isn't particularly concerned about teaching LRW--believing any warm body in the front of the room can impart the most basic skills, and that's all that's necessary--then it is more likely to look for ways to exploit the interchangeability of LRW teachers to its advantage. Turning the LRW program into a rotating spit of future professors accomplishes the minimalist LRW teaching goal while creating a Branch-Rickey-style farm team of future "real" teaching prospects. And it eliminates the pesky political concerns mentioned above; there are increasing pressures from the ABA to make LRW faculty tenure track (the horror!).

So who teaches LRW isn't much about teaching LRW. The risks of the program you mention are risks to the students' education; I think the pertinent risks to the law school are that they would hire a "bust"--somebody who does NOT go on to do "real" work in the academy.

Posted by: anon | Oct 10, 2008 9:22:34 PM

I learned back in the early '80s from a 3L. She was brilliant and a wonderful person, but she didn't know a thing about real legal writing. I was lucky enough to have outstanding mentors in practice, but they were the exception, not the rule.

Why would you want anyone teaching a subject other than an expert in the area? It's a no-brainer. And it's no more a burn out if the school properly staffs and supports it than any job is a burn out. Of course a school can choose to overload its legal writing profs and burn them out, but that seems pretty short-sighted to me. But who am I to say? I typically teach legal writing, and I love it.

Posted by: Peter Friedman | Oct 16, 2008 10:05:09 AM

Thank you for the thoughtful post. For anyone wanting detailed information on the pros and cons of the various legal writing program staffing models (more finely parsed as to types), I recommend the ABA's Sourcebook on Legal Writing Programs, second edition (Eric Easton ed., 2006). You should be able to find a copy in any U.S. ABA accredited law school's library, and any legal writing director's office. There's a chapter almost 50 pages long on "Staffing Models and Other Personnel Issues." Full disclosure: I co-authored the chapter, along with Professor Jan Levine, at Duquesne. We purposely included the pros and cons of each model, to help law schools make decisions on staffing.

As for the credentials of legal writing professors, I agree, practice experience is essential, and you would be hard pressed to find a full-time legal writing professor without practice experience. Professor Holly Temple, at West Virgina, and I conducted a study of the credentials of legal writing professors at hiring time, the results of which you can see at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1033477.

- Sue Liemer
Associate Professor & Director of Lawyering Skills
Southern Illinois University School of Law

Posted by: Sue Liemer | Oct 16, 2008 11:48:44 AM

I have directed and taught in LRW programs using virtually every "staffing" model, and written a good deal about it. I ran a hybrid program at one school for 11 years, using fellows as one of the components. And, I have to say that some of my best friends are former fellows...

The fundamental flaws in any program that uses fellows to teach LRW are detailed in several of my articles and those of others, but I will summarize them here. First, fellowship programs are essentially short-term positions where the ultimate goal of the fellows is to find a secure teaching position. For them to teach writing well the program have in place a structure built around one or more experienced tenured faculty who know how to teach writing, who design and implement a curriculum, and who train and supervise a constantly-changing cast of characters. Fellowships are usually one- or two-year positions, and most experienced teachers know that it takes anyone at least three years of teaching one course to truly become a good self-aware teacher of that course, regardless of one's enthusiasm and abilities (which are never to be underestimated). Fellowships do not permit that to happen. Fellows, because of their focus, training, and experience, simply cannot draft effective assignments, and they will never acquire sufficient experience (at the law school where they are fellows) to reach their potential as teachers of LRW. And I must say that having trained and worked with many fellows who fell in love with teaching legal writing and who are now in secure or tenured legal writing teaching positions at other schools.

Second, a fellowship carries within it a structure that is built on divided allegiances, to one's students, to one's scholarship, and to those varied faculty who are responsible for the fellow's teaching and scholarship. The responses of fellows to these pressures can vary tremendously. And some of those responses harm their students.

Third, fellows are not always selected for teaching ability, and they may not be selected by those who need them to teach writing well. They may not be selected by those who are responsible for their teaching of writing.

Fourth, fellows are usually paid very little money compared to the other faculty, are often given minimal support, and may be trained poorly. Fellowship programs are economic responses of schools to perceptions of potentially high labor costs for persons in what the faculty consider to be undesired positions, where the salary might be compensated by pandering to the fellows' wishes of earning prestige-based enhancements to their resumes and an alternative path into teaching (or higher salaries at entry). Most fellowship programs (all but two or three, actually) are intended to produce candidates for doctrinal faculty positions, not LRW faculty, and they almost never produce teachers who make LRW their career. They do produce people who understand how much work is involved in teaching LRW, however.

Jan M. Levine
Associate Professor
Director, Legal Research & Writing Program
Duquesne University School of Law
600 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15282

e-mail: levinej@duq.edu
telephone: 412.396.1048
fax: 412.396.4014
Papers on SSRN

Posted by: Jan Levine | Oct 16, 2008 1:10:36 PM

Here's one framework I've often used to explain the differences amongst teachers of LRW. You can find excellent teachers in every group, but...

First, imagine a skilled 2-L or 3-L, who, as a TA, can review a 1-L paper in LRW and do a pretty good job. Give that upper-division student a skilled & committed LRW professor to design the assignments, teach the classes, and train the TAs, and you have a better teacher. But she can do this for only a year.

Take that TA and give her a couple of years of law practice, and bring her back to teach as an adjunct. She can do a far better job as a teacher of LRW. But she's limited by time and salary, and cannot devote her full capabilities to teaching, no matter how much support the school provides via a skilled and experienced program director. It's not her career, with all that implies.

Take that adjunct, and hire her to teach LRW full-time. She can do an even better job, and can grow as a teacher, because it's what she does for a living. But if you allow her to do this job only for a couple of years, and make her search for her next job after a year or two, adn treat her as a second-class citizen (or worse), then she'll be less effective. And she will soon be gone.

Give that full-time teacher a secure job. Pay her well. Support her professional development and encourage the production of scholarship and the teaching of other courses. Immerse her in the national community of other LRW teachers. Keep the student:faculty ratio low. Treat her as a valued member of the faculty. Hire her into a tenure-track job because she's as good as anyone else and loves what she teaches, and does it so well. Now you have what those students deserve, and what the profession deserves.

Posted by: Jan Levine | Oct 16, 2008 6:34:52 PM

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