The Coker Fellows
The traditional legal curriculum begins with two semesters of legal writing. That is too little brief-writing to become Solicitor General of the United States, and it is way more than one might need to run for President of the United States. Since 85% of Yale’s graduates go on to be Solicitor General or President of the Unites States, it should come as no surprise that our writing program is structured a little differently.
The core of the first year writing program is tucked away within the Small Group course. The students in this small seminar learn to write a few crucial legal documents—the memo, the brief, perhaps a complaint—as part their study of one of the core legal subject matters. So a student might talk about affirmative action in class with one of the world’s foremost scholars, write a brief arguing that a certain law be overturned, and then take the train down to Washington to watch the Supreme Court hear that very issue.
Professors read their students’ work, but the day to day writing advice is doled out by the Coker Fellows, a cadre of dedicated 3Ls. Each Small Group gets two Coker Fellows to read drafts, answer questions, and act as a liaison to the legal community. Those students with a knack for legal writing, or who wish to develop one, continue to hone their skills in clinics, moot court competitions, or the immensely popular Advanced Legal Writing class. Our writing requirement gives students the chance to develop their scholarly style. And since teaching is the best way to learn, many students volunteer to serve a small group as a Coker Fellow.
I asked to be a Coker Fellow for the same professor from whom I learned constitutional law two years ago. Constitutional law was never my strongest subject—Marbury v. Madison had something to do with The Amazon Trail, right?—but I thought it would be best to (Roe v.) wade out past my comfort zone. I remember quite vividly how hard it was to master the arguments in this area, and to commit that mastery to a blank page. I was grateful as a 1L that my point of contact was someone who still remembered that learning to write like a lawyer is hard.
One of my students has an advanced degree from a prestigious humanities programs. What can I teach him about writing? One is a medical doctor. What can I teach him about patience or precision?
It turns out that everyone has a lot to learn. What counts as good writing in a history paper or admissions blog will not satisfy the demands of the legal profession. Lawyers’ writing must be structured and supported in ways that other scholars might find constraining. It should strike a professional balance between jargon and colloquialism. Above all, it must sound legal, a standard defined only by how we all learn to use it. Legal writing is bound by the experiences of every legal writer. It will conform to conventions. Yale’s legal writing program, however, is not.