Lawyer as Writer

Assignments Archive

"The point of assignments," he said, "is to take your imagination to a new place."

~ Nancy Willard, Telling Time: Angels, Ancestors, and Stories 82 (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company/ Harvest Original, 1993)

Class #1: The Writer You Already Are

Read the Introduction (pp. xiii-xxvi) and pp. 3-25 in Peter Elbow's Writing With Power (2nd ed. 1998).


What kind of writer are you, now, already? How do you see yourself as a writer, and how do you see yourself in your writing? What experiences have helped formed this view of yourself as a writer?

In writing about yourself as a writer (or your inability to see yourself as a writer), you may find that some of your experiences as a writer are not all that positive. If so, how are these experiences to be confronted, and deal with in this writing exercise? What fears do you have about yourself as a writer and about your writing?


Each of us are already writers of a certain sort which means we bring with us to any writing a certain amount of baggage. Or as Henriette Anne Klauser puts it in Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, you have tapes playing in your head about who you are as a writer. The writing you do in this workshop and that you will do as a lawyer do not take place on a clean slate. Your impressions and images of yourself as a writer accompany you wherever you go. You have already made judgments about how your writing works and how it fails, indeed about what kind of writer you are. (These judgments tell you a great deal about yourself as a writer, but they are are always totally reliable, and at times may mislead you.) And you have had judgments made about your writing. You have written for teachers and they have responded to your work. You have placed trust in the judgment of some who have read and evaluated your work, while trying to forget that of others. And now you are in law school and you are asked to write legal memoranda and briefs, essay examinations, and other legal writings. In law school you are asked to be a writer and to submit that writing for judgment, just as you will for the judgment of colleagues in a law firm, and for judges who will decide the cases you bring before them.


The Things they Carry With Them

Inheritance in Ink

Class #2: Writing Requires Revision

Read "Quick Revising" (pp. 32-37) in Peter Elbow's Writing With Power.

Revise the essay you wrote for our 1st class meeting. Since you may have written a "short" essay for this first writing, you may end up with only a few paragraphs. What you want in this revising is what Elbow calls a "certain ruthlessness." (Writing With Power, at 33).

Read Ruth Knight, Inheritance in Ink & James R. Elkins, The Things they Carry With Them

Rewrite this first essay in which you take a look at yourself as a writer. Take a closer look at what you have written and what it might be possible to say. If you approach the essay in the sense of trying to fulfill a course requirement it is going to affect what you write. See if it's not possible to lean in toward the writing--assume that this writing is going to say something about you and your writing. (Keep in mind that your writer speaks loudly about you whether you intend it to or not. If the writing is going to have you written all over it, wouldn't it be better to be aware of this and write accordingly. This may sound a bit odd, but I sometimes think, in writing something as quick and crude as an e-mail message that I want it to say something about me, not just as a writer but as a person.

What kind of writer are you, now, already? How do you see yourself as a writer, and how do you see yourself in your writing? What experiences have helped formed this view of yourself as a writer? In writing about yourself as a writer (or your inability to see yourself as a writer), you may need to deal with some unpleasant truths. If so, how is this unpleasantness to be confronted, and deal with in this writing exercise? What fears do you have about yourself as a writer and about your writing?

It's hard to imagine a student who has come as far as you have without having something interesting to say in response to these questions. And if, we all have something to say in trying to answer these questions, might it not also be the case, that there is a real audience for anyone who can write about these questions in an intelligent, sophisticated, provocative, creative, literary way?

Class #3

Drawing on classroom work during the 2nd class (identifying the powerful/memorable/working language in a writing) and the revisions and commentary on your work I provided, revise again your first writing assignment on how you see yourself as a writer. You should try to move this writing beyond the "writing exercise" stage so that it serves as a short essay. Remember you are not reporting or giving a list of your accomplishments or failures, but simply trying to say something about the way you see yourself as a writer. Each of you of the beginnings of such an essay, but should now be expanded.

For this expanded work on the first writing, read Writing Without Power (Revising with Feedback, pp. 139-145, and Thorough Revising, pp. 128-138).

For our 3rd class on Wednesday, September 6, I'd like for you to write a new essay:

What brought you to law school? How did you get here?

Your first impulse may be to simply answer the question (and the answer may, of course, be instructive). But it's not really an answer to the question you are after but the story (a story) within which the answer is encoded.

