Introduction to the First-Year Legal Research and Writing Program

Before you begin your studies in the First-Year Legal Research and Writing Program (LRW), it will help you to situate the course in the broader context of your legal education and your future law practice. To follow is a brief overview of the program, and an introduction to several themes that will recur throughout the year.

Program Overview

LRW uses a series of writing, research, and advocacy projects to engage you in the process of legal reasoning. The course instructs you in basic methods of legal analysis, effective written and oral communication of your analysis, and essential legal research tools and methodologies.

The first semester of LRW focuses on the writing of two predictive memos, in which you assess the arguments on each side of the issue and predict which side would prevail.  In the spring, you will learn how to write an appellate brief, in which you present your client's best arguments to a court. For all three assignments, you will produce both a draft and a final version, the better to respond to feedback and hone your writing and analysis.  In practice, as in LRW, the writing process will help you take your internal understanding of an issue and make it external, so that you may hold it at arm's length and examine it critically. As novice lawyers become expert lawyers, they develop greater ability to monitor their own level of understanding, and may resort somewhat less frequently (although not infrequently) to a formal written product like a predictive memo. Nevertheless, even when they eschew a formal written memo, they continue to apply the same analytical steps that are required to complete the writing assignments you will undertake in this course.

Lawyers cannot provide effective representation unless they master the necessary research skills. At a minimum, lawyers must be able to find and update the constitutional provisions, statutes, regulations, and cases that determine their clients' rights and obligations. To that end, the legal research component of LRW will introduce you to core tools and methodologies that will be essential in your internships next summer, as well as in your future law practice. Indeed, without such skills you will have a difficult time satisfying your employers and competing with fellow students in summer practice and the early years of law practice. More advanced research instruction is available in upper-level elective courses.

LRW's learning model depends on the substantial feedback that we provide on your work. LRW will likely be the first law school course in which you receive any feedback on written work, and it will be the course in which you receive the most individual feedback by far. Keep in mind that our goals for your achievement are quite high, in keeping with your potential. Our feedback will naturally focus on areas for improvement, so you ought not interpret this emphasis negatively. Our feedback is intended not to discourage you, but to facilitate your learning.

LRW meets weekly in the fall and spring semester of your first year. LRW is graded Honors, Pass, Low Pass, and  Fail.

In the fall semester, you will complete two major writing assignments. The first is a  "Closed Memo," in which you write a predictive memo based on a set of research materials that are provided for you. The second is an "Open Memo," in which you must research the applicable law and write a predictive memo based on your own research.

In the spring semester, the major course assignment is the First-Year Ames Moot Court Program. Working in pairs, you will research and draft an appellate brief concerning a simulated case set in a federal or state appeals court. At the end of the semester, you will argue your case before a three-judge panel. Judges are drawn from Harvard Law School faculty, practicing lawyers, and upper-level law students.

With this course overview in mind, we turn next to a discussion of several recurring themes in LRW.

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The Conventions of Legal Discourse

Any discourse community has its own discourse conventions, and lawyers have done a particularly thorough job of developing theirs. LRW is intended to familiarize you with these discourse conventions.

LRW introduces you to the generally accepted modes of legal reasoning: rule-based reasoning; analogical reasoning; and policy reasoning. As you progress through the course assignments, you will see the interdependence among these three modes of legal reasoning. When LRW turns to advocacy, you will learn how lawyers use narrative devices to complement the conventional modes of legal reasoning and make their arguments more persuasive.

Discourse conventions govern not only the modes of argument, but also the authorities that frame the argument. You will learn what types of materials constitute acceptable sources of authority in legal discourse, as well as the different hierarchies within which those authorities exist.

Most concretely, LRW will introduce you to two basic forms through which lawyers communicate their legal reasoning. You will learn the conventions applicable to a predictive memo and an appellate oral argument.

Of course, you will be learning the conventions of legal discourse in all of your first-year courses, indeed in all of law school. LRW, however, is intended to focus very specifically on the conventions themselves, more so than in your other courses.

