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Beginning Legal Writers in Their Own Words: Why It's so Tough and What We Can Do About It

89 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2010  

Laura P. Graham

Wake Forest University School of Law

Miriam E. Felsenburg

Wake Forest University School of Law

Date Written: July 13, 2010


In the summer of 2007, the authors undertook a study designed to illuminate the reasons why many first-year legal writing students find the first few weeks of the class so difficult and so frustrating. Their own students’ struggles during early legal writing classes were of deep concern to the authors, primarily because these early classes were devoted to teaching fundamental skills, including legal reasoning and analysis. To isolate the reasons for these struggles, the authors administered a series of three surveys to first-year law students at two diverse law schools, seeking to learn how the students’ attitudes toward and experiences in legal writing changed over the course of their 1L year.

Based on the students’ responses to the surveys, the authors identified four major reasons for many beginning legal writing students’ difficulties and frustrations: (1) They lack a professional context in which to place the skills they are learning; (2) They are inexperienced in, and often resist, the difficult analytical thinking that is fundamental to good legal writing; (3) They lose confidence when they realize that the skills they used to achieve mastery in one discourse community do not guarantee success in the discourse community of legal writing; and (4) They are unable to correctly assess how their prior strengths and weaknesses as writers will impact their task as legal writers.

The first sections of this article introduce the goals of the study in more detail; generally describe the survey populations; outline the methodology of the study; and provide demographic results from the surveys. The bulk of the article is devoted to describing in detail how the students’ responses support the authors' findings about the four major reasons for early students’ struggles and frustrations. In the final section of the article, the authors posit that by candidly acknowledging to our students the validity of the reasons they struggle, and by making modest adjustments to our early teaching practices to address these reasons, legal writing professors can positively impact our students’ attitudes toward the task of learning legal writing and ultimately maximize their chances for success.

Keywords: Beginning Legal Writers, Legal Writing, Improving First Year Legal Writing, Legal Writing Research

Suggested Citation

Graham, Laura P. and Felsenburg, Miriam E., Beginning Legal Writers in Their Own Words: Why It's so Tough and What We Can Do About It (July 13, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Laura P. Graham

Wake Forest University School of Law ( email )

2601 Wake Forest Road
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States

Miriam E. Felsenburg (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States
3367586115 (Phone)
3367584496 (Fax)

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