To become a good lawyer, law students and practitioners must learn how to persuasively advocate on behalf of a client based on the law and the client’s facts. A new textbook edition co-authored by Distinguished Clinical Professor Ruth Anne Robbins centers on the client and teaches readers how to be persuasive in their legal communications on behalf of a client. We discussed her book, "Your Client's Story: Persuasive Legal Writing," in a Q&A.
Tell us a little bit about your new book!
This is a textbook that teaches the readers how to be persuasive in their legal communications on behalf of a client. We take the approach that to be persuasive you need to consider certain universals—credible information, cohesive narrative, sound reasoning, logical organization, and an organized, professional presentation. Our new edition brings a lot more fact analysis to the forefront.
Who is this book for?
The book is designed for law students in a legal writing or writing-intensive clinic course. While we designed it for the second semester of the 1L legal writing course series, the book is also used in some advanced writing courses. A few chapters are used in appellate clinics.
How did you get involved with this project?
Two things came together. First, I teach an upper-level writing course about persuasion that uses a really wonderful textbook. But there’s no textbook that leads into it, naturally. My co-authors and I thought that there should be a prequel, so to speak, so we wrote it.
Second, my co-authors and I are very involved in a field called Applied Legal Storytelling. That is a movement to be more deliberate about the study and teaching of narrative theory as it relates to client-centeredness. But legal writing traditionally has been grounded in a lot of document-centered composition. We wanted to shift that focus.
What’s unique about this new textbook?
It’s the first legal writing textbook to use the word “client” in its title, and we center the book around client representation. We do that because a lawyer’s role is about advocacy for a client based on the law and the client’s facts. This idea that law analysis relies on fact analysis drives the textbook. In the second edition, we added a brand-new chapter on inferential reasoning with facts. There’s so much going on in the news that confuses the idea of what “facts” even are that we really thought we had to walk it through with students.
And, we have also included a new chapter about logical fallacies—when arguments have faulty premises or faulty conclusions. Once upon a time, this was taught in K-12 but by and large, it isn’t a staple of today’s primary education. Yet, it’s very important for lawyers to know how to spot and how to avoid fallacious arguments.
Our textbook also discusses the visual design of documents for persuasive purposes. So, for example, we use a type of outlining structure that translates well to online reading. We teach students some tips for formatting their resumes (an advocacy document). And we talk about the growing reliance on analytical visuals in legal advocacy—images, tables, charts, infographics. We cannot teach it all in one book, but we can at least alert the readers to the ideas and to the necessity to become literate in their production.
What is the underlying philosophy behind the book?
Most of the other textbooks in its category attempt to cover two semesters of the 1l legal writing course series and in doing so unwittingly and erroneously signal an equality of predictive documents (intra-office memos) to advocacy documents (legal briefs and the like). So, we wrote a book that exclusively focuses on advocacy.
We teach by approaching advocacy as a gestalt rather than as something that we can break into chunks that correspond to different sections of a specific legal document. All effective communication involves Aristotle’s three pillars of classical rhetoric: ethos (the credibility of the author and of the information), logos (the logical and cohesive organization of the legal arguments) and pathos (the narrative that draws you in, plus the look/feel of the communication). So that’s where we start. Persuasion can also be enhanced with the use of other concepts known to cognitive psychologists, such as priming (placing markers up front that trigger memory later on), storytelling, and readability.
Why is it important for new law students to learn a client-centered approach to practice?
Lawyers represent clients. It’s as simple as that. Students come to law school for precisely that reason. They come to learn how to represent clients—be they individuals, governments, corporations, or the general citizenry in impact-based litigation. We want our students to maintain that sense of purpose and empathy. That means teaching them in the 1L and 2L year so that they are ready to assume the role of lawyer in the clinic and externship programs of their 3L year.
How does legal writing connect to the rest of a student’s law school studies?
Legal writing is a misnamed field. It should be called “Legal Communication” or some variation with those two words in it. People teaching these courses show students how to take what they have learned in their topical courses and use that to problem-solve for clients. And to effectively communicate with others. Legal analysis is pointless unless the lawyer can communicate in a variety of mediums. Hence the role of these courses. That is also why these courses include some materials about oral arguments in court—although not the trials you see on TV.
How did law students influence this book?
We wrote the book with a conversational tone, and we tested our chapters with our students before committing them to the book. The students offered some great suggestions for things to add, delete, or change. We also use samples written by law students, precisely because these are documents that can be achieved by law students.
What drew you to legal writing initially?
While a law student I was a teaching assistant and I really enjoyed the experience. My mother is a professor, and I grew up around academe. I was hired as an adjunct professor when Rutgers used those, exclusively. Maybe halfway into the semester one of the law partners I worked for remarked that I really seemed to be animated when I talked about teaching. I realized that she was exactly right so I applied for full-time jobs that spring. And what’s not to love? I get to work with students! I get to read about persuasion and storytelling and document design! It’s a great national community! I am drawn to all of it, except the citation part. It’s something you have to do right, but I can’t stand devoting more than an hour a year to teaching it.
What do you hope law students take away from your textbook?
I hope that students walk away from the book interested to continue learning more about the science and rhetoric of advocacy. There are always blogs and articles to read, as well as another course or two to take in law school. I also hope that students start to see more persuasion and storytelling in action in the world around them and that they take note of what works and what doesn’t.
What will you be working on next?
Genevieve Tung, Associate Director of the Law Library, and I are working on an article about legal curiosity—something that hasn’t really been explored in the legal academic literature. When you act on your curiosity you activate research and analysis skills. It’s therefore important for lawyers!