For good or ill, it is nearly impossible to function in our society without a basic knowledge of the law. Whether we as educators see our function as preparing students for a single profession, or for full participation in community life as a whole, we cannot ignore the influence of legal language. This prospect is really not so daunting as it sounds: not only has legal writing begun to respond to the widespread calls for “plain English,” but lawyers’ ways of writing and thinking can be valuable tools for student learning in any field that values precise analysis and awareness of the means of persuasion.
Legal analysis and legal argument are, in many ways, paradigmatic of our culture’s means of knowledge-making. Most legal analysis derives from deductive reasoning, from a simple syllogism in which a rule of law is taken as the major premise, the facts of the particular case at hand are the minor premise, and the conclusion determines whether the rule applies to the facts. We reason syllogistically (and, therefore, legalistically) all the time.
As a case in point, when I have established a rule that my children cannot have a snack right before bedtime, and my daughter asks for a chocolate chip cookie at 10 p.m., I reason that since 10 p.m. is bedtime for her, and that since a cookie is a snack, she cannot have it. This particular syllogism becomes more interesting when my daughter asks for a glass of milk; that is, when it becomes harder to define what a “snack” is, one of the terms of the major premise. Most legal syllogisms call for these more difficult definitions; in fact, using simple examples from the law is one of the most vivid ways of demonstrating to our students the importance of precise definition as well as the importance of syllogistic reasoning as a whole.
Perhaps more important is the fact that, once a particular legal syllogism is established, it is used in varied ways, and aimed at varied audiences. Teresa Godwin Phelps reminds us that lawyers write to their clients as counselors, to other lawyers as analysts, and to judges as advocates. By comparing a lawyer’s letter to her client, her memo to her peers on the client’s case, and her court brief arguing the case, we can plainly show how the same set of facts and analyses must vary, depending on the writer’s relationship with the audience—a crucial lesson for students in any field. Furthermore, because legal documents interact with each other (sometimes, it seems, endlessly) we can use legal discourse to emphasize the fact that writing always responds to real needs, and calls for an answer in return, that no text is an island.
But will our students be overly daunted by the complexities of legal discourse? Todd Taylor of the University of South Florida believes not, and has therefore designed a technical writing course that foregrounds, rather than ignores, the influence of legal discourse in all professions. Taylor uses what he calls “a unified case study approach,” in which “a significant portion of the semester is dedicated to a team-based solution of a specific problem developed according to real circumstances in the professional world” (246).
Members of a particular team who are interested in the law act as legal consultants to the team, and through the consultation process, the other team members are also exposed to the legal issues pertinent to their chosen profession. The benefits of this “case study” approach in such fields as engineering, social work, psychology, and business are obvious, and Taylor’s article is a useful and concise guide for those who want to take advantage of them.
Less obvious, perhaps, are the advantages of this “case study method” for other disciplines, but in fact any academic discipline that must consider the larger social implications of its practices must also prepare its students to deal with the world of legal discourse. Education majors can benefit from case studies concerning banned books or severe disciplinary problems; young biologists can help each other examine the legal implications of genetic technology; history students can write mock briefs for the trial of Galileo, or dramatize the debate between Trotsky and Lenin as a moot court session.
If the prevalence of law in our popular culture is any indicator, students should be greatly energized by these activities. But more importantly, they will develop a familiarity with a way of knowing that can teach valuable analytic and rhetorical lessons. Also, they will be able to manage a discourse that, otherwise, might very well manage them.
Phelps, Teresa Godwin. “In the Law the Text is King.” Worlds of Writing: Teaching and Learning in Discourse Communities. Carolyn B. Matalene, ed. New York: Random, 1989. 363-374.
Taylor, Todd. “Legal Literacy and the Undergraduate Curriculum.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 10.2 (1996): 239-250.
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