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LWI Lives - December 2021

Brian Larson: Legal Rhetoric, Argumentation, and Writing DOWNLOAD PDF

By Stephanie Williams

Brian Larson is an Associate Professor of Law at Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth, Texas. Like everyone I know at TAMU, Brian starts chats and emails with the greeting, “Howdy,” and his service to our profession shows how much he lives the ideas of respect and honor encapsulated by “Howdy.”

I met Brian at the beginning of the pandemic, which seems so long ago now. Like many, I was open to learning new ways to use tech in our sudden move to online instruction, but I was also exhausted and looking for easy, simple solutions. Brian spent a great deal of time teaching several of us about Eli Review and other online peer review options. He patiently answered questions and walked us through sample assignments, making my transition from paper to online peer review seamless.

As the pandemic wore on, Brian and Kirsten Davis of Stetson Law started the Research Methods in Legal Communication reading group, hosting helpful sessions on rhetorical and empirical research. They are continuing the group with a “module” on quantitative methods over the winter break this year. They inspire new Legal Writing faculty and experienced instructors alike. I know many in our community are grateful for this generous guidance.

Given his service to our profession, I was excited to learn more about Brian’s writing and his daily work with students, as well as his love for words.

Brian’s family moved often when he was young: He lived in Minnesota (where he was born), Idaho, Colorado, Iowa, and Wisconsin before he graduated high school. He jokes that his parents must have been running from the law. Brian earned a Doctorate in Philosophy, focusing on Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication, from the University of Minnesota, and his Juris Doctor from the William Mitchell College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline School of Law). He taught Legal Writing and other courses at University of Minnesota, and then moved to Georgia to teach Communication at Georgia Institute of Technology.

When we talked for LWI Lives, I asked Brian about the differences between growing up mostly in the Midwest, and then moving to Georgia and Texas. He explained the South is “interesting linguistically,” and he saw a “higher degree of formality from students than in Minnesota,” for example. In fact, Brian uses an exercise where the class alternates class days between “formal address” and “informal address” in an effort to teach students that formality in language use is context sensitive. He explained, “Getting students to call me ‘Dr. Larson’ or ‘Prof. Larson’ on Tuesdays is easy. But getting them to say ‘Brian’ on Thursdays is much harder in Texas than it was in Minnesota.”

Brian also loves regional variations in language. Southern expressions he “has adopted whole-heartedly as being very efficient” include “might could,” which in the North is the more cumbersome “might be able to,” and “y’all”—along with “all y’all,” and “y’all’s.” In our talk, we both used “all y’all,” demonstrating just how efficient, and fun, these phrases can be. Brian “was about as happy as could be” when a neighbor originally from New Orleans asked if he needed anything because she was “fixin’ to make groceries.” Brian explained: “Fixin’ to” replaces the clunkier “getting ready to” and the “fais” in French “Je fais des courses”—I’m shopping for groceries—also translates as “make” in English.

Brian studied theoretical linguistics as an undergraduate, and his bio explains he “was drawn to the law because it is the place where language becomes power.” He explained: “Thanks to a close college friend, who has since become a co-author, I was interested in the First Amendment and free speech.” However, it seemed “obvious . . . that the only time words were ‘just words’ was when they were the examples in linguistic and philosophical texts. In real-life contexts, words are always doing something—affecting the emotions, beliefs, and goals of those who hear them.” Of course, as Brian notes, “in the law, speech acts form and change legal relations: Uttering ‘I accept’ in the right context forms a contract. The words we choose, even the punctuation, can change people’s lives.”

Brian uses these ideas of the power of words in his teaching. He shared this link on how he uses a personal experience from when he started law school to help teach his students how their work is always connected to real people’s lives: What my 88-year-old aunt can help teach my law students. As an in-coming 1L, Brian had an assignment to read a published opinion that mentioned almost in passing an accident that killed his uncle. Brian explained he was “not prepared for the shock” when he “reached the third paragraph” and saw a brief, cold recitation of his Uncle Merlyn’s truck crash. Brian uses this story to remind students “there are always human beings behind the court opinions we read” and to challenge students “to keep the richness and particularity” of human lives in mind as we use generic terms, like “decedent,” “trustee,” “plaintiff,” and “defendant,” in our analysis and writing.

