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The Second Draft - Volume 34, No. 1

Providing Virtual Legal Writing Support to Law Students Beyond the Classroom DOWNLOAD PDF

  • Tracy G. Crump
    Writing Advisor for the Legal Writing Resource Center
    UIC John Marshall Law School


At their core, one-on-one writing conferencing sessions are considered important meetings to assist students with improving their writing. In “Peer Tutoring and the Law School Writing Center,” Kristen Murray explains two positive benefits staffed writing centers have on legal writing programs: affording “an opportunity for an increase in the amount of individualized instruction that legal writing programs can offer . . . [and serving] as a non-judging audience, outside the traditional hierarchy in which writing in law school takes place. In these settings, students can improve writing skills and receive helpful feedback on their writing strengths and challenges. Bowman and Brodoff stressed the importance of a law students’ ability to transfer skills and understanding from the situation of the classroom to that of practice. The skills learned during law school are cultivated to pass courses, but, ultimately, these skills must be honed to use in practice and in life.

Today, legal research and writing (LRW) professionals must respond to the pedagogical needs of an increasingly diverse student population. These professionals thus must keep abreast of innovative teaching practices in order to assist law students in adopting the mechanics and practices of legal writing. One of these practices is utilizing previously established channels in combination with technological advancements to provide innovative and accessible services to serve students with diverse needs, preferences, styles, and life experiences, whether in person or remotely.

Current LRW support models incorporate face-to-face curriculum designs. However, the legal profession is increasingly relying on advancements in technology such as using computers and other multimedia in the classroom and the courtroom. For example, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 150 law schools across the country offered emergency remote teaching (ERT) during the Spring 2020 semester. Thus virtual coaching strategies need to incorporate considerations that address the needs for diverse learners

Virtual coaching sessions are one-on-one writing sessions between law students and LRW professionals designed to assist law students in better understanding legal research and writing techniques conducted using videoconferencing. The sessions involve much more than adopting the same teaching strategies used in face-to-face meetings. As such, LRW professionals developing these sessions need to consider relevant content, learning management systems and instructional platforms, learning theories, instructional design, and measurable outcomes.

Offering virtual coaching sessions has key implications for praxis among those assisting students beyond the classroom. As explained below, LRW professionals will need to draw upon a range of doctrinal and methodological approaches to effectively assist today’s law students during coaching sessions beyond the classroom. However, there remains a gap in the literature regarding strategies and interventions for virtually assisting students with mastering LRW beyond the classroom. 

Historically, most U.S. law schools offer majority of their legal research and writing tutoring support in face-to-face sessions. However, many legal institutions have begun to address the need for remote instructional support by adopting virtual instructional delivery initiatives. These LRW professionals incorporate several components of successful virtual coaching curricula, such as: (1) assessing student learning styles; (2) developing an individualized instructional design that is engaging and responsive to student needs; and (3) communicating an outline for understanding the purpose and the elements of the legal editing process during virtual LRW coaching sessions.

In both face-to-face and virtual settings, LRW professionals need to effectively present information to students with different learning styles. Legal professionals must also be able to refine, transmit, and use their knowledge to assist clients, judges, and the public. In addition, to effectively support today’s law students beyond the classroom, LRW professionals adopting virtual coaching sessions thus must have a working knowledge of the three domains of digital learning: cognitive, affective (feelings and emotion), and psychomotor (physical).

In the 21st Century, law students have competing responsibilities that may force them to divide their time between school, work, and other personal obligations and may therefore need to access LRW coaching remotely. In response, higher education institutions have adopted videoconferencing platforms such as Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, and Panapto to deliver innovative and accessible tools and services that serve students in different locations with diverse needs, preferences, styles, and life experiences.

In virtual coaching sessions, as in face-to-face meetings, LRW professionals must be able to articulate the purpose of each component of legal writing in a format understandable to the law student. These professionals must also impress upon the student the importance of reviewing one’s own process for learning.

Coaching law students using videoconferencing also requires LRW professionals to maintain presence by helping students understand high-level notions, synthesizing subject matter, and understanding how each student best learns in the current environment.

To successfully help virtual coaching session students, LRW professionals must be able to identify various learning styles and provide services and resources that are responsive to student needs. Understanding student learning styles and identifying individual student needs are thus crucial to designing appropriate instructional curricula.

