Dean's Desk: Learning to write for the law

March 11, 2015

deans desk lyon“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” 

– Ernest Hemingway

One of the educational challenges facing those of us in higher education (not just law) is teaching writing. The entry of what is often referred to as the millennial generation into higher education has shown a marked decrease in prior opportunities to write, to be critiqued, and, sadly, even to have been instructed in the basics of grammar, sentence structure and syntax. As my colleagues professors Susan Stuart and Ruth Vance said in their recent article:

“Today, more students enter the legal academy without even rudimentary problem-solving skills. Indeed, emerging empirical evidence reveals that fewer students possess the basic higher-order cognitive processes that the academy has assumed are the threshold educational achievement for success in law school … [and as a result of ] the disaster that is No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2001. Second, higher education is not making up the deficits from NCLB. Not all matriculating law students have these problems: Traditional students with liberal arts backgrounds tend to have stronger problem-solving credentials by reason of their past academic experiences while non-traditional law students have either escaped the problems of NCLB or have developed basic problem-solving skills through real-life experiences. Third, some dilution of the quality of students is to be expected with the increase in the absolute number of students being admitted. But something more serious is afoot when even Harvard Law School provides problem-solving workshops for its first-year students.” – Susan Stuart and Ruth Vance, “Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight: The Academically Underprepared Law Student & Legal Education Reform,” 48 VAL. L. REV. 1 (2013).

Those of us in higher education certainly bemoan this state of affairs, and in the legal academy where the ability to solve problems and to write effectively are two of the most important skills, there is quite a bit of hand wringing by faculty throughout the country.

While I and my fellow deans may decry this state of affairs, we certainly cannot only do that. As I mentioned in my last column, in 2013, Valparaiso University Law School began a new chapter in legal education by immersing first-year law students in a curriculum that has been completely rethought to reflect the changing needs of both the legal marketplace and the new generation of beginning law students. Part of the transformation of the curriculum has been an intensified integration of legal writing and research skills into all parts of our students’ law school experience. We recognize that problem-solving and legal analysis must be a part of a rigorous legal research and writing curriculum, and we are working to do that.

Valparaiso University Law School is well known regionally as an institution that trains students to be attorneys with the highest level of legal research and writing skills. This reputation is owed to the excellent legal writing and research faculty in our midst. As full members of our faculty, our legal writing and library faculty scholars are making amazing contributions to the classroom and to the greater community of legal scholars. If you would like to learn some more specifics, please visit http://www.valpo.edu/law/current-students/academics/legal-writing-and-research.

As the quote from Ernest Hemingway says, one has to learn to write; you just don’t wake up knowing how. It is our responsibility as legal educators to take up the challenges that face our students, to demand from them what they are capable of, to reward their hard work and to help them to communicate well to the courts, their colleagues and most importantly, their clients.•


Andrea D. Lyon is dean and professor of law at Valparaiso University Law School. She joined the school in July 2014. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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