The defense lawyer in a criminal case must get beyond the question--did the defendant commit the act in question? Often enough, the answer is yes. The prosecutor is trying to get the jurors/judge to focus on the literal question, to ignore as much of the context and circumstance as they can persuade them to ignore. The defense lawyer wants to paint the scene on a larger canvas (and develop the broader context within which the events too place). Many criminal trials are classic struggles between narrow and broad readings of contexts and lives.

And so in this writing I want you to keep in mind the challenge of defense counsel who must persuade a jury to think broadly and look beyond the literal question posed by the prosecution. You are not here answering a law school examination question, or for that matter, responding to a "writing exercise." (Interestingly enough, students who take law school examination questions most literally and answer the question too directly and succinctly, without explanation, argument, and discursive exploration tend to fare less well than their more expansive colleagues.

Lawyers, as well as writers, are quintessential storytellers and it is the practice of telling a story, even if about the most mundane of matters, that we want to practice here.

I've talked about Peter Elbow's conception of responding to another writer's work by giving them a "movie-of-the-mind." For more on Elbow's idea and how to do it, see: Movie-of-the-Mind. We are going to spend more time in class practicing the art of responding to a written work.

During the course of the semester I would like for you to familiarize yourself with the Web resources available on writing and make use of them during the course. You might begin by perusing the links page of the course web site. Here you will find web sites exploring Peter Elbow's work and a host of additional interesting and instructive sites. There are, for example, sections devoted to "Revising Your Writing" which you might find useful, and "Exploratory Writing" which expands and offers different perspectives on Elbow's "direct writing process" (Writing With Power, pp. 26-31), "open-ended writing process" (pp. 50-58), and "loop writing process" (pp. 59-77). While I find Elbow more explicit about how to write well, you may find the perspectives on "exploratory writing" of others (on the course links page) helpful.

Class #4

Continue to work on the revisions of your first short paper on how you see yourself as a writer. The continued work on this first paper should provide a working example of how a piece of writing is transformed by repeated editing. We are not looking for some end-state of perfected writing, but an understanding of how writing undergoes change as we work with it.

See if you can extend the first writing (on how you see yourself as a writer) by a new writing in which you: Describe, as best you can, how law school has attempted to educate you as a writer. (Those of you who addressed this question in some fashion in your first writing can simply expand upon that first cursory effort.)

New Writing

What kind of world did you find awaiting you in law school? What makes this world unique, special, alluring? Threatening? Strange? Perverse? Wonderful? Is it a world sufficiently complex that it might be of interest even to those who never intend to become a part of it? (If not, how does one explain the success of a film like the The Paper Chase (and its adaptation into a tv series)?

What happens to those who enter this world?

What kind you say about your fellow travelers in this venture?

There is a lot of talk (mostly by law professors) about teaching you to "think like a lawyer." How does that kind of teaching work? How is that kind of teaching done, when its done well? How is it done, when done badly?

In conjunction with this new writing, read Peter Elbow on "audience" (pp. 177-235). The purpose in reading Elbow is to find ways to make your writing more powerful. Use your reading of Writing With Power to search out the techniques and ways of thinking about yourself as a writer that will push you to become the writer you want to be.

Class #5: New Writing

The law school is reexamining its orientation program and seeks to provide new students with more imaginative ways to think about legal education and their future as a lawyer. Weary of an orientation program that features a tour of the building, representatives of student groups explaining their organizations, and a lecture on how to "brief" a case, the planners of this new orientation program seek your help. They are interested in having the students read a literary text that will push new students to think about legal education in the broadest possible context, as an enterprise that must, ultimately, be given meaning beyond its avowed purpose--teaching you to think like a lawyer and helping you develop the skills to perform as a lawyer.

Can you recommend a novel, story, or work of non-fiction (with literary or theoretical merit) that might help new law students put their legal experience in a broader context? (The book need not be about lawyers or the practice of law.) In what way does the text you recommend provoke reflection on education and how it can be put to use?

You may want to address how you come by this text, your reading of it, and how it has helped you think about your education (and your future). Basically, you want to say enough about the text and your reading of it, to leave the reader knowing that this text is important and might be found so by others as well.

New Writing

Write an "introduction" to one of your law school courses. Assume that this introduction will be used as part of a new "Beginner's Guide to Legal Education" distributed to students at the College of Law. The idea of the guide is to link experienced students to those who have just set out on the path. The presentation of law school courses in a law school catalogue are, for most students, quite useless. The new "guide" is expected to provide real, insider information that provides a "feel" for what the course is like.

