Why law profs should teach law students to write for the digital reader in the age of COVID-19 (with checklist)

On behalf of Joseph A. Rosenberg, Professor of Law, CUNY School of Law

1.Introduction and Context

The author proposes that law professors teach legal writing intentionally designed for the digital reader.

The proposed framework uses visual design elements and digital functionality to overlay traditional structures of legal writing. Writing for the digital reader addresses the challenges of reading on a computer screen and amplifies best practices for legal writing. The result is a conceptual framework for written communication that helps bridge the gap between the writer’s “intention” and the reader’s “attention,” regardless of medium (paper or digital).[1]       

The COVID-19 pandemic and the move to online learning by law schools has exposed the pre-existing need to incorporate writing for the digital reader as part of the fundamental framework for teaching legal writing across the law school curriculum. Digital writing represents a “best of both worlds” approach: to write well for the digital reader is to write well for the paper reader.

Digital writing does not replace the creative, human writing process, complex narrative and analysis, or the role of “old school” technologies in that process—for example, pen and paper. Similar to the difference between a paper and digital map, writing for the digital reader adds dynamic dimensions that enhance communication between the writer and reader.        

Writing for the digital reader meets today’s law students, who are mostly “digital residents,” where they are. It facilitates “adaptive transfer” by encouraging all students to draw on their learning experiences, including oral and written communication. It is a bridge for students from their lived experiences in the digital age to the unfamiliar landscape and structures of legal writing and analysis.

In addition, the lynching of George Floyd (and many other Black people in America) and the Movement For Black Lives, has forced the U.S. and its legal system to confront its white supremacy origins. As part of this broader reckoning, law professors and law schools need to re-examine lawyering traditions and practices, including legal writing. Unless we actively practice more contemporary approaches to lawyering, include anti-racist discourse, critical modes of analysis, and different assessment practices, we will be, in the words of Professor Teri A. McMurtry-Chubb, “Still Writing at the Master’s Table.”

Writing for the digital reader prepares law students for contemporary practice: “Lawyering in the Digital Age.” In legal education, the shift to digital technology, according to Professor Conrad Johnson, “transforms the way we practice traditional lawyering skills and requires us to teach the new skills of contemporary practice.”[2] Writing for the digital reader is an example of a contemporary approach to a traditional lawyering skill.  

The author hopes to encourage law professors and law schools to help reshape the teaching and practice of legal writing to better reflect the reality of lawyering in the digital age. Law professors can use the checklist below to get started.

2. Why law professors should teach writing for the digital reader.

Written communication is a core lawyering skill for law students: in many ways, to be a lawyer is to be a writer. The fundamental concept of legal writing, and how it is taught in law schools, should reflect the reality that the audience will likely be reading on a computer screen. This includes the full range of professional writing that law students will learn and do while in law school and as lawyers.[3] Even writing that may have to be printed and read on paper, for example, “know your rights” materials and communication to clients who are detained or incarcerated, will benefit from a “digital writing” approach.   

Scholarship on visual design and the impact of digital technology on legal writing provides a theoretical and practical basis for shifting our notion of a legal document from paper to digital. For example, Professor Ruth Anne Robbins, in her 2004 seminal article, Painting with Print, and in her 2015 work with Professor Steve Johansen, Art-iculating the Analysis, made important connections among visual design techniques, legal writing, and lawyering strategy. Professor Kirsten Davis, in her 2014 article, The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated, asserted that “all legal reading is rapidly moving to on-screen legal reading.” Professor Ellie Margolis, in her 2015 article, Is the Medium the Message? observed that, “[T]urning the traditional, linear, text-based brief into a multidimensional e-document is a key example of how the medium changes the message and suggests that it is time to rethink that classic legal document.”

Lawyers no longer have a choice about incorporating technology into their practice and ABA Model Rule 1.1, Comment 8 requires that lawyers understand the risks and benefits of technology as part of the duty of competence, and ABA Formal Opinion 477R provide guidance about the lawyer’s duty to make “reasonable efforts” to secure confidential client information when using technology to communicate.

A 2012 survey found that 58% of federal court judges read briefs on an iPad, some U.S. Supreme Court Justices have been reading briefs on computer devices since at least 2010, and recently, all three judges on the Supreme Court in New Delhi, India used laptops in a remote paperless hearing. Various courts, for example, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, have detailed information about the design of briefs and courts are beginning to transition from mere e-filing of scanned documents to accepting or requiring electronic briefs with expanding digital functionality.