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Legal Reasoning and Judicial Discretion

Throughout your legal education, you will encounter a debate over the role of judicial discretion in adjudication. At the extremes, some would suggest that adjudication is rationally constrained by the available legal authorities, while others would argue that adjudication is effectively constrained only by the judge's own beliefs and values. LRW is not intended to resolve that debate. Nevertheless, your work in this course should illustrate several different concepts about the degrees to which legal authorities can constrain judicial discretion.

Over the course of the year's projects, you should see that a series of authorities applying the same rule can restrict--at least to some degree--the decision in a future situation governed by that rule. For example, if a statute says "No vehicles in the park," and the state's highest court interprets the statute to mean no "motor vehicles," you can be pretty sure that the statute won't prohibit you from riding your elephant through the park.

One might think that the ever-increasing number of decisions necessarily increases the degree of constraint. That may be so in some situations, but several factors can have a destabilizing influence. One such factor is the contingent nature of language. You may have seen in other contexts, and you will surely see in your legal career, that saying more about a topic often creates more uncertainty, not less. Each new opinion creates the potential for misstatement and misunderstanding, enabling future lawyers to reinterpret the pre-existing rule. A second destabilizing factor is the social context of our legal system. Authorities rest on a foundation of policy, of societal goals and values, even if those values are not always stated explicitly. As societal goals and values shift, a body of law resting on the discarded goals and values may become obsolete, and eventually reoriented in support of a new rule.

Finally, you should recognize that the limits on judicial discretion are often less substantial than they might seem at first. Each of the major projects in LRW should demonstrate that, with regard to a given legal problem, there is usually more than one possible outcome, even if one outcome seems more likely than the others. Skilled lawyers read authorities with a critical eye, constantly on the lookout for the gap of ambiguity within a seemingly solid wall of legal authorities.

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Tension Between the Abstract and the Concrete

To complete any substantial task of legal analysis, the lawyer must at some point bridge the boundary between the abstract and the concrete. Rules rarely, if ever, cover every situation imaginable. For example, the "No vehicles in the park" statute could simply list every make and model of car and truck in existence, to clarify that they are all prohibited from the park. But the rule would be unmanageably long, and new makes and models would come into existence after the rule's enactment. So the drafters would instead choose a term to describe the category of situations to which their rule was addressed. Rules that denote categories rather than specific situations necessarily involve a degree of abstraction, whether a moderate degree (e.g., "motor vehicle") or a substantial degree (e.g., "best interest of the child").

Fortunately for us, this inherent uncertainty is one of the things that makes law practice a creative endeavor. For example, if the vehicles in the park statute referred to "motor vehicles," would that include airplanes? Mopeds? Golf carts? The "Segway" personal scooters? Lawyers and judges would try to use the policies underlying the rule and analogies to prior decisions to decide each example. But the jump from abstract to concrete would involve a measure of uncertainty, and it is this uncertainty that allows lawyers to make plausible arguments on both sides of a case.

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Your Audience

In the oral and written communications that you undertake in this course, you must focus not only on the substantive ideas that you try to communicate, but also on the way in which your audience will receive those ideas. Communication is a two-step process, and even brilliant arguments suffer if the audience is distracted by substandard prose. That is why the feedback in this course will consider the form and style of your writing.

Additionally, you must recognize that your audience has a particular task before it, and will be using your communication (i.e., your memo, brief, or oral argument) as an instrument in completing that task. The audience's task will often be to decide how to advise a client or rule in a case. To be effective, your communication must be suited to your audience's needs. So in a memo addressed to an attorney who must decide how to advise a client, simply stating your prediction is not enough. You must also help the attorney understand the applicable legal standard and its likely application, as well as any plausible counter-arguments and the reasons why those arguments would not prevail. Only then will your communication allow the attorney to make an informed decision about how to advise the client.

You are at the start of a fascinating journey. We in the First-Year Legal Research and Writing Program wish you great success and enjoyment as you begin your legal education.

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Last modified: April 12, 2013

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