In their third year, Leiden law students are required to take a course in legal philosophy. It consists of two parts: (1) ten lectures on Plato, Aquinas, Hobbes, Tocqueville and the Federalists, assessed through an Oxford-style exam (four short essays written within three hours); (2) a seminar (werkgroep) on one primary text by, for example, Aristotle, Mill, Beccaria, or the Oresteia of Aeschylus, a tragedy rich in jurisprudence.
For each of the ten seminar sessions the student must write an essay. This is a lot of reading and writing, and they grumble as they trudge through it. But, in the end, most pass muster.
Unfortunately, our jobs as teachers are compounded: not only must we teach jurisprudence but often also basic writing, reading, and reasoning skills. Yet these are third year university students, who may go on to graduation and employment in less than a year. At this point, they have passed through approximately twelve years of basic education and two years of higher education, yet many cannot string together a single coherent paragraph. It should be a scandal. Instead it is run of the mill.
An education in law is meant to teach the law and legal reasoning. To learn basic skills is the aim of primary and secondary schooling. In recent decades there have been extensive reforms to Dutch secondary education. These reforms have not resulted in literate, competent first-year students, ready for a legal education. With few notable exceptions, even those pupils from the much lauded gymnasia do not regularly demonstrate that they know inter alia: what a thesis statement is; how to separate paragraphs logically; the difference between an argument for a position and what is merely one’s opinion; the need to quote and cite ideas and phrases of others; that good writing requires editing and re-writing, both of which take time and care.
The Leiden law curriculum has been adapting to help remedy this. The first year now includes remedial writing instruction. Moot court, which teaches basic legal reasoning, continues to be offered in the second year, and is tailored to meet the students’ deficiencies. As a result, in the most recent academic year they seemed to have needed less hand-holding for the basic structure of an essay (intro, body, conclusion), spelling, grammar and rudimentary argumentation – which is a start. For the future, Leiden Law may require a certain score on a language exam before studies may be commenced. This is a regrettable but necessary move: secondary school diplomas are simply not reliable guarantees any longer.
Even so, the university can only ameliorate some of the symptoms. It cannot solve the underlying problem of secondary education’s failure to inculcate writing, reading, and reasoning skills. What little can be done comes at the cost of the law curriculum. Before Leiden began to require remedial writing instruction, Prof Zwalve taught first year students the history of European legal codifications (a course which I once audited with great interest). That this course needed to be swapped for basic writing instruction is more than a pity: it means students are cheated of an enriching part of their legal formation.
A pity though it may be, I must reiterate that it was nevertheless a necessary step to include remedial writing instruction in the curriculum. Those who cannot express thoughts clearly in writing usually cannot do so in any form. Jurists who cannot write would prove a problem not merely for Leiden’s reputation, but also for the integrity of the legal profession. Moreover, it is a poorly-kept secret that most Leiden law students will never work in law. They will become middle managers, head secretaries, or take a desk job at various and sundry government or private agencies. In those positions their skills as thinkers, reasoners, writers and readers will be much more valuable than what they forgot to remember from tax law.
Thus, my plea here is to my fellow instructors, not only at Leiden but at law faculties generally: please assign more long-form writing, more regularly, and earlier in students’ curricula. Take the time to assess these assignments carefully, and motivate your assessments with an explanation of what could be improved. It is unlikely that secondary education will change soon, or for the better. So, the onus is on us to do what we can.