“The first year legal writing courses are graded this year.” The announcement by our peer mentors during orientation in early August spread quickly throughout the school and brought a range of emotions to the intrepid law students of the University of Illinois College of Law. There was the amused response of 3Ls, “That’s unfortunate for you guys.” There was the tepid response of 2Ls: “I mean I guess it could be a good thing for your GPA, if you’re a good writer.” And of course there was the response of my fellow 1Ls: “Why can’t writing be pass/fail like legal research?”
See, this year is the first time my law school has graded its first-year legal course. Previously we had a pass/fail system with honors distinctions. So why the change?
The University of Illinois isn’t the first school to grade legal writing. Shannon Mortiz, Director of Legal Writing at Illinois, said it varies around the country, but many schools do grade the course. Here in the state, instructors at other schools such as the University of Chicago and Loyola also grade their writing courses.
Obviously there’s more incentive (for better or for worse) to work harder when a class is graded because of the impact it has on your GPA. And Moritz said that incentive was definitely evident in first semester.
“It’s hard to tell based on only one semesters worth of experience, but just in general it seemed to me that students were taking it very seriously,” she said. “Not that students haven’t taken it seriously in the past too, but there seemed to be sort of an extra level of dedication to the course this year.”
But the change goes beyond wanting to make students take classes more seriously. It reflects what Moritz describes as a shift in the law school curriculum.
“Certainly over the past five years, there’s been more of a focus on the importance of legal writing in legal education,” she said. “And I think at least here at the College of Law, we have taken steps to enhance that aspect of the curriculum.”
The shift Mortiz describes falls in line with what the American Bar Association found in its 2012 Survey of Law School Curricula. Conducted from 2002 to 2010, this study found that law schools were attempting to respond to past criticism of their curriculum. That response has led to “…new programs and courses, new and enhanced experiential learning, and greater emphasis on various kinds of writing across the curriculum. “
Schools also have expanded the number of legal writing courses required as well as the skills these classes cover, according to the survey. For the first time, 28% of law schools indicated they require students to take a specific upper division legal writing course.
And the change seems to be working. A study published in 2013 called “Grades Matter; Legal Writing Grades Matter Most,” shows a correlation between students who do well in graded legal writing courses and their overall performance in other law school classes. The study showed that students with top scores in their legal writing classes consistently were in the top of their other classes. Likewise students at the bottom of the legal writing grades were similarly in the bottom of other classes. Similarly, another study showed a student’s performance in their legal writing class was “the strongest predictor of law school success.”
Moritz thinks that makes quite a lot of sense. “Everyone realizes that in any area of practice you’re going to be doing a lot of writing of some kind,” Moritz said. “But I think the other thing about the importance of being a good writer is that it really helps you develop your analytical skills.” She adds: “For me, at least personally, I can’t truly understand a legal issue and the analysis of the issue unless I can put it in words and that really helps me to figure out how to do the analysis.”
Yet writing remains a challenge for many law students. Moritz understands why. Legal writing is so different in structure and style than anything students have experienced before. However that challenge is precisely the reason students need as many opportunities to hone their writing ability as possible.
“Writing is a skill that takes time to develop,” she said. “And you just need to keep practicing and keep learning and put forth your best efforts. Then [future classes] will obviously build on the first semester and give everyone the opportunity to become better writers than they are right now.”
So maybe, instead of letting the phrase “legal writing is graded this year” bring that flurry of emotion with it, it should induce only one response: thank goodness. Because it will force first-year students at Illinois, and all law schools that grade the class, to work harder. And in the end, that’s a good thing for us. Because if we can master the challenge of legal writing, chances are we will be better prepared to enter the profession and become successful lawyers as well.