Learning to Write in Code: The Value of Using Legal Writing Exercises to Teach Tax Law
Posted: 25 Jun 2007
Traditionally, law school tax courses have been taught using a mix of problems, class discussion, the Socratic method, and one end-of-term exam. The goal of these courses is to introduce students to key concepts of tax law and to teach them the essential skill of reading and interpreting the Internal Revenue Code and Treasury Regulations. This traditional method of instruction is an efficient and cost-effective way of transmitting a great deal of complex information to a large number of students. It is also a good vehicle to teach the essential skill of reading and interpreting the Code. However, the time limitations inherent in the traditional methods of teaching do not require, or indeed permit, students to engage in the depth and quality of analysis that they will be asked to perform when they enter practice. In addition, students, while learning the Internal Revenue Code, are not instructed as to how they will use or apply the Code in their daily tax practices.
In 2002, I developed a course in the Graduate Program in Taxation at the University of Washington School of Law, now entitled Tax Research and Writing, that has required students to learn tax law in a manner that is different from the traditional problem-based method. Through a series of written assignments, students wrestle with complex statutory and regulatory provisions, as well as caselaw and administrative materials, and then produce written products of the type and quality they will be required to produce in practice. More than teaching the "skills" of research and writing, the Tax Research and Writing assignments require the students to analyze, struggle with, and resolve tax questions at a different, and I would argue higher, level.
My thesis in this article is that the traditional methods of teach tax law, standing alone, are not sufficient to properly prepare our students for the rigors of tax practice. Whenever practicable, tax professors should include writing assignments in their substantive courses that will necessitate each student to fully analyze the relevant Code provisions and create a written product that would be appropriate for their future practice. In Section I of the article, I will set forth the limitations inherent in the traditional methods of teaching tax law that prevent students from fully analyzing the Code. Section II will then set forth why I believe writing exercises are a superior way to teach legal analysis, including the analysis of tax law. My argument is that writing exercises teach legal analysis, not just some separate skill of writing, and that the analysis that students are able to perform under these conditions is superior to what they can perform in class. At the same time, writing assignments teach students the forms and norms of practice, and improve their writing, making them better prepared to be effective professionals when they enter the practice of law. In Section III of the article, I will introduce Tax Research and Writing course, including some of the assignments I have used and the goals of each of the assignments. Finally, in Section IV, I will provide suggestions on how legal writing assignments can be included in substantive tax courses.
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