The Long & the Short of Legal Writing

Each December the Legal Writing Institute sponsors one-day workshops in collaboration with law schools across the country. This year I was invited to speak at the workshop hosted at Lewis & Clark Law School here in Portland. 

The Lewis & Clark workshop, entitled “The Long and the Short of Legal Writing,” was organized by Professor Steve Johansen, who is also the director of the school’s lawyering program. 

In organizing the workshop, Professor Johansen sought to rethink the traditional academic conference. His hypothesized that many academic presentations are either too long or too short. To test his theory, he put together a very different schedule. We started the day with an interactive two-hour presentation, which was then followed by six short TED-style talks. The workshop title cleverly captured this structure. 

Professor Jennifer Cooper of Seattle University School of Law delivered a highly engaging two-hour presentation on learning science and how it applies to the teaching of legal writing. We learned that the most effective learning activities are:

  • Retrieval (retrieving information from memory without visual cues) and self-testing (quizzing or applying what you have learned, using practice questions or generating your own questions);
  • Spaced study (studying information more than once by spacing learning sessions over days or weeks); and
  • Interleaving (mixing different kinds of problems or skills when learning).

We learned that another effective learning activity is pretesting—testing knowledge or skill application before teaching it. The whole presentation had a delightfully meta feel to it, as Professor Cooper asked us to break into small groups and rank the effectiveness of various learning activities before she delved into her presentation. 

The two hours flew by and afterwards many of the participants agreed that they would have welcomed an even longer morning session.

By contrast, the rest of the day was devoted to short TED-style presentations. There were six presenters and the topics ranged from implicit bias in teaching, to the ethics of microwritings, to what lawyers can learn from Edgar Allen Poe. Each presentation was limited to 20 minutes, followed by a 10 minute Q&A. I spoke about legal design and it was fascinating to see the interconnections between my topic and all of the other presentations. 

At the end of the day we had a panel discussion about what it was like to prepare a 20-minute academic presentation. Interestingly, several of the presenters said that they spent more time preparing for this presentation than any other—and these are people who have given dozens of presentations! It brings to mind the famous quotation, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” We discussed how the 20-minute format forced us to clarify our own thinking and really home in on our core message. 

Overall, the workshop was a huge success. The innovative format made it easy for the audience to stay engaged throughout the day. This was evidenced by the Q&A sessions, which were lively right until the end; we had to keep cutting ourselves off to stay on schedule. During the reception at the end of the day we joked that we learned more during this one-day workshop than we would have at a more traditional two- or three-day conference!

Here is a list of the speakers and their topics: