The Write Stuff- U-M professor introduces students to legal writing

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By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Shifting to reader-focused writing can be challenging for law students, whose undergrad writing was often aimed at convincing professors they had read and understood material, or had thought about it in a logical or interesting way.

"Legal writing is, above, all, about the reader--providing information a client needs to make an important decision, convincing a judge to adopt your argument," says Beth Hirschfelder Wilensky, a clinical assistant professor in Michigan Law's Legal Practice Program. "The most important thing a legal writer has to do is be helpful to the reader, at every level, from overall organization and selection of points to cover, to the minute details of punctuation that are distracting if they aren't right."

Teaching an average of 47 first-year students, in a course built around individual student-professor interaction, Wilensky meets with each student multiple times each semester, getting to know them well and following their development from day one. She enjoys it when students surprise her by thinking about a problem in a way she hadn't considered.

"I spend a lot of time researching, writing, editing, and thinking in great depth about the problems I assign. But a student will sometimes take a fact I threw in simply to provide background context or make the assignment seem more realistic, and use that fact in support of an argument that didn't occur to me when I wrote the problem," she says. "That always gives me a little thrill."

Many students are surprised by the amount of feedback she provides--on everything from overall strategic decisions about what arguments to include in a motion, to sentence-level suggestions for how to write with greater clarity and precision.

"Very few have ever received such detailed written feedback on their work," she says. "For some of them, it takes some getting used to--not just seeing their paper with a string of typed comments down the margin, but learning how to use that feedback to improve the next assignment. That's one of the things I try to work on with them individually because it will help them throughout their careers--how do you take information someone gave you about your work on one project and use that to improve your skills on an entirely different matter?"

Wilensky also challenges students to see that writing problems are often "thinking "problems. A student struggling with how to frame a complex issue in a straightforward way often is really struggling not with what words work best but rather with what, precisely, is the substance of the point she wants to make. Similarly, a student struggling with how to organize a legal argument in a way that will be most helpful to readers is almost certainly struggling with the underlying analysis--i.e., how do the pieces of the puzzle fit together? What are the possible ways to view the relationship between different parts of the argument?

Wilensky has plenty of her own writing experience. While earning her bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, she was applying to law school during her senior year and simultaneously writing her senior thesis in sociology.

"At one point I seriously considered looking into Ph.D. programs in sociology instead of law school, because I really enjoyed the process of research and analysis that went along with writing my thesis," she says. "But I--happily--ended up deciding on law school."

While earning her juris doctorate, cum laude, from Harvard Law School, she served as articles editor for the Harvard Journal on Legislation. She also worked as a teaching fellow in Harvard College, and was among the top 15 percent of teaching fellows recognized with the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching.

"One of the most enjoyable things I did was work as a teaching fellow for an undergraduate course, taught in part by my family law professor--and now Harvard Law School Dean--Martha Minow," she says. "I found I loved just about everything about teaching, so when my husband and I were looking to return to our Midwestern roots from D.C., and I saw the posting for the legal practice position at Michigan, I knew instantly it was what I wanted to do. I love teaching and I love writing, and this job offers the perfect combination of those two things."

Prior to joining the U-M faculty, Wilensky practiced law for five years in the litigation section at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington, D.C.

"I loved the actual legal work--thinking about a legal problem, and researching, analyzing, and writing about it. I was happiest sitting in my office absorbed in a brief I was writing," she says. "I was also lucky enough to work for some terrific partners who taught me so much about how to approach a legal question and how to write about it in a clear and compelling way. And I very much enjoyed mentoring more junior associates in a similar way."

A board member at Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, Wilensky is married with two children, 5-year-old Leo and 7-year-old Josephine. She enjoys cooking--"especially when I'm staring down a big stack of papers to read and comment on, I like to alternate between grading and cooking, cooking and grading--I get into a rhythm that works really well."

A native of St. Louis, she is a big fan of baseball, especially the St. Louis Cardinals. But living in Ann Arbor has turned her into a gridiron fan, especially since Wolverine football season heralds the start of the new school year.

"Sitting in my office in August, listening to the marching band practice 'Hail to the Victors' a few blocks away, gets me energized for the football season and the arrival of my new group of students each fall," she says.

Published: Mon, Jun 11, 2012

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