In February 2013, law school applications hit a thirty-year low, as college students grasped the implications of the challenging job market for lawyers. With that career situation in mind, this fall the English Department is offering ENGL 467, Legal Rhetoric, to provide a competitive advantage to UD juniors and seniors who are planning to attend law school. The course satisfies the College of Arts & Sciences "second writing" requirement, and it will fulfill one of the upper-level requirements for the Professional Writing Concentration in the English Department.
According to Assistant Professor Phillip Mink, the goal of the course is to help students learn the high-level writing and argumentative skills necessary to succeed in law school and in a legal practice. As Chief Justice John Roberts has emphasized, language is the "central tool of our trade." First-year law students who can't use the language effectively may not succeed, Mink says, because law-school grades are "based on essays written in response to fictitious legal situations, and these tests require students not only to understand legal principles but to write about them in a coherent and organized way." That's easier said than done, according to Mink. "Structuring and writing a complicated essay assignment is more challenging even than understanding the law involved. It's like putting together a giant puzzle, and the writer must help the reader understand how all of the pieces fit."
After the pieces fall into place, principles of rhetoric – of persuasion – enter the picture, Mink says. Good legal writers know how to convince a reader that their argument is the only reasonable conclusion. To do that, legal writers must go beyond clear prose and organization; they must create arguments. "That task is challenging even for the most seasoned attorneys," Mink says, "and first-year law students can distinguish themselves if they understand how the principles of persuasion apply to the law."
Mink has been teaching ENGL 430, Legal Writing, since Fall 2010. While that course emphasizes writing with clarity about legal topics, it does not attempt to simulate the assignments and readings of law school. Instead it is geared for students who may fulfill the College of Arts & Sciences "second writing" requirement with an introduction to the fundamentals of legal writing. ENGL 430 is not a prerequisite to ENGL 467, which will focus intently on the skills necessary for students to succeed in law school and in a legal practice.
The course will begin with an assignment similar to what a first-year law student will encounter, but it will provide something more. "I offer unlimited revision in all of my classes," Mink says. "If students understand the work involved in producing a polished document, they can carry that knowledge into law school and into their careers." The process will begin with "precise, logically-sequenced prose, because that is where law professors and lawyers will first evaluate a student's skills. Only when those essentials are in place will students take on more complicated assignments. "We will read appellate briefs written by some of the most accomplished lawyers in the nation," Mink says, "and we will read several landmark court cases, including the upcoming Supreme Court decision on gay marriage." These tasks will help students understand how lawyers use rhetoric to convince judges, and the public, that their clients' positions should prevail. Students will then apply that knowledge to an appellate brief of their own.
Finally, Mink says, the course will take a short detour early in the semester to focus on the personal statement, which is required of law school applicants. "Every writer I know struggles with these kinds of documents," Mink says, "because you're essentially trying to tell the key story of your life in five minutes are less." Mink hopes to ease students into that project with a multitude of examples, and he will give students a chance to identify the most interesting stories they can tell to law-school admissions committees.
ENGL 467-010 "Legal Rhetoric" meets TR 12:30-1:45 during the Fall 2013 semester and satisfies the College of Arts & Sciences "Second Writing" requirement.