5 Syllabus Design

A well-designed syllabus is important for any course, but it is crucial in a writing class because the rhythm of the course is dictated by due dates and commenting cycles.  Therefore, a writing professor needs to craft a well-designed syllabus that takes into account time necessary for student writing as well as professor feedback.  In addition, students need information about the requirements for submitting and formatting documents, as well as grading and classroom policies.

A thoughtful syllabus should set out policies, procedures, expectations, goals, due dates, and relevant reading assignments.  In fact, some legal writing professors create two separate documents: A) policies and procedures and B) a class by class list of goals, readings, and due dates.  This chapter will address each separately.

A. Policies and Procedures

Professors should provide students with information about the expectations and policies regarding the course. This “rules of the road” document serves the purpose of informing students as well as holding them accountable throughout the semester, as it provides a written record for reference.  We often tell our students that they need to follow court rules when they file documents, and their course rules are their first set of “court rules.” 

Professor’s contact information and office hours

Clearly set out your preferred method of contact and your office hours. Consider including methods of signing up for office hours to avoid the congregation of students outside your office for extended periods of time.  For example, many courseware programs have sign-up capabilities, or you can use the low-tech option of posting sign-up sheets on your door.


Set out the class times and room numbers, as well as any extra classes, make-ups, or changes in class times during the semester. Providing students with advance notice is important for busy law students.


Inform the students of the required books for the course. In addition, consider adding recommended texts for students who need extra assistance in certain areas.  Many professors recommend a combination of grammar books, online materials, and helpful texts on legal analysis and the writing process for students who may need more than the required readings for the course.

Course Management System

If you plan to use a courseware program, provide the students with the necessary information to sign up for the system and explain how you expect to use it throughout the semester.  Here, you might explain where they can find information, how to upload assignments, and how you plan to use the announcement features.  (For example, some programs require students to manually set up announcements to forward to their emails.) Some course management systems also have a calendar feature; let students know how you plan to use this feature (if at all) so that they do not mistakenly over-rely on it.

Laptop, Class Attendance, and Class Recordings Policies

Set out your policies on the use of laptops and class attendance.  In addition, some schools have class recording policies, and you and your students should know if classes are being recorded and how they may be available to your students.

Goals of the Course

There are many goals to consider in legal research and writing courses, and your particular goals may vary based upon your student audience (are you teaching 1Ls or upper level students?) and the scope of the course (is research taught separately, or are you focusing on a particular type of document?).  The ABA now requires faculty to specifically identify the learning goals of each course.

As you consider what goals to identify in your syllabus or policies and procedures for the course, think first about the assignments: what goals do you have for each assignment? What do you hope students will take away from each document that you assign?

See Chapter, 4  Problem Design

In addition to the goals of each assignment, consider the skills that you plan to develop.  If you have students work in teams or provide peer feedback on others’ drafts, what is your purpose in doing so? If you assign practical activities like client interviews or negotiations, what basic skills will you expect students to learn and demonstrate during those activities?

Some typical goals of legal research and writing courses include:

  • Research – the types of sources and primary law that students will learn to research as well as efficient processes for finding law in those sources
  • Analytical Paradigms – the various analytical techniques students will learn to use, such as inductive and deductive reasoning, case comparisons, statutory interpretation, rule synthesis
  • Audience and Purpose – identifying the different types of audiences and various purposes when writing a legal document
  • Scope and Stance – recognizing the relevant scope of a particular document and narrowing the focus of the document to stay within that scope; maintaining a consistent and appropriate stance for the particular document and developing a theme or theory of the case in crafting persuasive documents
  • Writing Process – developing an efficient writing process that includes focusing on specific writing techniques such as organizational schema, analytical designs, conciseness tools, and polishing techniques.
  • Legal Writing Conventions – becoming familiar with the assigned citation manual (Bluebook, ALWD, etc.) and conventions of legal English.
  • Other – many faculty incorporate other express learning goals into their course syllabi, such as developing the ability to work independently and to read one’s own writing critically; to work collaboratively with peers; to provide effective critiques of others’ writing; to give oral presentations in professional settings such as court hearings, client meetings, and team meetings; to interview clients; to negotiate resolutions of disputes, etc.

Requirements for Submitting Written Assignments

Determine your formatting requirements for your assignments, list them clearly in your syllabus or policies and procedures, and make sure your students understand them before any assignment is submitted.  Some categories to include:

  • Timeliness and Extensions: Explain the importance of timeliness and the penalties for late papers. Also, provide a written requirement for requesting extensions and your policies as to when you will consider granting extensions.
  • Document formatting: Include font (e.g. Times New Roman 12 point font) and margin requirements (e.g. one inch on all sides) as well as spacing (double spacing) and page numbering.
  • Cover page requirement: If you wish students to include a cover page on assignments (e.g., with their name, date, word count, section number, etc.), explain all the information you require on the cover page. Also consider requiring uniformity for labeling all uploaded documents. (e.g. Smith.memo 1). That way, all the uploads are not labeled the same (e.g. Memo 1 draft) and it will be easier for you to distinguish among downloaded papers when you are commenting.
  • Length of Assignments: Explain if you will provide word limits or page limits on all documents and how students are to demonstrate compliance with those limits on individual documents (e.g., a word count certification).
  • Uploading or Handing in Assignments: Explain if you require uploads (and where) or hand delivering print copies (and where) or both.

