Behind the Scenes: How Ilene Strauss and 12 Students Created CLS’s First Writing Center

Since beginning her work as Director of Legal Writing Programs two years ago, Ilene Strauss has looked for ways to make Columbia Law School graduates better writers. So, this fall, she recruited 12 Writing Center Fellows to found the Writing Center, a hub for students to help their peers learn and improve their legal writing.

While the Center was Strauss’ idea, the students who were selected to be Fellows created the structure and curriculum of the program. Beginning in October, the Fellows offered one-on-one conferences in their JG 821 office to provide feedback on specific pieces of legal writing, and created workshops and written resources for students.

Throughout the school year, the Fellows met regularly to track the Center’s progress and to refine their strategy. In these meetings, they decided not to line edit in part because the writing would be turned in for grades, but mostly to push students to make their own improvements instead of accepting track changes.

The Fellows have been providing global feedback; their rule of thumb is to offer three main pointers – usually on organization and style. For example, Fellow Carl Johnson, CLS ’14, told the students he worked with that good legal writing should be as simple as possible: “Relevance, relevance, relevance!” “Be concise!” “Write how you speak – would you say ‘wheretofore?’”

When the Fellows found recurring issues in the work of students they were editing, they decided to create their own lesson plans. For example, many students did not know how to apply IRAC (the infamous acronym for the issue-rule-analysis-conclusion” structure of legal writing), so they planned a lunch workshop in which they taught students how to separate out each rule and apply the facts — instead of recounting the facts, issue, reasoning, and holding of seven or more cases in a row.

LPW POLL

In addition to planning workshops, the Fellows also created a series of handouts, including a “Bluebooking Primer: for citations used in practice.” The primer covers the anatomy of a case cite, the anatomy of a statute cite, and other good rules to know. The lesson not only teaches style and structure, but the logic behind it.  They warn: “Careful Bluebooking goes unnoticed, but sloppy Bluebooking makes for a sloppy brief.” The Fellows are still trying to figure out the best way to connect to students – which they realize for some is not by reading Pratt.

The launch of the Writing Center raises larger questions about the writing program at Columbia Law. Strauss believes that because LPW is not evaluated with letter grades, students may not value their writing courses as much as everything else. Going forward, she hopes to make the writing program meet more regularly, for more credits, and offer elective classes beyond the first year. For its part, the Center hopes to offer their services to upper year students working on writing samples and seminar papers.

“Next year, the Writing Center will integrate itself into the 1L curriculum right away, meeting 1Ls at orientation and creating programming that works alongside LPW in the fall, while still providing 1-on-1 services,” said Taly Matiteyahu, CLS ’15 and the 2014-2015 Student Director of the Writing Center.

Students expressed hope that the Writing Center would build on the strengths of the legal writing program at Columbia Law and lead to bigger developments.

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