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Vanderbilt’s Legal Research and Writing Program

Each Vanderbilt Law School first-year J.D. student must complete a graded, two-semester Legal Research and Writing course. Each Vanderbilt Law School L.L.M. student must complete a graded, one-semester Legal Research and Writing course. The course primarily teaches students to plan, research, organize, and write legal analysis and advocacy. The second semester for J.D. students also introduces oral advocacy.

1. Structure of the Course

The J.D. course is taught in sections (usually 9) of about 20 students each. The L.L.M. course is taught in sections (usually 4) of about 15 students each. Under the leadership of the Director of Legal Research and Writing, each section is taught by a team that consists of one writing instructor, one reference librarian, and one teaching assistant. Writing instruction typically occurs in 50-minute sessions.

2. Teaching

The program's pedagogical philosophy can concisely be expressed in the following proverb: "I hear and forget. I see and remember. I do and understand." We challenge students to learn responsibly and actively. First we assign readings or foster classroom discussions, or do both, to critically review their work with their writing instructors and with fellow students. Next they use lessons learned from this review as they complete the task again, for example by rewriting a document. Moreover, assignments gradually grow more complex and demanding. The result is a repeated, progressive cycle:

  • Reading or discussion, which leads to
  • Practice, which in turn leads to
  • Collaborative, constructive feedback followed by
  • Further practice on gradually more challenging assignments.

To help students understand this process and their role, students are given a detailed syllabus. The syllabus describes the course's goals and schedule. It also provides an in-depth overview of the course's student-centered, active learning process.

Vanderbilt Law School is fortunate to have experienced and dedicated teachers guiding students through this process. The writing instructors have outstanding qualifications and over two dozen years of experience teaching in the program.

3. Content

The Legal Research and Writing course complements the remaining first-year and L.L.M. curriculum. Students frequently research and write about concepts that are familiar to them from their other courses, challenging them to practice, in written form, the analytical skills they are developing. The courses also challenge students to explore new doctrinal territory.

The courses are graded in conformity with the Law School's curve. Writing performance primarily determines the grade. Instructors, however, heavily emphasize individualized, constructive criticism rather than grades. They comment in detail on each paper, addressing its strengths, weaknesses, and potential for improvement. In doing so, they evaluate both the form and substance (analysis and underlying research) of students' writing.

a. Writing and Oral Advocacy

i. Fall Semester

The fall semester's writing instruction typically focuses on analytical legal memoranda for fellow attorneys. The students immediately begin writing and, within days, are reviewing what they and their peers have written. Soon the students have written and edited the core of a simple analytical memorandum. They then begin their first graded writing assignment. This process challenges them to analyze a carefully selected set of legal authorities and to write a complete discussion section of a memorandum analyzing, for example, whether a fictional client acted tortuously. Students analyze collaboratively with one another but write individually, often meeting or corresponding with their instructor as they progress. The instructor then reviews the submitted paper and offers detailed, constructive comments on each student's writing. Students discuss this commentary in class and in individual meetings with the instructor.

The students then write a full memorandum analyzing authorities provided to them. They again receive detailed comments, discuss these in class, and meet with the instructor prior to rewriting this assignment for a grade. For their final assignment of the fall semester, they research and write a full memorandum on another legal topic. After receiving feedback on their research and their draft, they rewrite this assignment for a grade.

ii. Spring Semester (J.D. Only)

In the spring semester, first-year J.D. students shift their focus to advocacy. They typically write a motion memorandum, typically supporting or opposing a motion to dismiss a complaint. They receive comments, meet with their instructor regarding their work, and write an appellate brief. After submitting an appellate brief, students conduct a mock oral argument before a panel composed of a writing instructor, teaching assistant, and other Legal Research and Writing program personnel.

b. Research

The reference librarians provide research instruction. Students read about, discuss, and work with a variety of print-based and computerized tools. Students then promptly engage in exercises that challenge them to implement what they have learned.

Research exercises are coordinated with the writing curriculum. The research instructors teach students to use specific research tools and develop effective strategies. Students also complete research reports in connection with their first open research assignment.

c. Citation

Students learn legal citation under the guidance of student teaching assistants. The teaching assistants are carefully selected fellow students who previously excelled in the program and can serve as mentors for first-year students. The assistants' chief goal is to help students learn to use efficiently The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation (19th ed. 2010). The teaching assistants also review and comment on the citation and formatting in the students' writing assignments.