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writersLegal Research and Writing Program Turns Students into Lawyers

Mary Wood

Although it's only one credit each semester, it may be the most fundamental law course Virginia’s students take. Legal Research and Writing offers students “the basics of research, the basics of legal communication, and by that I would include being able to think like a lawyer,” said Mimi Foster Riley, Legal Research and Writing Program Co-Director. “It’s what lawyers do. Lawyers write.”

“You think most clearly when you write something. When you write it, it clarifies your thinking process,” agreed program Co-Director Ruth Buck ’85.

In the program, three professors each teach a third of the first-year class, divided into 32-student sections. Each section has two Dillard Fellows, upperclass students who act as teaching assistants and meet with students to discuss drafts and review or comment on assignments. Classes meet once a week, with assignments including memos, an appellate brief, and citation and research exercises.

“We try to cover both some objective writing and some persuasive writing,” Riley said. For a profession sometimes known for its convoluted linguistics, the program helps students win the battle against legalese. “I think most of our students graduate knowing legalese is not the right thing.” Buck agreed and noted that complex language seeps more frequently into contract writing because attorneys are averse to tinkering with phrasing that has worked well in the past. In certain fields that require specific terms of art—real estate is an example—Riley advises writers to “think about why they are using a certain word or phrase or sentence, and make it a matter of choice.”

Riley and Buck said the real battle for students is learning to organize their analysis in writing and crafting their argument piece by piece.

 “It’s what students struggle with most, but the thing they have to conquer in order to do well in [other classes’] exams,” Riley said. “I think we’re very lucky here that to a large degree, students have much to learn, but after their first year they are well prepared for summer and beyond.”

Kris Panikowski ’00, who served as a Dillard Fellow for two years, recalled feeling particularly prepared for her first two summers spent working at firms because of her experience in the program. “I think that UVA’s program gives you a lot of access to the professor and to the teaching assistants, so you do a lot of conferencing,” said Panikowski, who recently started her job as a legal writing professor at the University of San Diego School of Law. “You learn a lot from in-person communication and sometimes you can pick up things that you wouldn’t necessarily pick up from written comments being handed back to you.”

Students compete to be Dillard Fellows during spring semester of their first year. Those chosen receive three credits and a stipend over the course of the year. Fellows might spend anywhere from 5 to 15 hours working during a slow week, or 30 when memos are due.

“I thought it would be a good way to improve my writing,” said third-year Law student Gabe Meyer, who was a Dillard Fellow last year. “I thought it would be a lot more fun and interesting to be working with people on their writing as opposed to working on a journal and just doing cite checking in the library.”

Because of their undergraduate or graduate writing experience, first-year students often include large quotations from cases and haven’t taken the next step—distilling the heart of the case, which is as much a thinking exercise as a writing exercise. “You need to focus in on the legal issue,” Buck said. In contrast, as an undergraduate, “you’re expected to bring in the universe.”

The program culminates during the spring with first-year oral arguments, in which students make an argument based on their fall semester appellate brief before a three-judge panel, including one Dillard Fellow and either two alumni or an alumnus and a professor. Thousands of practicing attorneys, most of whom are alumni, are invited to have the necessary 180 to 200 judges. After the judges hear oral arguments, they give feedback to students and enjoy a reception together. “That’s where it all comes together for students. It’s one of the highlights of the year for them,” Buck said.

“I’ve had students get jobs during that time, and I’ve had alumni discover students they wanted to work for them,” Riley added. “Alumni often tell students that it’s better than what they see in the courtroom.”

Coordinating nine days of trials with judges’ schedules can be demanding; Buck praised legal writing secretary Phyllis Harris for handling the task so well.

This year Associate Professor Karen Moran joined as a Co-Director of the program. Moran “is a great asset,” Buck said. Moran has extensive litigation and appellate advocacy experience with Fulbright & Jaworski in Washington, DC, and worked for five years as a senior staff attorney for the appellate division of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She became acquainted with the Law School while judging some of the oral arguments.

“I did a lot of oral argument while I was practicing, so I’m sure that will help me in preparing the students for moot court,” she said. With her own varied work experience as an example, Moran said she hopes to convey to students that there are “basic principles involved in writing legal documents and it works regardless of where students decide they want to practice.”

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