Are We There Yet? Aligning the Expectations and Realities of Gaining Competency in Legal Writing

34 Pages Posted: 12 May 2016

Date Written: May 11, 2016


Each year, it seems that more law professors express their concerns that increasing numbers of students are coming to law school underprepared for the task. Moreover, professors often express specific concerns about their students’ writing abilities. While there may be some truth to these assertions, it is also true that legal educators need to take a closer look at law school curriculums and teaching methods to make sure that students are afforded the best opportunities to succeed. Indeed, the challenges of modern legal education may reflect not only the shortcomings of today’s students, but also the need for law schools to reconsider their curricular goals and approaches to teaching. Legal skills, such as legal writing, have long maintained a subordinate position in the curriculums of many law schools. While their importance has received increased recognition as of late, many law schools continue to dedicate insufficient time and resources to teaching legal skills. Indeed, most law schools only require students to take two semesters of formal instruction in practical legal writing during their first year, and require students to take no additional legal writing courses in their second or third years. Consistent with this curricular approach, many law professors seem to expect students to gain significant competency in legal writing before they begin their second year of law school, and to be able to proceed from that point with less guidance.

This article urges legal educators to consider what law schools are asking their first-year law students to learn in just two semesters of practical legal writing, in comparison, to what law students can realistically achieve. Currently, it seems that a disconnect exists between what legal writing faculty are able to teach students in their first year and what professors teaching students in later years expect these students to know. A review of select, first-year students’ final writing assignments provides some perspective on what students are learning in their first-year legal writing courses. It is the author’s hope that this article will paint a more accurate picture of what professors can reasonably expect from students in their second and third years. Ultimately, this article asks legal educators to recognize the hard work and achievements of law students, while acknowledging all that legal writing entails and all that students still need to be taught after their first year.

Keywords: legal writing, legal skills, legal education, effective writing, legal audience, appellate brief, ABA standards, learning outcomes, legal analysis

Suggested Citation

Keene, Sherri Lee, Are We There Yet? Aligning the Expectations and Realities of Gaining Competency in Legal Writing (May 11, 2016). 53 Duquesne Law Review 99 (2015), U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016-22, Available at SSRN:

Sherri Lee Keene (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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