Building Strong Writers, One Mentor at a Time

Legal Writing Fellows Help Guide First-Year Students on Memos and Briefs
Cate Stetson, Megan Colville and Anna Rennich

Former Legal Writing Fellows Cate Stetson ’94 and Megan Colville ’15 joined current Fellow Anna Rennich ’20 to judge first-year oral arguments in the spring. Photo by Julia Davis

July 12, 2019

When first-year University of Virginia School of Law students write and argue their first appellate argument in the spring, they have a fellow student cheering them on — their Legal Writing Fellow.

Legal Writing Fellows, formerly known as Dillard Fellows, are second- and third-year students who help mentor 1Ls as they navigate the school’s yearlong Legal Research and Writing course, part of the Legal Research and Writing Program.

“One of the most special parts of the Law School is the abundance of students willing and wanting to mentor others,” fellow David Goldman ῾19 said. “The Legal Research and Writing Program allowed me to do so while helping students feel comfortable and confident working with legal writing and thinking, which I think is akin to learning a second language.”

Co-directed by Professors Ruth Buck ’85, Sarah Stewart Ware and Joe Fore ’11, the course requires students to complete multiple writing assignments. The work culminates in a lengthy memo and an appellate brief. Having just gone through the course themselves, the fellows are uniquely positioned to help guide first-year law students through the legal writing learning curve.

“The goal is to rapidly advance the analytical and communication skills of first-year students,” Buck said. “But the mentoring relationship is a highlight for first-year students and fellows alike.”

Each year, 20 second- and third-year law students are chosen to serve as fellows, who each work with 15 or 16 first-year students. Beginning with a short starter memo, students receive detailed written feedback from their fellow, in addition to guidance provided by their professor. As the assignments become more complex, one-on-one conferences complement the written feedback. Students rewrite several assignments and receive further feedback on the rewrites, amplifying their improvements. 

With the support of both their professors and their fellows, first-year students are able to adapt quickly to the conventions of legal writing. 

“It’s always a joy to watch students build their skills over the course of the year,” Fore said. “Even for students who may come in with a lot of experience writing in other fields, it’s extremely gratifying to watch them hone their writing skills in a legal context.”

The fellows are selected through a tryout during the spring semester of their first year, which involves commenting on sample memos. Prospective fellows also submit a statement of interest, resume and grades.

Pure writing talent is not the only factor that the legal writing professors look for in their fellows.

“Getting a lot of feedback can be pretty intense for our high-achieving students,” Ware said. “We are seeking fellows who can not only solve writing problems but teach about them in a supportive and encouraging way.” 

Oral arguments in the spring are based on the students’ appellate briefs. Students present their arguments in front of panels of judges consisting of fellows and alumni from different fields of litigation, many of whom return every year for the first-year arguments.

“I want to show the students that good written and oral advocacy is important in ‘real-life law’ — no matter what type of law practice you pursue,” said Cate Stetson ’94, a partner and co-director of Hogan Lovells’ Appellate Practice Group and a former Dillard Fellow. “I still love hearing students’ arguments and talking with them individually about ways to make their advocacy even better.”

The fellows often judge students that they’ve worked with all year, giving them an opportunity to observe firsthand the progress the first-year students have made in developing and presenting legal arguments under their mentorship.

“It is amazing to see students with just a few months of law school under their belts successfully articulate and defend complex legal positions in front of active benches of alumni judges,” Zach Ingber ’19 said. “It is always enjoyable to see how much the students have impressed practicing attorneys who come back to judge.”

Fellows may also find that their writing improves further through the act of mentoring and editing their peers’ work.

“As an editor, I’m very aware of information that is missing or areas that are unclear or poorly structured,” Anna Rennich ’20 said. “I think a lot more about the needs of my reader as I’m structuring and editing drafts.”

Buck said prospective employers appreciate fellows’ skills as well. 

“Writing is a critical skill — the critical skill in many areas of practice — and selection for the fellowship speaks to a highly developed writing talent,” she said. “Prospective employers like knowing that the person they’re interviewing has been focusing on writing and giving feedback.”

The fellowship also creates a network. Many fellows have reported the positive experience of being interviewed by a former fellow, or even just an alumnus who remembers their fellow with gratitude. 

“I still come back to judge first-year oral arguments,” Stetson said, because “I remember how meaningful the experience was to me.”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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