Bigelow Legal Research and Writing Program


The Harry A. Bigelow Legal Research and Writing Program is the Law School's program to train first-year students in the skills most critical to the legal profession: legal research and legal writing. The program lasts for three quarters—the entirety of the first year.

The term "Bigelow" at Chicago refers to several things. First, groups of students are known as "Bigelow sections." First-year students are divided into six sections, and each section will take all of its courses together all year. All of these courses (such as Torts and Contracts) will be taken in conjunction with two other sections, except for the legal research and writing course, also known as "Bigelow." This course is taught separately to each section of approximately 32 students. The teaching fellows who teach the Bigelow course are known as "Bigelow fellows." These teaching fellows come to the Law School for two years to gain experience towards a career as a legal academic. The course curriculum consists of extensive instruction in legal research both on-line and in books, legal analysis, drafting of memoranda and briefs, training in legal citation form, and oral argument. Assignments (often called "Bigelow assignments" by the students) are turned in regularly and the fellows provide feedback.

The Law School prides itself on providing rigorous training in these practical skills, and preparing students to do excellent work in their summer jobs and their future legal careers.

The Bigelow experience through the eyes of a student

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.

Professor Douglas Baird's view of the Bigelow experience

At the end of one year of law school, students take summer jobs at which they are expected to do the work of lawyers. They must research the law, prepare the documents, and draft the memoranda that are the life-blood of legal practice. What is most remarkable about the students who return to the Law School at the start of the second year is not their awareness of how much more they have to learn (although virtually all the substantive areas of modern law practice from evidence to tax have yet to be taken), but rather how well they were able to function as lawyers. Two characteristics of the first-year curriculum explain how those who started law school only nine months before can acquire a basic competence so quickly. The core courses of the first year, such as torts, contracts, and civil procedure, impart basic skills. After them, one can "think like a lawyer" and understand the difference between good legal arguments and bad ones, which is not the same as the difference between good and bad arguments elsewhere. As important, however, is the training one receives in research and writing.

Legal research and legal writing are different from anything else that one has encountered previously. In other disciplines, work must be "original" in the modern sense of the word. The aspiration is to produce work that seems novel and different. In law, work must be "original" in the eighteenth century meaning of the word. Good arguments are the ones that are connected with what has gone on before, the ones that return to the origins. You never want to tell a judge that you are asking her to do something that has never been done before. You want to tell her that the relief that you are asking for, as strange as it may appear, is no different from what she and other judges have been granting for centuries. In other fields, the rewards are in showing that easy problems are hard; in law, the trick is in showing that hard problems are easy.

At the Law School, students have learned how to master the art of finding precedent and crafting legal arguments in a program that has been in place for over half a century. The Bigelow Program (named after the dean of the Law School who founded it in the 1930s) is premised on the idea that the art of legal writing is too important to be left to student-teachers or as an appendage to one of the substantive first-year courses. At Chicago, legal writing is taught by six full-time faculty members called Bigelow Teaching Fellows. The Bigelow Fellows are often young lawyers who are making the transition from private practice to law teaching. Others want to punctuate a career as a practicing lawyer with a year in the academy. Some of the most successful Bigelow Fellows have been lawyers from other common law jurisdictions such as Great Britain who are drawn by the chance to spend a year at the Law School.

Legal writing consumes a great deal of time in the first year. Ten percent of the course credits in the first year is assigned to the work in the Bigelow Program, and it is graded just like any other course in the Law School. The first two assignments in the fall are closed memoranda in which students are given the law and asked to apply it. This initial stage of the program is designed to develop legal analysis and legal writing skills. In the Winter Quarter, students are introduced to legal research through several presentations by law librarians. Each session is followed by a "treasure hunt," in which students are asked to find legal materials. Following these exercises is the Open Memorandum. This rite of passage is the first time that students have to find the relevant law from among the half million volumes in the D'Angelo Law Library and on-line resources and apply it to a hypothetical fact pattern.

The Spring Quarter is largely consumed with a moot court exercise. Students are given a record of a case (usually based on a real one) and asked to write an appellate brief and argue it before a panel of judges that typically includes Law School faculty, practicing lawyers, and judges. As is typical of actual appellate arguments, the student's presentation is punctuated with questions from the panel. The task one faces is not so much covering what one has written in the brief, but in understanding the weaknesses the judges see in one's side and trying to explain why these do not matter or at least should not be dispositive. During this process, members of the clinical faculty make presentations on oral and written advocacy. Prior to oral arguments, a Circuit Court Judge will typically give a presentation on effective advocacy from a judge's perspective. The first year moot court exercise both assimilates the previous exercises and looks forward to future experiences. These include the challenges that will be posed in summer jobs, the Hinton Moot Court competition in the second and third year, as well as appellate arguments before the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and other courts that students make while representing indigent clients in the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.

Most students write well when they start at the Law School. At the end of the first year, they are invariably skilled legal writers. One question, of course, is whether they are also better writers as a general matter. They most likely are. The virtues of clarity and simplicity that are at such a premium in legal writing should be valued elsewhere as well. After all, many splendid writers (including Goethe, Flaubert, and Wallace Stevens) were trained in the law (although not at Chicago).

—Professor Douglas Baird