Legal writing and research are fundamental skills for lawyers, both professional and academic. Traditionally part of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in law, teaching legal writing and research is fast growing in importance. However, teaching legal writing can be a tedious task: rather than instructing and examining students on core legal principles, or a critical analysis of the law, it involves instructing the students in basic techniques then examining these techniques repeatedly to ensure that students have mastered them. While teaching the subject, the authors identified two major difficulties.
First, traditional classroom based teaching approaches are no longer feasible as they require a significant commitment of staff time, particularly as student numbers increase and staffing resources decrease. Systematic teaching requires continuous revisiting of basic issues, something which is not appropriate in a classroom but which can achieved with much less staff resources and, significantly, no embarrassment to the student, through interactive software. Online delivery allows the student to proceed at her own pace, revisit difficult areas repeatedly as necessary without drawing attention to herself and receive immediate and accurate feedback on what are often very technical skills.
Second, in teaching legal writing and research in Ireland, until recently lecturers were hampered by the unavailability of an Irish based and Irish focused text. In response to these challenges, two of the authors (along with two other colleagues) created a unified set of teaching and learning materials for legal writing and research and published a textbook How to Think, Write and Cite: Key Skills for Irish Law Students (Round Hall 2011) together with an interactive website, , containing self-assessment exercises linked directly to the textbook.
In this paper, we will first explain the background to the project and why we felt it necessary to introduce a web-based learning element to the teaching of legal writing and research. We will then discuss the technological issues encountered and reflect on the challenges and benefits of converting assessment tools to formats suitable for automatic grading by computer. Some of our initial aspirations for the website could not come to fruition because of the constraints of the technology; these issues will be explored.
We will then critique the use of the website by reference to student feedback and an autoethnographic account of using these tools in the classroom from the perspective of a teacher. Students’ feedback will indicate when they used the site, how they used it and whether they found it a useful addition to their learning experience. One of the authors of the paper taught legal writing without the aid of the book/website combination and then used it in class the following year. The paper provides an account of what her experience was from both perspectives, and highlight some of the advantages and disadvantages of the project. This will include a discussion of how the tool was received by students with diverse backgrounds (for example, mature students) and challenges (including a visually impaired student).
The project has benefited from several rounds of funding which have enabled the creation of transferable banks of questions and the possibility of hosting individualised versions of legal writing courses on the website. However, despite some effort being devoted to publicising these resources and possibilities to those teaching legal research and writing in Ireland, take up and sharing of these has been limited, even for those who are involved in the project. This raises two issues for reflection: the technical challenges which can slow the adoption of novel approaches to teaching, and the continuing low status of legal writing as a peripheral element of the legal curriculum and therefore an area which is unlikely to have sufficient time devoted to it to justify the time investment which this adoption will require.