The Legal Writing Classroom in the World: Teaching Skills in a Social Context
Cynthia D. Bond
The John Marshall Law School
March 10, 2011
VULNERABLE POPULATIONS AND TRANSFORMATIVE LAW TEACHING: A CRITICAL READER, Carolina Academic Press, 2011
First-year skills training in law school is typically understood to be even more non-ideological and devoid of social context than so-called substantive law classes like Contracts and Torts. Typically, the announced goal of such legal research and writing classes is to teach students how to think like a lawyer, as well as how to research and write like one. These skills are typically presented as tools in the lawyer's politically neutral bag of tricks. In fact, students (as well as perhaps some faculty still suspicious of legal writing classes' value) may have the general impression that first year legal writing courses aren’t about anything.
What opportunities are there, then, in first year legal writing courses, to bring to bear social contexts of class, race, gender and nationality? This article argues that legal writing professors can structure a world of legal conflict that announces its social construction rather than suppressing it, while also teaching necessary skills. In part this may be accomplished by socially self-conscious problem construction. That is, in creating legal hypotheticals and characters, and in choosing case law for students to work with, legal writing professors can invite students to engage with the social context of a problem as well as teaching them how to reason and write about those problems. In addition, an attentiveness to the hegemonic discourse implicit in the legal writing form can help legal writing professors convey to students that this style of writing, while worth mastering, is a professional choice rather than an unwavering stylistic imperative.
Crucial to these questions is the nature of the student body in our classes. Some of us may teach in progressive institutions that attract public interest minded students. However, the majority of us do not teach in such schools. How do we politicize law for a more apathetic or even conservative student body? Grappling with this question every semester, I have started to identify a type of student I call the post-politically correct (or post-PC student). In short, this student subscribes to the notion that de-centering the hegemony of whiteness, analyzing the dynamics of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation bias in the law, for example, are merely “politically correct” gestures, and no longer urgent or even necessary projects. Reaching this student requires more than including socially marginalized legal subjects in course materials. Rather, professors must try to unpack the various assumptions and baggage students may bring to law school and pick up in law school. And professors may also have to find strategies for decentering defensive responses to so-called politically correct subject matter, encouraging students to go beyond simplistic rejections of material that addresses political identity.
In this article, I discuss various strategies I have used in the legal writing classroom to try to reveal social context in skills training. In addition, I discuss strategies for revealing hegemonies in legal reasoning and writing, and in the social function of law, in classroom discussions and student conferences.
Keywords: Legal pedagogy, legal writing pedagogy, law and society
Date posted: April 7, 2011 ; Last revised: December 17, 2012