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July 2003

Mary Rose Strubbe
Associate Professor of Legal Research and Writing

Professor Evelyn BrodyTo many, notions about the legal profession are dominated by Hollywood images of slick lawyers delivering dramatic orations to the "ladies and gentlemen of the jury." Yet when aspiring lawyers take their first legal writing course in law school, they discover that, more often than not, they'll need to make their case on paper. Professor Mary Rose Strubbe -- a Chicago-Kent alumna who studied law in the early days of the legal writing program and now directs that program -- ensures that Chicago-Kent students can "wow" their audiences with both pen and tongue.

Professor Mary Rose Strubbe, director of Chicago-Kent's Program in Legal Research and Writing, has a simple explanation for why it's important for the law school to provide one of the most comprehensive and respected legal writing programs in the country.

"Lawyers communicate for a living," she says. "As a lawyer, you have to be able to identify your client's issues, find the law that governs the situation and either explain that law to other people or persuade a judge that you should get the results you want for the client."

With this in mind, Professor Strubbe oversees a writing program that employs 12 full-time faculty members and approximately 35 adjunct professors and that touches five semesters in the life of a Chicago-Kent student.

"The five semesters, in particular, enable us to give students a much deeper exposure to analysis and communication skills than most other law schools do," she says. "We aim for 30 students per class in the first year and 15 students per class in the second and third year courses – that's really just about the largest number you can do a good, in-depth job with. At many law schools, people are teaching 50, 60 or 70 students per semester."

In fall 2001, Chicago-Kent's Legal Writing Strategy Committee conducted a survey of recent Chicago-Kent graduates, law firm hiring partners and judges to better understand what law students need to know before entering the work force.

"Our graduates and many hiring partners said that new lawyers understand litigation," Strubbe says. "But what they haven't spent much time on is the transactional, non-litigation-oriented work that so many lawyers do. Most of us don't litigate anymore."

The survey was just one part of an overall examination of the Legal Research and Writing Program that ultimately led the faculty to approve changes to the legal writing curriculum. Starting with the August 2002 entering class, students no longer take Legal Drafting and Advanced Research courses in their second year.

When helping to design a new course sequence, Strubbe drew on experience from the latter part of her private-practice career at Brigham, Kane & Strubbe, where she spent much of her time negotiating out-of-court settlements, such as severance agreements for senior employees.

"The new Legal Writing III course, which most students will take in the fall of their second year, will be an introduction to transactional thinking and writing in a non-litigation context," Strubbe explains. "How do you figure out what the applicable law is and negotiate and write a contract on behalf of a client, when what you're obviously trying to do is avoid litigation?

"Legal Writing IV, which most students will take in the spring of their second year, will focus on advanced research training and writing in a specific subject area, such as labor and employment law, intellectual property law, or environmental law," she says.

Strubbe earned her J.D. degree from Chicago-Kent in 1981 and later spent two years teaching in the program she now runs -- first as an instructor, then as one of the program's first visiting assistant professors.

"The truth of the matter is I thought teaching would be fun, but I didn't realize how much I'd like it," she says of her first teaching experience at Chicago-Kent. "I rather astonished myself by how much I enjoyed it and how much I missed it when I returned to private practice."

Strubbe brought her love of teaching back to Chicago-Kent in 1994 at the behest of then-Dean Richard Matasar. Since then, she's taught courses in the Legal Research and Writing Program as well as courses in employment law and estates and trusts. In 1997, she was named assistant director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace, where she runs the practicum program and counsels students on everything from class choice to career path.

In 2001, Strubbe was asked to head the Legal Research and Writing Program, not only because of her knowledge and ability, but also because of her past experience with the program.

"I attended law school back in the days when Ralph Brill was putting together the multi-semester writing program," she recalls. "And when I first taught at Chicago-Kent, there were no long-term writing teachers here, only Professor Brill, who headed the program at the time."

Did teaching come easily to her? "Oh no," she laughs. "When I started, most of us didn't have any experience. Professor Brill taught us how to teach writing, and we all worked together."

One of the lessons Strubbe learned during that time is that when it comes to legal writing, not all students advance at the same speed.

"I always remind new writing professors that it's a tremendous mistake to categorize students based on their first assignments," she says. "Some students get it quicker than others, and the first few assignments are no indication of how good they are going to be at the end of the first year."

As for advice to students just starting out in the program: "Remember your audience," she says. "You have to remember with whom you are communicating. Is it a client? Your boss at the law firm? Opposing counsel? A judge? If you don't keep the audience in mind, you're going to be less effective in getting your point across."

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