Encouraging Law Student Gains in Writing Skills

Kirsten Winek, J.D., Ph.D.
Manager, Law School Analytics and Reporting
ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar

For my first year and a half at the ABA, I was a part-time Ph.D. student researching and writing about the aspects of the law school experience that impact law student self-reported gains in writing skills using a Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) dataset.  The impetus for my dissertation came from my previous experience in law school career services and seeing first-hand how crucial good writing is for new attorneys.  The following is a brief overview of my dissertation research, its findings, and recommendations for law schools.     

Over the past few decades, a number of surveys and articles have revealed concerns by lawyers, judges, and law professors that new attorneys do not have the writing skills needed for success in legal practice.  Other publications have noted that law students feel similarly.  In order to prepare students for the writing required for early law practice (as well as the bar exam), this study sought to determine which law school involvement activities impacted law student self-reported gains in writing skills, specifically in full-time, third-year law students.  These “law school involvement activities” included a wide variety of activities and perceptions covered by LSSSE questions including extra- and co-curricular activities, class participation and coursework, peer and faculty interactions, satisfaction with different parts of the legal education experience, and perceptions of skills gains.

Alexander Astin’s Involvement Theory, which served as this dissertation’s theoretical framework, suggests that the more students involve themselves in their higher education experience, the more they learn and grow from this experience.  In the law school context, this may mean that students who are more involved with their legal education perceive greater skills gains.  Thus, to find out if any law school involvement activities impacted student self-reported gains in writing skills, this study analyzed a dataset from the 2018 administration of LSSSE.  The dataset used in this study contained survey responses from a total of 3,803 full-time, third-year law students who responded to LSSSE when it was administered at their law schools in Spring 2018.  LSSSE asked law students dozens of questions about their legal education experience, including a question asking them to evaluate the extent to which it contributed to their writing skills gains.

To guide the analysis of the LSSSE data, Alexander Astin’s I-E-O (Inputs-Environment-Outcomes) Model served as the study’s conceptual framework.  The I-E-O model defines inputs as the attributes students bring with them to their higher education experience, environment as all the unique aspects of the higher education experience, and outcomes as the skills and attributes students have at the end of their higher education experience.  For the statistical analysis of the LSSSE data, a blocked form of stepwise linear regression determined which independent variables related to law school involvement activities had a statistically significant impact on law student self-reported gains in writing skills.

The results of the data analysis revealed that fifteen law school involvement activities had a statistically significant impact on law student self-reported gains in writing skills.  The three strongest predictors of self-reported writing skills gains – which were all positive predictors – included self-reported gains in speaking clearly and effectively, thinking critically and analytically, and developing legal research skills, respectively.  These three skills will be the focus for the following implications and recommendations. 

A major implication of these findings is simply that legal writing skills are not learned in a vacuum – they are learned in conjunction with other skills such as speaking, legal research, and critical and analytical thinking.  As such, legal writing skills should be taught, learned, and practiced alongside these other three skills.  The first year legal writing course is a great example of how these skills can all work together.  Most of these courses feature instruction and practice not just in writing, but in the legal research and critical and analytical thinking that goes into the creation of a written memo or brief.  This course also allows students to practice speaking skills when talking to their professor about their written work in individual conferences or participating in oral arguments based on their written brief.

The findings of this dissertation study lead to a few recommendations for law schools.  First, because most first year legal writing courses incorporate all of the self-reported skills that positively impact student self-reported writing skills gains, these courses should remain in their current form as a foundational part of the legal education curriculum. 

Second, law faculty should ensure they are providing sufficient opportunities to practice legal research, speaking, and thinking skills in advanced legal writing coursework.  Many law schools offer courses in scholarly writing, which by its nature, involves substantial work in legal research and critical and analytical thinking.  Faculty should consider adding oral presentations of student work to allow students to also practice speaking skills in this course.  Similarly, courses in general legal drafting or writing for transactional or litigation practice should also be offered to students since these courses focus on the critical and analytical thinking needed to create documents that will serve their hypothetical clients’ best interests.  These courses should also emphasize the research practicing attorneys do in creating these documents, including using practice guides or formbooks.  Furthermore, having students discuss their written work with the professor as they might do with a senior partner adds a relevant way to practice speaking skills. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to participate in law school clinics, which already provide many of the same benefits of drafting courses (client-centered writing, critical and analytical thinking, and practically-oriented research) but have the added benefits of close collaboration with their clinical professor or supervising attorney and interactions with live clients.

Lastly, and more difficult, is finding ways to incorporate writing, speaking, thinking, and legal research into upper-level doctrinal courses that may currently lack opportunities to practice any of these skills.  Students can build on the writing skills learned in their first year legal writing courses to create legal documents related to the subject matter of their doctrinal course.  For instance, in a Business Associations course, students could collaborate together to research, analyze their findings, and draft basic articles of incorporation for a small company.  Working in groups would require students to discuss and analyze their research findings and reduce them to writing – and the professor could more easily give feedback on the written work since there is only one work product per group. 

The findings of this dissertation are not wholly surprising, but they confirm what most lawyers and law professors already know about their own writing.  To create a good piece of writing, one needs to do their research, think critically and analytically about that research, and then begin writing.  To strengthen that writing, discussing and obtaining feedback on it from others is crucial as are multiple drafts that force one to continually think and re-think their written work.  Giving law students the ability to learn and practice these skills together will help them succeed as they evolve from student to lawyer. 

The full dissertation is available at: http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=toledo1557486361911544