PUBLISHED:August 19, 2009

At Duke Law, writing matters

What do law firms want in new recruits — and what skill do they often find lacking? Good writing, according to a survey of practice chairs, hiring partners, and recruiters reported in the April 2009 New York Law Journal, which singled out Duke Law for “going beyond the typical first-year writing class” with a range of upper-year courses that help students hone their skills.

That Duke’s curriculum is getting noticed doesn’t surprise Clinical Professor and Legal Writing Director Diane Dimond, who directs the Legal Writing Program. “Employers tell us that ‘Dukies’ know how to write,” she says.

Dimond credits Dean David F. Levi’s “acute awareness” of the importance of teaching analytical and writing skills with helping drive expansion of the program over the past two years. Key developments include the hiring of additional writing faculty, making all writing faculty full time, and creating an upper-year curriculum to focus on specific aspects of writing craft and analysis.

“Duke has long been recognized for its strong legal writing program,” says Levi, who served as chief U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of California before coming to Duke in 2007. “We are building on that foundation. I am very proud of the faculty we have assembled and of the leadership provided by Professor Dimond. We are committed to providing our students with superb, comprehensive training in legal writing. This is one of the cornerstones of a Duke legal education and will serve our graduates well in whatever career in the law they pursue."

New legal writing faculty

The latest recruits to the legal writing faculty are Lecturing Fellow Rebecca Rich ’06 and Senior Lecturing Fellow Sean Andrussier ’92.

Rich returns to Duke after a clerkship with Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson of the North Carolina Supreme Court and two years of litigation practice. She is teaching Legal Analysis, Research and Writing for the fall 2009 semester and will develop an upper-level class for the spring 2010 semester. Faculty who remember Rich as a student predict she will be a terrific addition to the legal writing program

“As a student, Rebecca quickly distinguished herself as unusually smart, unusually perceptive, unusually funny, and, above all, unusually decent and ethical,” says Paul Haagen, senior associate dean and professor of law. “We are lucky to have convinced her to come back to the Law School. Our students are about to discover just how lucky.”

Andrussier returns to Duke after serving as co-chair of the appellate practice group at Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice in Raleigh. He previously was an appellate lawyer in the Appellate and Constitutional Law Practice of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in Washington, D.C., where he worked with former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson.

A leading appellate litigator who has held two federal clerkships, Andrussier teaches Legal Analysis, Research, and Writing and continues to co-direct Duke’s Appellate Litigation Clinic, as he did in the 2008-2009 academic year.

The value of good writing becomes clear quickly to students in the clinic, which handles cases assigned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth and D.C. circuits. Under the supervision of Andrussier and James Coleman, Duke’s John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, students have to digest, translate, and synthesize their arguments in briefs worthy of top-level advocates; with the interests of real clients at stake, these are not academic exercises, Andrussier points out, and the quality of the briefs is key.

“Oral argument is increasingly less frequent in appellate cases,” says Andrussier. “Even when cases are scheduled for argument, as all our clinic cases have been, the time is very limited. The D.C. Circuit, for example, allots only 15 minutes for argument. So the emphasis is on written analysis.”

The importance of writing of all kinds — from the quality of email correspondence between far-flung law-firm colleagues to client memos and briefs — from day one of legal practice is a subject about which Andrussier is nothing short of passionate. As a law-firm partner, he says, he expected associates’ writing “to reflect an analysis of law and facts that is clear, precise, thorough, creative, and candid. Senior lawyers need to have confidence in the work of young lawyers. It’s critically important.”

Small classes, individualized instruction

To help ensure that all Duke Law students develop this critically important skill, eight faculty members teach in the legal writing program. Each section of Legal Analysis, Research, and Writing, a required first-year course, has fewer than 35 students. The small class size allows writing teachers, who each partner with a research librarian in teaching research and analysis, to offer students more individualized feedback on their multiple written assignments, which range from internal law-firm memoranda to appellate briefs.

Natalie Bedoya ’10, editor in chief of the Duke Law Journal, recalls arriving at Duke as an English major with a fondness for “long and flowery” phrases. “With legal writing class, I learned to write succinctly and clearly and to get to the point right away,” she says. “I learned to distill my thoughts and present them clearly and precisely.”

Recalling how her instructor, Senior Lecturing Fellow JoAnn Ragazzo, would emphasize the importance of reading opinions multiple times to fully understand them, Bedoya observes how essential the skills the gained in her first-year class have been to her editorial work and are likely to be to her future career. “Legal writing … is infinitely rewarding. And while the law changes, the fundamental skills of close and careful reading and analysis don’t.”

Upper-level classes and seminars offer the same opportunities for individualized instruction as well as the chance to further hone skills that translate directly to practice. Stephanie Lam ’10 calls Legal Writing for Civil Practice one of the most “relevant” classes she’s taken in law school.

“I represented a ‘client’ for whom I developed a real working file, drafted a real demand letter — and later a civil claim petition — and argued a motion for summary judgment,” says Lam. “As a summer associate this past summer, I was able to take these ‘lawyering’ lessons and apply them to my real-world assignments. It was fortunate that I didn't have to learn the importance of court rules, clear syntax, and prepared arguments the hard way. Instead, I [had already] developed my writing skills in a collaborative environment.”

A range of courses

Duke Law’s legal writing instructors — most of whom teach the first-year Legal Analysis, Research and Writing course — have drawn on their deep professional experience in developing upper-year courses and other special writing programs.

A veteran litigator, Ragazzo designed Legal Writing for Civil Practice, an advanced course that helps prepare students for general civil practice. Writing assignments include opinion and demand letters, pleadings, motions, and trial briefs.

Senior Lecturing Fellow Allison Kort, who practiced white-collar criminal defense and securities class-action litigation at two New York firms prior to joining the Duke faculty, focuses on the writing challenges specific to litigating large federal cases in her course, Writing: Federal Litigation.

Senior Lecturing Fellow Jeremy Mullem — a legal writing scholar whose own research focuses on the development of scholarly legal writing and rhetoric and on legal research and writing pedagogy — teaches a seminar called Writing for Publication, through which students develop and workshop articles intended for publication in scholarly journals.

Dimond, who regularly teaches Negotiation to upper-year students, periodically offers a seminar in Contract Drafting.

Joan Magat, a senior lecturing fellow who also serves as general editor of Duke’s Law & Contemporary Problems journal, teaches two courses for second- and third-year students that draw on her expertise in academic writing and long service as a clerk to several justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court. In Legal Writing: Craft & Style, students hone their legal writing or editing skills. Judicial Writing allows students — many of them bound for clerkships — to study judicial opinions and draft bench briefs, analytic papers, and an appellate-court opinion.

Senior Lecturing Fellow Hans Linnartz ’80 directs Duke’s Summer Institute on Law, Language, and Culture, which offers Duke’s international LLM students an opportunity to hone legal writing and language skills prior to the start of the academic year.

And finally, in addition to the formal legal writing curriculum, Duke Law offers a unique resource through its affiliation with Duke English Professor George Gopen, a nationally-recognized expert in the field of writing across a range of disciplines, including the law. Gopen holds weekly office hours for individual and small groups of students seeking feedback on their writing and offers an annual series of lectures on effective writing from the reader’s perspective, open to all members of the Law School community.