1. Assessing Learning Styles for Virtual LRW Coaching Sessions.

Past research has focused on the significance of effective instructional design and curriculum. Angelo and Cross (1993) presented 50 Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) designed to assist teachers and learners in better understanding their unique teaching-learning process as it occurs. These techniques include analyzing focused autobiographical sketches, students describing successful learning experiences, students explaining three to five goals they have for their assignment or course, and students comparing themselves with descriptions of various learning profiles to identify the style(s) that best match their characteristics and preferences. Since 1981, Branch and Dousay (2015) have surveyed instructional design models aimed at identifying best practices in online learning, planning, design, and development. In Learning Online: What Research Tells Us about Whether, When and How (2014), Means, Bakia, and Murphy highlight the complexity  of the online design and decision-making process by identifying nine dimensions of online learning design. A major implication of this body of research is that the diversity of LRW students must be considered when developing support service strategies that are flexible, inclusive, and student-centeredLRW professionals need to help students identify their own learning styles by assessing the students’ strengths and preferencesThere are a number of learning styles that LRW professionals need to identify in their assessments: visual, aural, verbal, physical, and logical, as well as if the learner thrives in a more social or solitary environment.

Visual learners. These learners prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding when attempting to comprehend legal writing methods. Visual learners may thus benefit from making outlines, using flashcards, creating graphs and charts, accessing handouts that concisely explain concepts and material, or mapping out information visually using symbols or pictures.

Aural learners. This type of learner responds to the use of sound or music to grasp legal concepts. Methods to assist these learners may incorporate vignettes or short videos that succinctly explain information, using dictation software and hardware to record and review material, and reading material aloud, as well as discussing concepts with the LRW professional.

Verbal learners. Other students may prefer using words, both in speech and writing, to understand legal conceptions. Verbal learners may thus benefit from using acronyms or mnemonic devices, as well as mirroring or parroting concepts.

Physical learners. These kinesthetic learners may prefer using their bodies, hands, and sense of touch to synthesize legal concepts. Kinesthetic learners may thus benefit from tactile experiences and desire to engage in line-by-line examination of their work to work through challenges.

Logical learners. Logical, or mathematical, learners may benefit from using logic, reasoning, and systems to make sense of legal writing techniques. Methods such as pattern recognition exercises, understanding how to identify connections, and adopting classification strategies are useful in helping this type of learner to understand and employ legal writing practices.

Social and solitary learners. In other instances, students may be social (interpersonal) learners. Consequently, these learners may prefer to learn in groups or with other people. Social learners may benefit from verbal, and non-verbal, learning environments that allow them to articulate concerns, ask questions, and compare ideas in one-on-one or group settings. Conversely, students may be solitary (intrapersonal) learners. In these instances, students may prefer to work alone and use self-study. Solitary learners may benefit from understanding self-reflection strategies that allow them to assess strengths and weaknesses and receive guidance on practices to improve. They may also benefit from understanding the role their study environment plays on their productivity (i.e., they may prefer (and best perform) studying in quiet, remote locations).

In each circumstance, LRW professionals will need to help students identify their own learning styles by inquiring about their learning and study preferences. Based on these conversations, the LRW professional could offer suggestions as to how students can adapt their course preparation and study techniques to assist them in mastering legal research and writing techniques. These techniques might include preparing visual aids, charts, and graphs; and reading aloud or using electronic accessibility software to articulate their work aurally. After this assessment, the LRW professional will need to utilize previously established channels and technological advancements in instructional communication, to assist students with meeting their personal LRW goals.

2. Developing an Individualized Instructional Design for Virtual LRW Coaching Sessions.

Resources offered by LRW professionals must meet each student where they are as each law student has varying support needs. Merritt et al. (2018) note previous research highlighting the benefits in student learning when they receive formative feedback and the need for legal education to improve through effective feedback. LRW virtual coaching sessions afford legal students an opportunity to receive formative feedback while identifying their individual needs. LRW professionals can effectively employ “backwards design” to structure coaching sessions by identifying desired session results (learning objectives), determining acceptable evidence (assessments), and planning learning experiences and instruction on a case-by-case basis (content and learning activities). One method for clearly identifying student needs and developing an individualized instructional design is to adopt high-impact instructional designs, such as active learning practices that support deep learning by promoting student engagement.

The LRW professional will need to contextualize the learning experience to enable law students to understand the ultimate goal at the beginning of the coaching session. Students should be able to visualize, in detail, how each element of the project assists them in meeting their goals for the project. LRW professionals can also cultivate a problem-based learning experience by providing learning environments that enable students to develop skills immediately applicable to the task and useful in practice, such as distilling relevant elements in real legal case/scenarios that students might encounter. This environment will facilitate students becoming active producers of knowledge rather than passive consumers.

