Using Checklists to Teach the Foundations of Legal Research & Writing

In my legal research & writing course, my students are predictably concerned with writing a specific memo and brief to earn a good grade in my course. Of course they are.

But I am more concerned with teaching them the fundamentals of legal research & writing so that they can employ the processes no matter what legal issue they face. 

To that end, I use acronyms and checklists to make it easier to remember.

For example, when teaching legal research, I discuss a 4-step legal research process:
  • Preliminary Analysis - reviewing client interview, noting jurisdiction, parties, legal issues, defenses, etc... to use effective keywords in secondary sources to find an overview of the law with citations. 
  • Search for Codified Law - looking for constitutions, statutes, court rules, and regulations on point. 
  • Search for Binding Precedent - finding case law from the jurisdiction that the court must follow. 
  • Search for Persuasive Precedent - finding case law from other jurisdictions that the court may follow. 
When drafting a question presented, I use Bryan Garner's "deep issue" method that frames the issue using the following formula: Law, facts, question. 

When drafting a single-issue memo, I remind the students of IRAC (issue, rule, analysis, conclusion) as the formula for drafting an essay exam answer. I then show them how IRAC can transfer to a full-length, single-issue memo through the Introduction (issue as topic sentence followed by succinct recitation of rule). Then go onto Rule explanation (case precedent interpreting rule). Then go on to Application of facts (analysis), ultimately leading to Conclusion.

We then break each section down even further. For the case precedent section, for example, each case should have a topic sentence of about the overall legal issue, the relevant rule from the case, the relevant facts from the case, the analysis (holding and reasoning), and a conclusion. The application to facts portion should consist of the strong argument first, followed by weaker arguments.

These mini checklists provide guidance to the students as they learn to incorporate "good legal writing" into an effective legal document. 

Throughout the course, I am constantly asking things like, "What is the 4-step legal research process?" Or "How do you frame the question presented?" Or "What is IRAC?" I'm hoping that the repetition will make it stick. 

Bryan Garner also discusses using checklists to improve writing. Garner includes a sample timeline and checklist based on a filing deadline for a brief. 

As he mentions, checklists are "informational job aids that reduce mistakes."


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