The “Why are you here?” of Legal Writing and Rhetoric

This post includes the video and handouts for for the session titled The “Why are you here?” of Legal Writing and Rhetoric, an on-demand session at the 2022 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), March 2022. This post includes the video of each of our three presenters and then also a video of a discussion among them with our chair/discussant. The videos will remain here indefinitely (CCCC is taking down its videos as of June 2022). This post includes our proposal with a summary of the sessions, followed by the individual videos and the group video.

If you have questions for the presenters, post them below, and this site’s host will forward them to the presenters for their responses.

Proposal for session

We often see law as a platform for social justice, with Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, Roe v. Wade, Obergefell v. Hodges, etc. taking part in radical reshapings of society. Undergraduate training in legal writing can invite diverse students in, giving them insight into law school and its rhetorical and communicative focus, or discourage them by emphasizing the hide-bound conventions of the profession. We must help students understand:

Why are you HERE? Where is the law in American culture? Where are our students in relation to the profession? Is it practically accessible to them? HERE is an uncertain place. Students may be interested in law informally or as a professional. Why are YOU here? What do our students bring to the classroom? What opportunities does their presence (physical and rhetorical—Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca) bring? What possibilities will they take with them to law school? WHY are you here? Is the law a key avenue for social justice? Recall the key cases cited above: There were lawyers on both sides. What is the ethical practice of persuasion in the law?

In “May It Please the Court,” Antonio Elefano explores the tension between collegiate composition’s embrace of diverse writing styles and the comparatively narrow strictures of legal writing. Elefano addresses this tension using a model of workshopping that embraces peer review, not just as something a class does, but as something they build together (Lesh 2019). Legal writing assignments often frame students as part of a law firm in preparation for their professional lives. The same conceit connects to the legal writing workshop, turning classrooms into “spaces where writers not only share, critique, and generate writing, but where they might design, experiment with, and reflect” on their processes (Lesh 2019). The goal isn’t just for students to learn a new craft under an expert’s tutelage but to put multiple problem-solving approaches in conversation so that students can learn from one another in the same way attorneys in a law firm collaborate and grow. Using insights gleaned from his forthcoming Legal Writing for the Undergraduate textbook, Elefano illuminates the HERE and YOU of “Why are you here?”

In “The Bar is Open,” Lindsay Head surveys benefits of labor-based grading contracts in legal writing. Drawing upon Shor, Mann, Elbow, etc., scholars see grading contracts as a positive alternative to the current-traditional approach to teaching writing. More recently, Inoue (2019) offers labor-based grading contracts to promote equity and inclusion there. Head first examines this approach in relation to current legal writing curricula. Coming from a large HSI institution comprising >30% first generation and ~50% low-income students—students report feeling “unconfident and out of place” in pre-law courses. Head next gives voice to students who feel they lack the requisite ID to get into the bar and invites attendees to see labor-based grading contracts as a means to invite all students in. Head illuminates the YOU and WHY of “Why are you here?”

Brian Larson discusses “Law’s Rhetorics and Reasonings.” Barthes (1988) identified several senses of the term “[legal] rhetoric.” There is the “technique,” the practitioner’s knowledge. There is the “teaching” that transforms the technique “into material for examination.” There is the “social practice, . . . that privileged technique . . . which permits the ruling classes to gain ownership of speech.” There is also the “ethic” of rhetoric, what one can and should do with it. Larson explores the disconnect between, on the one hand, the practitioner’s knowledge of legal rhetoric and, on the other hand, the teaching and public discourse surrounding legal reasoning. Using insights gleaned from empirical studies of legal rhetoric in context, Larson illuminates the HERE and WHY of “Why are you here?”

“May It Please the Court” (Antonio Elefano)

Antonio Elefano, Associate Professor (Teaching) of Writing, USC Dornsife. Elefano joined USC’s Writing faculty in the fall of 2014. Before coming to USC, he was a corporate litigator in New York City and a writing fellow/visiting assistant professor at the University of Houston. A graduate of Yale Law School and the author of the book Legal Writing for the Undergraduate from Wolters Kluwer, he is the Writing Program’s legal writing specialist, teaching WRIT 340: Moot Court, WRIT 340: Advanced Writing for Pre-Law Students (which he teaches as an Introduction to Legal Writing) and WRIT 440: Advanced Legal Writing. He is the faculty advisor for Southern California Moot Court (which has placed third in the nation for the past two years in a row) and the faculty advisor for Phi Alpha Delta (USC’s pre-law fraternity). In 2019, he was 1 of 3 professors across the university to be awarded a USC Mentoring Award for mentoring undergraduate students.

Elefano is also a fiction writer whose stories have been published in The Los Angeles Review, 236 and The Journal. In August 2014, his story “Italy” was one of Buzzfeed’s “29 Short Stories You Need to Read in Your Twenties.”

Elefano’s handout is available here: Elefano Peer Critique Instruction Sheet


“The Bar is Open” (Lindsay Head)

Lindsay Head joined St. Thomas University College of Law as an Assistant Professor of Legal Writing in 2021. She teaches Legal Research and Writing and Advanced Legal Writing. A licensed member of the Florida Bar, Professor Head practiced general civil litigation and family law at a medium-sized law firm in South Florida, where she directed and supervised the firm’s internship program. Recognizing her passion for teaching writing, she later returned to academia and earned a Ph.D. in English, with a concentration in Writing, Rhetoric, and Culture, from Louisiana State University in 2018.


“Law’s Rhetorics and Reasonings” (Brian Larson)

Brian N. Larson (he/his/him) is associate professor of law at Texas A&M University’s School of Law. He researches legal argumentation from philosophical and rhetorical perspectives. He teaches courses in legal philosophy (jurisprudence), rhetoric, and communication. Larson is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, appearing in the journals Communication Law & Policy, Legal Writing: Journal of the Legal Writing Institute, Nevada Law Journal, Cincinnati Law Review and others. Larson holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He is a Texas A&M Arts and Humanities Fellow. He came to Texas A&M after a 20-year career as an attorney.

Larson’s handout, including a transcript of his remarks, is available here: Larson Preso


Panel discussion

After panelists posted their videos and we had a chance to watch them all, we convened a Zoom call with our panel chair Lisa-Jane Klotz. She asked questions and led a discussion among the panelists. Lisa is Continuing Lecturer in the University Writing Program at UC Davis, where she focuses her research on legal reasoning and writing and early modern English law and literature. She teaches Legal Reasoning and Writing; Writing in International Relations. She holds a Ph.D. in English from UNC Chapel Hill, as well as M.A. and J.D. degrees.

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