Formative Assessment and Grading Policies

It is helpful to list the formative assessments the students will receive throughout the semester, such as feedback on research projects and written documents as well as oral presentations.  The feedback might take the form of oral feedback (conferences), written feedback (comments), and graded projects throughout the semester. If your course has a midterm or final examination, you should also provide information about these exams, including dates and policies (open book, take-home, etc.).

In addition, explain your grading policies, including the percentage or points allotted for each assessment, the dates of graded documents or activities, and the amount, if any, of the grade that is allotted for class participation, timeliness, completion of assignments, etc. If you have a grading rubric that will be shared with students for individual assignments or that will apply to all assignments, you may want to reference it here.

Individual Responsibility for Completing Assignments, Group Work Policies, and Writing Center Policies

It is also helpful to provide information indicating your rules on producing independent work, as well as indicating when group work is permitted and any rules or restrictions regarding the use of your school’s writing center.  A reference to the school’s plagiarism policy is also helpful.


B. Syllabus (Weekly Class Schedule)

The traditional syllabus, or weekly class schedule, is more difficult to create. As you craft it, consider due dates for research and writing assignments, goals and topics for each class to provide context and information about each assignment, and appropriate readings.

Research and Writing Assignments

We suggest you start with a calendar to plot the research and writing assignments.  Consider the amount of time students will need to research and write each document and whether it would be helpful to break up larger documents into due dates for separate sections (e.g., initial research, outlines, issue statements, the statement of facts, one of the issues in a brief, etc.).  We typically start at the end of the semester with our final assignment and work backwards to determine the due dates for all the other assignments.

As you determine due dates, keep in mind that you will need time to comment and return the comments to all of your students with enough time for them to rewrite those documents or understand your feedback so they can incorporate it into the next assignment.  You might also schedule conferences on some of the drafts to help students in the rewriting process.  Depending on class size, conferences can take up a significant amount of your time.  Therefore, the rhythm of the semester should include time when the students are busy, but also provide them with some down time when you comment.  Similarly, you need some rest time when the students are writing so that you have time to refuel for the next round of commenting.  Do not underestimate the time it will take you to turn around all of your feedback to your students.

Clearly indicate each due date, including the time and manner of submission, on your syllabus.  If you are using a courseware program, be sure to add each assignment due date on the courseware system and delegate the method for uploading. Note, too, that if you alter any due dates in the syllabus during the course of the semester, the courseware system dates will also need to be adjusted to be consistent. (Some courseware systems automate changes, while others do not.)

Topics and Goals for the Class

Once you have determined due dates for each main assignment, you can determine the goals for each class so that you cover topics that will help the students prepare for each assignment.  Your goals might focus on research strategies or writing techniques.  They may be very general (e.g., Researching Statutes or Writing a Predictive Memo) or specific (Rewriting Memo 2 for Conciseness or Getting Started on Finding Statutes for Research Project #1).  By listing the goals for the class, you will remind yourself each week of your plan for the semester and provide a roadmap for the students for each class.

Try to incorporate engaging activities into each class, as opposed to lecturing or showing power point slides, which can become tedious and ineffective in a writing course (or really any course).  Some suggestions include:

  • exercises where students are co-writing or editing paragraphs or sentences;
  • hypotheticals where students can argue the application of the law to the facts;
  • peer review conferences where students provide feedback on one another’s documents;
  • writing labs where students work on their drafts and ask you questions as they rewrite;
  • discussions of sample writing that you and the class critique together.

For more on planning individual classes, see Chapter 3, Classroom Teaching.

Reading Assignments

The reading assignments should be designed to meet some of the goals of the class.  You may not find readings for every goal; you can supplement with exercises and information provided in class. In fact, the readings should not duplicate the information provided in class; instead, they can set up the context or provide the background information necessary to understanding the exercises and skills practiced in the classroom.

Keep in mind that “readings” can take many forms. They may include traditional text, as well as videos or tutorials. For example, the Georgetown Law Library’s website posts a number of publicly accessible research tutorials and Bryan Garner’s Law Prose website has some interesting videos of judges and Supreme Court Justices discussing legal writing.

We suggest you take the time to find a legal research and writing book (or books) with the following characteristics:  (1) it is easy to read; (2) it contains multiple samples (students love samples); (3) it does not overwhelm the reader; and (4) it uses vocabulary and paradigms consistent with your teaching.  The goal is to make sure that the students read the assignments throughout the year. An ideal text will be one that is consistent with your main goals for the course and that can serve as a resource for the students throughout the year when working on their research and writing assignments.

Sample Syllabi

Below are several samples of syllabi that incorporate the above recommendations. As you design your own syllabus, think about format as well. Will you be relying on a print/.pdf syllabus throughout the year, or will your syllabus “live” online? If the latter, will you link to files on your course management system, or to an e-book or online sources for readings? Do you prefer a table format or a text format? How can you make it visually appealing to students so that they can easily find their assigned readings and know when other assignments must be turned in? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but your choices should be intentional as you craft the document that will govern the progression of your course.

Sample Policies and Procedures and Syllabi

The links below offer sample policies and procedures and syllabi for both a 1L legal research and writing course and an upper level writing course, which you are welcome to use as a starting point for designing your own documents.





Legal Writing Pedagogy: Commenting, Conferencing, and Classroom Teaching Copyright © 2013 by Diana Donahoe and Julie Ross. All Rights Reserved.