Three Years, Better Spent

Bryan A. Garner, a distinguished research professor at the Dedman School of Law at SMU, says one of the problems with law schools is that they do not teach writing.

By Bryan A. Garner

Reforming legal education – an urgent societal need – is a glacial process. And the glacier has been flowing the wrong way. Entrenched pedagogical mediocrity infects even the best law schools, and almost all the schools simply mimic the anemic methods of the schools just above them in the rankings. But the key to better health has little to do with changing the time requirement: three years is about right.

The biggest failure at most law schools is the dearth of seriously good skills courses, especially training in legal writing. Law schools generally reward scholarship, not teaching excellence, and there is a built-in bias against one-on-one teacher-student time. Too often the only feedback a student gets from a professor is a single letter grade after the final exam. Now add this: of all law-school courses, legal writing is both the single most time-intensive subject and the least respected.

Most legal scholarship is poorly written and is mired in nonpractical abstraction that few can understand and fewer still can benefit from. Most law professors don’t know how to write well, so they could hardly teach the subject if they wanted to. On top of that, lawyers of all kinds -- both academic lawyers and practicing ones -- rationalize their linguistic ineptitude by claiming that legal jargon is necessary (most of it isn’t); that writing instruction is elementary, remedial stuff (it should progress to advanced techniques); and that writing style doesn’t matter anyway. But it does matter: clear writing equates with clear thinking, and judges and employers cry out for both. Put all these things together, and you have serious educational pathologies.

So what’s the cure? For starters, the second and third years of law school ought to include much more research, writing and editing, with three to six short papers required in each course (not, as is the standard, one “major” research paper during the whole three years). Each paper should be subjected to rigorous editing, then rewritten and resubmitted. (This is perfectly doable. I've done it for classes of 30 at the University of Texas and at Southern Methodist University.) Law schools should get their priorities straight and better meet the needs of their students’ future employers.

Short of such reform, the future for new law school graduates looks dismal. And the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers -- the kind whom I teach -- looks very bright indeed.

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