To facilitate successful virtual coaching sessions, LRW professionals may help students set goals for each session. The professionals may also incorporate structured lessons using sequenced learning activities and make learning objectives apparent through modeling. Another technique is to present worked examples and discuss them in detail. The examples should be designed to enable students to actively participate in understanding legal research and writing techniques. In addition, the professionals can provide students with multiple opportunities to encounter, engage with, and elaborate on new knowledge and skills. Another approach would be to question students on why they have used specific methods, techniques, or rationales and allow them to explain their choices. Offering students feedback on their performance relative to their learning objectives can be helpful too, as well as encouraging them to reflect on their own learning process. A final technique would be to incorporate adjustments for content, process, and product based on each student’s needs. High-impact practices such as these are important aspects of the virtual coaching session because they enable the LRW professional to demonstrate presence from a distance.

Moreover, LRW professionals could promote an instructional design that provides students with the opportunity to learn by doing, such as by asking them to explain why they have used specific techniques or rationales. For those students who benefit from social learning, LRW professionals could offer a social learning environment in which students engage in discussion that supports them furthering their knowledge acquisition, as well as networking with the LRW professional, peers, colleagues, and professionals in the field.

Additionally, LRW professionals can present a self-directed component that allows students to empower themselves, take ownership of the task, and to feel like they are setting their own direction. This exercise could involve scaffolding (developing blocks of interrelated content) or developing research and writing outlines designed to meet the students’ ultimate goals. For example, LRW professionals could adopt conceptual, specific strategic, or procedural scaffolds. Conceptual scaffolds would teach students to organize their ideas, legal concepts, and legal strategies and connect them to relevant information, specific strategic scaffolds could assist students in developing more nuanced questions, and procedural scaffolds could help clarify specific tasks such as oral arguments.

Adopting these practices will enable LRW professionals to meet each student where they are. While these assessment practices are fundamental to helping law students develop LRW skills, equally essential is assisting them in understanding the legal editing process.

3. Communicating an Outline for Understanding the Legal Editing Process.

In addition to helping students master legal writing techniques, virtual LRW coaching sessions should also communicate the importance of understanding the purpose and the elements of the legal editing process. Creating a space allowing students to understand the process is central to assisting students in developing this skill for later use in practice.

In the legal profession, thoroughness must be cultivated because life, freedom, or property rights may depend on nuanced details. LRW professionals thus need to communicate to students the value of editing their work. When doing so, the LRW professionals can articulate a six-step editing outline. This process is akin to previously established methods of gaining foundational legal knowledge, processing it, and employing the knowledge in practice.

  1. The student must read the text to understand what the text is about as well as the desired writing goal.
  2. The student must review the document thoroughly to correct typographical, punctuation, usage, grammar, and style errors.
  3. The LRW professional should encourage the student to analyze the overall structure of the document to make sure the information is in the right order, ideas are consistent and transition clearly, concepts are clearly explained, no unanswered questions remain, and there is no missing information.
  4. The LRW professional should impress upon the student the importance of ensuring names, titles, dates, locations, math, summaries of cases, or other information, is presented accurately as reflected in all sources.
  5. The LRW professional needs to illustrate the importance of revising the text to remove redundancies, trim wordiness, trim for length (if necessary), and ensure none of the other editing has introduced gaps in the story or other errors.
  6. The student must review the formatting of the document, including topic sentences, headings, and sub-headings, and figure captions, to ensure they align with the student’s (and the ultimate audience’s) requirements.

Adopting these strategies during virtual coaching sessions will enable the LRW professional to help students understand how to develop sound editing practices. This level of specificity in the virtual coaching session works to not only help students hone their legal skills, but also assists in helping them see how these foundational skills may transfer to practice.


Within the evolving landscape of remote legal instruction, LRW professionals are responding to the pedagogical needs of a diverse student population seeking assistance beyond the classroom. Such professionals have succeeded in assessing student learning styles. LRW professionals also need to identify student needs and develop an individualized instructional design that is engaging and responsive to each student’s needs. In addition, LRW coaching should include communicating an outline for understanding the legal writing editing process. Employing support initiatives that are responsive to current learning requirements, future LRW professionals who desire to make informed assessments and provide holistic services to law students beyond the classroom, should assess each student’s needs and design individualized virtual support plans for students endeavoring to master legal research and writing.