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Yale Law School Expands Legal Writing Instruction

Before coming to law school, I assumed that the key to lawyering was being a good speaker; however, I have discovered that legal writing is the real bread and butter of lawyering. It constitutes a principal medium through which many of us will correspond with employers and colleagues, answer the queries of judges, and persuade, parry, or negotiate on behalf of clients.  -Margaret Hsieh ’11, Coker Fellow

Over the last twenty years, there have been two fixtures of Yale Law School’s legal writing program: the small group and Rob Harrison ’73. Small group professors and their assistants—Coker Fellows—train first-year students to write and reason effectively, while Harrison has steadfastly offered advice about legal memoranda, briefs, and effective communications, in a uniquely personal style that includes memorizing students' names and faces before he’s even met them and signing his emails, “love, Rob.”

Building on a strong foundation, the Law School has recently expanded its legal writing instruction. The changes began in January 2009 when Noah Messing ’00 came aboard. Messing, who litigated in Washington D.C. for approximately six years, left his job as Counsel for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to join Harrison as Yale Law’s second legal writing instructor. His writing courses, like Harrison’s iconic Advanced Legal Writing, take students beyond basic competence to excellence in legal writing.

“Writing is the heart of modern legal practice,” Messing explained. “Rob and I have the privilege of helping our extraordinary students become extraordinary lawyers.”

Messing has taught an upper-level writing course for students who plan to litigate, Legal Writing for Litigators, and co-taught a course for first-year law students, Elements of Effective Legal Writing, to train them to write strong briefs. Messing will also co-teach a course in spring 2011 to train students to draft contracts.

“With unflagging enthusiasm, warmth, and a seemingly endless repertoire of incisive advice and hilarious examples, Noah has shown my classmates and me how rhetoric can endear or alienate a reader, how the arrangement of facts can persuade or cast doubt, and how a strategically placed comma can clarify or create boundless ambiguity,” said Margaret Hsieh ’11.

“There’s no class that I more often think back to—or thank my luck for—than Noah's Legal Writing for Litigators,” said Elliot Morrison ’10, currently clerking on the Eleventh Circuit with Judge Rosemary Barkett. “It’s in everything I write for my judge, or will write for any job I have going forward.”

The federal judiciary has gotten into the act as well, with a number of distinguished judges coming to Yale Law to train students in writing. U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz led Yale Law’s brief-writing course for first-year students, teaching with Messing, Professor Dan Kahan, and Sandy Glover of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Haven. And Kravitz now co-teaches—with Senior Judge John Walker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit—an upper-level seminar that trains students to write briefs and argue cases in federal courts.

Judge Walker has become involved at Yale Law in another vital way—as part of an innovation affectionately known as “The Walker Plan.” The judge works with the Coker Fellows of every participating first-term instructor to discuss how they can most constructively critique students’ writing. He also meets directly with the students of each participating first-term instructor to provide custom feedback on their writing assignments.

“Can you imagine being a first semester law student and having a sitting Second Circuit Judge evaluate your legal writing skills?” said Dean Robert Post ’77. “It’s pretty exciting.”

“It felt exhilaratingly real world, albeit somewhat intimidating, to have a sitting Second Circuit Judge provide constructive feedback on my first attempt at legal writing,” said Tessa Bialek ’13. “Judge Walker’s unique perspective enhanced my understanding of legal writing contexts and techniques, and his critique served as a valuable complement to feedback from other sources.”

The latest innovations in legal writing, according to Noah Messing, supplement a program that was already working well. “Rob Harrison is talented and saintly—like a combination of Daniel Webster and Mother Teresa. But his advanced course was oversubscribed,” Messing said, “and the recent changes ensure that our students can get more feedback from more sources.”