Comment on the "introduction of a course" writing

Consider the following effort of a student to write an "introduction" to a Torts course:

This course traces the development of Tort law from its origins in the early English courts of common law to the present day. A tort is a civil wrong or injury, other than a breach of contract, for which the law provides a remedy. The necessary elements of a tort are the existence of a legal duty, a breach of that duty by a defendant, and a causal relationship between the conduct of the defendant and the injury sustained by a plaintiff.

This course examines various tort actions such as trespass, assault and battery, false imprisonment, and conversion, with a focus on the concepts of intent, consent, negligence, standard of care, causation, and types of liability. This course will employ the case law method of instruction, examining tort law as it has developed in and been interpreted by the courts. Students will be expected to read and be prepared to discuss a selection of cases before each class.

The goal of this course is to provide the student with a basic understanding of the laws which provide for the protection on one's person, property or interests from interference by another party.

If this description of Torts were an invitation to a party, would you go? Of course, the writer of this description wasn't thinking about the writing as an invitation. Or perhaps we need to think about an introduction to a law school course as a warning. How would you go about warning a student not to take a particular course?

What you, in some way, need to establish your authority to either invite or warn someone else about a particular course?

What is the relationship of the course and what you bring you to the subject? For example, how does the study of criminal law, or contracts, or torts, or constitutional law, made more difficult or intriguing by the fact that you may know something about criminals, crimes, and punishment or even about contracts or the Constitution when you come to this course? How does this knowledge (along with beliefs, fantasies, and myths) that you bring with you to the course affect the course of study?

What role does surprise play in a course? Disappointment? Anger?

What is the relationship of a course to its teacher? Can any course be introduced separate and apart from its teacher? If the course looks the same regardless of the teacher, what does this say about the course, about its teachers? How can we talk about the teachers of our courses, the course that a teacher takes? Where does the teacher take the course; how does the course take the teacher?

What kind of relationship does the teacher ask that you take to the subject, to her as a teacher? Is your relationship to the teacher make a part of the foreground or the background in the course?

Class # 6 & 7


Revise all your existing work to reflect mark-ups and commentary. Keep in mind that the purpose of doing this is two-fold: (1) you need more practice editing and revising your work, and (2) you are editing/revising your work so that it can be published.

New Writing

There is more to be said about legal education and your law school experiences than you managed to pack into the "law school world" writing. Please read Tim O'Brien's opening chapter in The Things they Carry With Them (1990) (handed out in class) with the idea of using it to provoke some thinking and writing about "the things you carry with you" into the world of law (and your education as a lawyer).

New Writing

Write a parable, fairy tale, or short story--something in the "legal fiction" genre.

To fire your own imagination you might want to read the handouts provided on Wednesday, September 20th:

  "Centaurs" -- a short story by J.S. Marcus from a collection of stories titled, The Art of Cartography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)

  "Cinderella," -- a traditional fairy tale, widely known by children in this country, and a story of surprising relevance when re-read as an adult (from The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales 121-128 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1944) (Margaret Hunt trans., revised by James Stern)

  "Before the Law," -- a sparse, perplexing parable by Franz Kafka (from Franz Kafka, The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces 148-149 (New York: Schocken Books, 1961) (Willa & Edwin Muir trans.))

  "In the Beginning: Justice & Mercy," a parable by Mary Kay Buchmelter, a Charleston lawyer and graduate of the College of Law, West Virginia University (the parable was written for a course called "Women and the Legal Profession" taught by Professor James R. Elkins) (Ms. Buchmelter's parable appeared in 8 (1) ALSA Forum 4 (1984) with other work written by other students in the course) [on-line text]


The New Lawyer
a parable by John Bonsignore

Teaching Through Parables
another John Bonsignore parable and his commentary about his efforts
to use parables in his teaching

Class #8


I would like you now to explore your revised writings to see what kind of whole they may represent (hey may do nothing the sort). Each writing to date was produced for a specific occasion, as an exercise, as a way of evoking your experience as a writer. Now you want to see what kind of shape your writing has begin to take, looking at your work not just as a series of writing exercises, but something others might want to read. (This anticipates further reading in Peter Elbow on "audience.")

Since you have not written each piece as part of a larger whole, you can now only see what whole can be discovered by looking at the various parts (much in the way we reconstruct a culture based on archaeological work). When you begin to try to pull the pieces together, you may find that you don't have what you need to work with which means you need to do more writing.


Getting Started & Some Practical Instructions

Peter Elbow, Writing With Power 148-166 (on collage writing)