An Overview and Explanation
Many years ago and around what only seems like the dawn of time (Internet joke) – roughly 15 years ago – I stopped giving comprehensive final exams to my upper-level (second year and third year) law students.
Instead, I assess those students via short, fully open, short writing assignments. There are typically three assignments per semester. Students typically are given two weeks to complete each one.
Do you have questions about what I have done, what I do now, and/or advantages and drawbacks to this method? Feel free to contact me directly via email at my pitt.edu account or via Twitter (@profmadison).
Some introductory explanation follows:
As I tell students, each assignment is not intended to be or to substitute for a classic “issue spotter” final exam or research memo. Each assignment is intended to emulate the sort of brief and often vague request that junior lawyers often get from senior lawyers, clients, and even (sometimes) judges. You’ve got an incomplete set of facts, an underspecified range of possible legal and factual concerns to explore, and a severely space-limited work product to prepare. Go!
I practiced law in private law firms for nearly 10 years before becoming a law professor. These sorts of requests were far more common, in my experience, than formal “legal research memos” of the sort that traditional first year legal writing courses prescribe, and far more common than assignments that require that I exercise an exam-style “issue spotting” sensibility. Training in traditional, formal legal writing has its place. I don’t propose that my assessment strategy should displace that. Complement it? Yes. Lawyers in training need to practice the arts of (i) disciplined communication, in the context of (ii) challenging legal and factual exploration and analysis, in tandem with (iii) meaningful client-side or other audience-side expectations.
My style of assessments seem to work well with my style of classroom teaching. Neither style suits every teacher, every student, or every course. I have experimented with short writing assignments (graded, with real weight) in a required first-year course (Contracts), but for the most part I stick to this approach in elective settings. Students who want to stick to other assessment formats have every opportunity to do that.
At one point, I was asked to write this up in a journal article. I did. So, for an elaborate explanation and justification, read Writing to Learn Law and Writing in Law: An Intellectual Property Illustration , 52 St. Louis Univ. L.J. 823 (2008).
Since that piece was published, I’ve made a number of changes to my basic approach. Most important, I’ve prepared and shared a grading rubric with my students, and I’ve prepared and shared an elaborate “how to succeed” memo with my students. Both undergo tweaking every couple of years. You can find the most recent versions at links included in the course links below, for the 2018 and 2019 versions of the courses. I have updated the sorts of work products that I ask students to prepare. “Memos,” yes, but also email messages, and slide decks.
And about five years ago, I opted into teaching exclusively from open, free to access course materials. I’ve written about that strategy elsewhere, briefly.
My first pilot use of this writing assignment format was in the Spring of 2002, in a course titled “Intellectual Property and Electronic Commerce.” (The course itself came and went after that one year.) I went all-in on the format starting in 2005, in my upper level course in Copyright Law. I finally said “so long!” to final exams in 2007, adding writing in Trademark Law to the portfolio. I don’t claim to have invented anything, but I’ve been at this writing stuff (now labelled “formative” assessment, in part because of all the critique and feedback that students receive from me along the way) longer than many teachers of “doctrinal” courses in law schools.
I get asked from time to time for examples and illustrations of the assignments themselves. Everything is always posted on the open web. At last I have simply collected the pages and posted links here.
OER note: use whatever you like from the below.
- Memo assignments were first used in the Spring 2005 version of Copyright Law.
- Assignments for courses offered in 2005 – 2008 were posted to html sites hosted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and are not archived on the public internet.
- Spring 2009 Assignments
- Spring 2010 Assignments
- Spring 2011 Assignments
- Spring 2012 Assignments
- Spring 2013 Assignments
- Spring 2014 Assignments
- Spring 2015 Assignments
- Spring 2016 Assignments
- Spring 2017 Assignments
- Spring 2018 Assignments
- Spring 2019 Assignments
- Memo assignments were first used in the Fall 2007 version of Trademark Law.
- Assignments for the course offered in 2007 were posted to an html site hosted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and are not archived on the public internet.
- Fall 2008 Assignments
- Fall 2009 Assignments
- Fall 2010 Assignments
- Spring 2012 Assignments
- Fall 2012 Assignments
- Fall 2013 Assignments
- Fall 2014 Assignments
- Fall 2015 Assignments
- Fall 2016 Assignments
- Fall 2017 Assignments