Visual design and digital functionality can be found in the work of the U.S. Supreme Court: for example, Justice Stephen Breyer used visual design in his 2020 Opinion in June Medical Services v. Russo (bullets and annotated map, see pp. 6-9, 32-33, 37), and the Annual Report on the Judiciary by Chief Justice John Roberts is a digital document with hyperlinked citations.

Any form of legal writing, broadly defined, can be transformed from “paper” (two dimensional) to “digital” (multi-dimensional) with modest changes in design, structure, and functionality. Writing for the digital reader incorporates, accentuates, and builds upon the components, structures, frameworks, and techniques that are effective for the paper reader. Digital writing can be adapted by law professors because particular elements or tools can be overlaid, sprinkled or infused regardless of the particular document, assignment, class, or module.

Law students can use a visual design approach to both construct their written analysis in outlines and drafts (for example, by using organizational visuals to deconstruct complex rules or facts) and present in their final writing whatever digital elements are appropriate, depending on the purpose and context of the writing. A writing for the digital reader framework emphasizes and synthesizes the following interactive elements:

3. Our “brain on screen” explains the need to write for the digital reader.

In the digital age, we are challenged by massive information overload and multiple distractions. This heightens the need to understand how “screen habits” affect the way in which we process information and maintain, develop, or lose cognitive focus.

Most law students are “Millennials,“ born after 1980 and now America’s largest, most diverse, and some say progressive, generation; they are starting to be joined in law schools by “Generation Z.” Both generations are “digital residents” who, despite a persistent digital divide, have inhabited a world of computers, smartphones, and social media for their entire lives. As noted by Professors Ellie Margolis and Kristen Murray in their 2016 article, “Using Information Literacy to Prepare Practice-Ready Graduates,” these students have “grown up composing text almost exclusively on screens, [and] have a very different experience with the reading and writing process than lawyers who began practicing law in the twentieth century.”

Reading on a computer screen (including laptop, tablet, smart phone) is associated with distraction, lack of sustained attention, and diminished comprehension. Researchers and educators fear that deep learning and meaningful comprehension are threatened as we try to read and:

To meet these challenges, we need to cultivate what Maryanne Wolf calls “cognitive patience” in our students (and ourselves) and, ultimately, a “biliterate brain” that switches effortlessly among different modes of reading.[4]

Regardless of medium, law students can develop and maintain habits of mind and strategies to compensate for diminished attention and manage information overload. Metacognition—awareness of their own learning process—will help students (re)balance and self-regulate their learning strategies and improve their ability to engage in deep reading and learning, even while using computer devices.

4. Checklist for teaching law students to write for the digital reader.[5]

Learning to write for the digital reader can help students improve their writing. This checklist incorporates practical approaches that draw on visual design, best practices in writing, and digital functionality. Professors, students, and attorneys can use it as a guide for written communication.

 Meet students where they are. Most of our students are “digital residents” who have lived their entire lives in the digital age. We can help them transfer their online experiences, knowledge, and skills to academic and professional writing assignments with practical frameworks and approaches.

 Begin with a reflection exercise. Ask students to reflect on their writing, including papers, articles, texts, emails, tweets, and posts.

  • What techniques do they use to communicate in writing online?
  • In more traditional papers?
  • What makes reading online easier or more difficult?

 Writing as a process. Writing for the digital reader can help students think about their writing process.

  • How do they generate and organize ideas?
  • Do they take notes, create an outline, write in stream of consciousness, or use other approaches?
  • What technology do they use: pen, paper, computer, a combination of paper and computer?

 Writing choices flow from content. Encourage students to focus initially on the goals of the writing and their ideas, research, analysis, and content. Thoughtful analysis, strong content, and clear objectives are the foundation for effective writing. Structure and format flow from substantive analysis.

 See writing with fresh eyes. Ask students to “step back” and review an initial draft.

  • Do lines of text appear “bunched” together?
  • Does the student’s eyes “glaze over” when they are reading due to long sentences and paragraphs?
  • Do they have to struggle to find the meaning of text that is too dense and hard to follow?

 Write to overcome screen reading challenges. Research shows that when we read on a screen, we are more distracted, less able to maintain sustained focus, and our comprehension diminishes. We can teach students how to use techniques and strategies to compensate for these problems.

 Eliminate or minimize distractions. Practice focused reading in 20-30 minute blocks without checking texts, emails, or social media. Minimize notifications and any other distracting “pop ups.” Take a short break.

