Bigelow: A Student Perspective
About the only thing I was sure of when I arrived at the Law School was that I was a fairly good writer. I had little idea of what a tort was. I was mystified by the idea of the "common law," and bamboozled by fee simples, fee tails, and the rule in Shelly's Case. But writing? If four years of a liberal arts education had taught me anything that was it. So I strode into my first day of the Bigelow Research and Writing Program feeling pretty confident.
Chicago was literally the first law school in the country to institute a legal writing program. The purpose at the time was to help students master the skills that lawyers used most-research and writing. Despite what you may have seen on television, that's what lawyers do most. Today the tools that are available for research are more sophisticated and lawyers are much more likely to find themselves hunched over a computer than a typewriter. But the basics of good legal writing remain the same. Since its inception, Chicago's program has been copied by nearly every law school in the country. And if you ask around at law firms across the country you'll find that Chicago students are always thought of as, almost above all else, great writers.
At the Law School each entering class is broken into six Bigelow sections of approximately thirty students each. You take all your courses with the other students in your section and each course is made up of three sections. The sections rotate so that over the course of your first year you will have had a course with everyone in your class. At the same time, you will have had all your classes with the other students in your section. It's a pretty neat system in that it allows you to have a group of friends you can always rely on being there, but also get the chance to meet and get to know everyone in your first year.
The Bigelow Research and Writing Program is the only course comprised solely of your section. And it's the only course you have that lasts the entire year. Each section is taught by a Bigelow Fellow. The Fellows serve as instructors at the Law School for two years, often as a stepping stone to get into teaching. They're usually fairly young. They're often former law clerks or lawyers from law firms who have decided they want to teach. And they all have a real world sense of legal writing and the expectations you will face when you find yourself in a legal job.
Legal writing? Rubbish, I thought. Good writing, is good writing, is good writing. That vein of hubris was smacked out of me with the comments on my first two legal memos. It turns out legal writing is different. Lawyers-and especially busy partners at law firms-are a particularly difficult audience to write for. And there is a definite art to doing it well. When my Bigelow Fellow initially told me my writing seemed like it belonged in a law review I was flattered. When he explained that any law firm would fire me for writing such "obtuse verbiage," I realized this wasn't going to be the cakewalk I'd envisioned.
And the Bigelow program isn't a cakewalk. The memos are on hard, real issues. You'll have to write just as if you're working for a law firm and writing for a partner. In your last quarter you'll need to be able to stand up and argue legal issues in mini-oral advocacy trials. And for your last assignment you write an actual brief that has to be formatted and written exactly as it would be to be turned into the court. The brief is on an actual issue pending before the Seventh Circuit. After everyone has turned the brief in the entire first year class tromps down to the Federal Court and watches the case argued in front of the Court of Appeals.
Chicago law students are remarkably successful getting law-related jobs after their first year-something that isn't true everywhere, even at other top law schools -and I'd wager that is due in large part to the quality of preparation afforded by the Bigelow program. I don't think I'd realized how far my legal research and writing skills had come until I worked for a law firm over the summer. Many of the attorneys with whom I worked commented on my writing. While I still like to believe that I was a good writer before starting law school, I know that it was the Bigelow program that taught me to be a good legal writer.