Let me use this post to suggest one way in which prospective students can begin comparing academic programs. All law schools require their first year students to take a heavily prescribed curriculum. Few, if any electives exist, and indeed the required courses are practically the same at most schools. By contrast, second and third year students usually have great freedom to choose their courses.
The similarity between law school curriculums may give students the impression that there is little to distinguish the program of a particular school. However, there is one area — legal writing — where schools differ a great deal.
When I went to law school, I mistakenly thought that legal writing was the least important course I would take. And indeed, that is exactly how my alma mater, Harvard, treated it. The course was taught by second and third year students, giving it the feel of an afterthought to the “real” courses taught by full-time faculty. We didn’t pay much attention to it, and my education suffered for it. After my first year of law school, I arrived as a summer associate thinking I’d be well-prepared, only to find that I knew very little about how to conduct effective legal research or write memos. If not for the advice of a kind fellow summer associate educated at a supposedly “lesser” school, I might have failed in my first legal job.
Legal writing is important well beyond the summer associate experience. People may think of lawyers as oralists, but cases are really won and lost on briefs. When I practiced in California, judges issued tentative rulings based on briefs, and wouldn’t even hear argument from the “winning” side unless the “losing” side could convince the judge otherwise in a very few minutes. And of course, transactional lawyers must document deals clearly.
Despite the importance of legal writing, most law schools do not promote the details of their legal writing programs as heavily as other things. I can think of a few reasons. First, legal writing was not traditionally important to elite law schools, and one could argue that it still isn’t. Second, legal writing is not generally considered an academic discipline like torts or civil procedure. Third, legal writing comes across as un-sexy. Accomplished students of the sort who get into law school don’t feel good being told that their writing skills need improvement. It’s far more exciting to tell them that a school will make them experts in international human rights.
All of these things conspire to hide the importance of legal writing to students. Nevertheless, I’d suggest that it’s very much worthwhile for prospective students to compare legal writing programs at various schools and think about what kind of program best suits them. In my next post, I will describe 3 general types of legal writing programs, their pros and cons, and some of the reasons that schools adopt them.