 Headings, topic sentences and paragraphs. Encourage students to use headings and sub-headings in the early stages of writing process and, for most writing, through the final draft. This helps organize ideas and thoughts. Headings can “announce” topics or make an affirmative point. Topic sentences and concise paragraphs will also help both writer and reader.

 Spacing, lines, and fonts. Be aware of spacing, lines, and font (typography). The size and type of the font will likely depend on the conventions of the assignment or genre of writing. Spaces between lines, and the length of the lines of text, can help or hinder the reader.

 Use visuals and media to present information.

 “Organizational visuals.” Also called “navigational” visuals, these techniques are a great starting point to help the writer’s understanding, analysis, and structure. When writing about elements, rules, and multiple items, students can express information using “tab form” to create lists with:

1. Bullets,

2. Numbers, or

3. Letters.

 Graphs, tables, & charts. These are more tools students can use to communicate information. The key is to highlight content, not format of presentation. Students can use a simple table to compare and contrast information in context with practical, side by side examples.

 Images, diagrams, & videos. Depending on the context, students can use multi-media to support & illustrate their analysis. Media can help students develop ideas & analysis, and also meet the goals of the assignment.

 Hyperlink citations. We are so used to clicking on hyperlinks that we barely notice: they are a key difference between digital & paper writing. Writing assignments should include hyperlinks to legal citations and other resources.

 Best practices for hyperlinks. Hyperlinks can help students think differently about the purposes and form of citations.

  • Does the hyperlinked authority enhance text?
  • Where should it be located?
  • What is the proper form?
  • Does the hyperlink work; what if it breaks?

 Hyperlinks, paywalls, and #NoTechForICE. Use hyperlinks to discuss public and private databases, including ethical dimensions: @thomsonreuters (@Westlaw) & @ElsevierConnect (@LexisNexis) dominate legal research, law school course websites, and sell data to ICE & law enforcement agencies.

 Bookmarks. Students can insert bookmarks in longer documents. These bookmarks enhance functionality. Students can use bookmarks without a full table of contents. Students can insert hyperlinks to bookmarked sections in a roadmap or introductory section at the beginning of a document.

 Self-assessment. As part of the thinking and writing process, students see their piece of writing as a whole.

  • Is there a balance between text and space?
  • What visual tools are used in the writing?
  • Are the visual tools appropriate for the context?
  • Do the visual tools advance the purpose of the writing?

 Continue the editing, revising, and proofreading loop. In the digital age, learning how to write for the digital reader is a necessity. Students can learn to write at the intersection of visual design, best practices in writing, & digital functionality, and also improve their screen reading. Professors can too!

5. At a glance typography for legal writing for the digital reader.

Design choiceRecommendationsComments
Typeface or fontBaskerville Bookman Book Antiqua Calisto Century Century Schoolbook Garamond New Baskerville Palatino Times New RomanSerif for body of doc Sans Serif for headings Any “Book” font good for legal writing (Some say avoid Times New Roman because designed for newspaper columns and not as legible)  
Font sizeBetween 10 & 13Depends on letter height & line length
White space (including margins)Use expansively 1.5 as default, 1.0 and 2.0 as appropriateAvoid bunching together text without enough space. Double space not as effective for screen reading
Headings & subheadingsUse headings & sub-headings Sentence format Arabic numerals (1.0) Arial Century Gothic Trebuchet CorbelUse Sans Serif font for contrast Avoid: ALL CAPS, Small Caps, Cap At Beginning Of Each Word, & underline Align with left margin (do not center) Insert extra space before each sub-heading (distances from prior section, connects with related text)
Organizational or navigational visualsUse for elements, lists, points (bullets, numbers, letters, other visual signals).Avoid “burying” items within a paragraph. Use to complement, not replace narrative text.
Page numbersUse p. 1 of 20Avoid p. # alone
Length of documentWord countNot number of pages
Line length & justificationShorter line length (6”) (margins equal to or more than 1”) Rule of thumb: line should be 2 or 2.5 times alphabet length (52 to 65 characters)Use proportional spacing

[1] Maryanne Wolfe, Reader Come Home (HarperCollins 2018).

[2] Conrad Johnson, Lawyering in the Digital Age at 308 in Bryant et al., Transforming the Education of Lawyers: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Pedagogy (Carolina Academic Press 2014)..

[3] For example, formal legal memoranda and briefs, articles, essays, emails, letters, websites, posts, tweets, blogs, “DIY” guided interviews, court forms, reports, and community education materials.

[4] Maryanne Wolfe, Reader Come Home (HarperCollins 2018).

[5] Modified from author’s Twitter thread on @JoeRosenbergLaw, March 13, 2020.

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