Brian loves teaching writing because he’s a “completely obsessed nerd about using language,” and “the students don’t seem to mind.” He enjoys “getting students excited” about the ways words change the world. Brian explained: “My interest in logic from formal linguistics combined with the realities of persuasion in legal training and practice is what got me interested in rhetorical theory and its relation to legal reasoning. I’m not sure my students are quite as motivated to understand that as I am, but I try.”

Pre-pandemic, I often cooked and baked for my students, telling them “food is love,” so it was fun to chat with Brian about how much we love eating and cooking. Brian said: “I don’t feel I’m a very good cook, but I feel really great while I’m doing it. I love to try out new, complicated things.” For example, for his birthday in 2020, Brian spent a whole weekend making shoyu ramen from scratch using Adam Liaw’s recipes, including the double soup (pork stock and seafood broth), pickled soft-boiled eggs (ajitama), grilled pork belly (chashu), and ramen noodles. The last item actually called for some chemistry skills, as the noodle recipe required an alkali substance, baked baking soda. (Brian notes we should be sure to handle the resulting powder with care, as it is corrosive to some kitchen substances.) While “the results were really no better than what we get at my favorite ramen joint,” nonetheless “it was very soothing to have this project to occupy me for almost three days.”

Brian married his spouse, Bob, on a “cold January day” outside at Lincoln Center in New York City, on Friday, January 13. Their first date, 23 years earlier, was also a Friday the Thirteenth, so they consider the date lucky. Brian and Bob love to travel, and Brian shared some great photos of their travels.

During the pandemic, Brian and Bob were limited to a few family visits and a “great trip to Mexico City,” which had “strong COVID protocols” so they could enjoy beautiful hiking and the “great” city. They have planned a trip to Greece with friends for next summer, and they are hoping to spend three or four weeks in Valencia Spain soon.

Brian and Bob have loved all their journeys, but perhaps the most memorable was a flight back from Barcelona to Minneapolis, scheduled to stop in Amsterdam, on September 11, 2001. When their plane landed at Schiphol Airport, all the televisions showed images of the Twin Towers on fire. Bob, ever the pragmatist, immediately said, “We need to get a hotel room.” After a quick stop at an internet kiosk, they secured a place to stay, unlike many others who slept on Red Cross cots at the airport for days. “The most striking thing was how the Amsterdammers enfolded us with care and support while we were stuck there waiting to get home. We’ll always feel gratitude for that.”

Brian is a prolific writer. I asked him which writing was the most difficult for him and if he had a favorite piece. He shared: “Not my favorite piece, but the hardest, was my dissertation. It’s the ultimate ‘show your work’ genre, where your dissertation committee is looking for evidence that you understand the how and why of everything you did. I thought I had that handled when, late in the process, my advisor came to me and said she thought I could make a ‘richer theoretical contribution.’ Honestly, I had no idea what that meant at the time, but the result was a chapter that I’m pretty proud of and that I later adapted and had published in an edited collection.”

Finally, I asked Brian what excites him most about teaching now that we have learned so many pandemic lessons and are adjusting to our new “normal.” While Brian and I are both happy our students seem to feel comfortable sharing emotions and meeting individually on Zoom, his answer mirrored what so many of us feel. Brian explained: “I’m still not excited by the new normal. I miss seeing students’ faces close up in a classroom, doing classroom activities that get students up and moving around together in groups, and cooking for them when we have a major-project workshop.” Bob and Brian always hosted a year-end party for students, and they really miss being able to do that too. I’m sure Brian’s students agree, and we all hope for future parties, potlucks, and small group in-class chats.

Many thanks to Brian for sharing with us and always supporting our community. You can reach Brian at