Writing Lags in Law Schools

Latest engagement survey suggests a significant number of law school students are not adequately prepared for real-world legal writing.
January 7, 2009

Law schools have to be responsive to the ever-changing legal world to keep their curriculums relevant and meaningful, but the latest findings of a national survey suggest that they should also be focusing more on the basics. The 2008 annual results of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, released today, show nearly half of all law school students reporting that their education does not “contribute substantially” to their ability to “apply legal writing skills” in the real world.

LSSSE, first introduced in 2003, is an annual report providing comparative data on self-reported student experiences at law schools in the United States and Canada. In its purpose, it is similar to the National Survey of Student Engagement, another product of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. LSSSE aims to provide comparable data to law schools in an effort to help them improve their education and student success.

As of June 2008, the American Bar Association recognized 200 accredited law schools in the United States. This year, 85 institutions participated in LSSSE -- 15 of which are Canadian -- though 148 different institutions have participated over the life of the survey. Notably, three for-profit law schools participated this year. Two of them, the Phoenix School of Law and the Charlotte School of Law, are currently provisionally approved by the ABA.

As with NSSE, LSSSE results for individual institutions are kept confidential, although the survey’s officials encourage institutions to share as much as they are willing. Participating law schools receive their scores, in addition to comparisons with the national average, schools of a similar affiliation and the aggregated scores of self-selected peer groups.

Unlike NSSE, however, LSSSE has no individual benchmarks for engagement, such as “level of academic challenge” or “student-faculty interaction,” in which multiple questions are grouped and institutions receive blanket scores. Instead, LSSSE results are provided raw, by individual question, to participating institutions and can be sorted by any number of variables, such as gender or LSAT score.

Though the core of the LSSSE questionnaire has remained the same since its inception, two experimental question sets were added this year, focusing on computer use in the classroom and legal writing. Students responding to the latter questions provided some surprising data in this year’s results. Some law schools, the survey’s director suggested, should take notice and not forget the basics.

“Despite near universal agreement on the value of these skills and competencies, legal writing, for example, is typically featured primarily in the first year, and viewed by students as a sidebar in their doctrinal classes,” writes George D. Kuh, LSSSE director and professor at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, in his introduction to the 2008 results. “The low value placed on writing is symbolized by the facts that relatively few legal writing faculty are tenured or in a tenure-eligible role and are often paid less than other faculty members. Nevertheless, good lawyers must be good legal writers; it is a skill that will serve students well as they transition to the practice of law.”

Although law students report that they have plenty of opportunities to hone their legal writing skills in school, more than a third of them “wished there were more opportunities to do practice-based legal writing during their studies.” Furthermore, only 36 percent of students agree that their legal writing coursework helped them “learn substantive law by providing an opportunity to work through concepts and ideas."

These “disappointing findings,” as the survey calls them, come despite the fact that 72 percent of students report that their writing assignments “frequently require them to integrate ideas and information from various sources” and that 75 percent of students report that they feel their law school “contributes substantially to writing clearly and effectively.” Survey officials, however, say these findings regarding legal writing do not necessarily conflict with one another.

“It’s one thing to write clearly and effectively, and it’s another to feel that you’re learning skills to practice law,” said Lindsay Watkins, LSSSE project manager. “These students are getting good training but feel they are not learning practical writing skills. They would like more opportunities to apply their skills.”

The survey notes that first-year law students spend more time writing memorandums of law and appellate briefs, while third-year law students spend more time writing motions, transactional documents and research papers. Eighty-five percent of students write at least one “medium length paper during the academic year,” and 70 percent write at least one paper of at least 20 pages. Only sixty-two percent “frequently prepare multiple drafts of papers or assignments.” The survey finds that, in general, those students who write more often are more likely to report stronger legal research skills than others.

Among other “disappointing findings,” 60 percent of students report that their school places a “substantial emphasis on memorizing facts, ideas, or methods to repeat them in pretty much the same form." Watkins said this figure has remained relatively static since the inception of the survey, noting that she believes this still will “raise flags” for law school educators.

Elsewhere in the survey, there are multiple suggestions that third-year law students are less engaged in certain areas than are first- and second-year students. For example, 25 percent of third-year law students reported that they “frequently come to class unprepared.” It also finds, via the experimental questions about in-class computer use, that third-year law students are “less likely to use laptops for educationally purposeful activities.” The survey adds that, instead of accessing self-prepared case briefs or taking extra notes, third-year students are more likely “to use laptops to e-mail, surf the Web, and instant message.”

“Some faculty worry that such devices are a distraction, especially among the Millennial student cohort … who typically are much less likely to participate in class and who also spend less time reading and preparing for class than older students,” Kuh writes, but notes there is a bright spot.

Students who frequently use their computers for class purposes -- defined by LSSSE as “taking notes, refreshing one’s memory by reviewing notes from past lectures, reading a case brief that the student previously prepared or accessing LexisNexis or Westlaw” -- report they come to class better prepared and contribute more often to class discussions than those who do not.


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