The daughters of clarity
Legal Writing professors take their knowledge to Africa
Twenty-five years ago Seattle University School of Law’s faculty founded the Legal Writing Institute.
“Founding the institute changed and galvanized the legal writing profession,” said Laurel Currie Oates, director of the School of Law’s acclaimed Legal Writing Program. “I think now we are helping do the same thing in Africa.”
Oates and Legal Writing Professor Mimi Samuel spent the first half of the year in Uganda, Kenya and South Africa, training lawyers, judges and academics in the art of legal writing. They, along with Anne Enquist, associate director of the Legal Writing Program, also spent three weeks in India, making contacts and conducting training sessions for law students, lawyers and magistrates-in-training.
“We are spreading commas throughout the world,” Samuel joked. But, in reality, it was much more than just commas: They helped those who work in the law to develop a framework, get from facts to conclusion – and to be clear and concise. (Hence their self-given nickname, “The Daughters of Clarity.”)
Some ask how U.S. law professors can teach African lawyers and judges, but Oates and Samuel say it makes perfect sense. They worked in countries where English is at least one of the official languages and where the legal systems share a common law heritage. “It’s a very similar structure and process,” Samuel said. “For skill training – legal writing, analysis – there are enough commonalities that it easily transfers.”
Even if the legal system is similar, the conditions under which many lawyers and law professors operate are not. Textbooks are not commonly available, computers are at a premium, and classes are enormous, ranging from a typical class of 150 to 200 to classes of up to 600 students at a time.
“The things we take for granted are not there. For example, Power Point requires power,” Oates said, referring to one of many instances where the facilities could not accommodate their technical needs. “We learned to be extremely flexible.”
Both had been Africa to conduct short seminars in the past and had fallen in love with it, but spending seven months in several countries was a huge commitment. While they did have time to sightsee and socialize, their work was demanding.
Some ask how U.S. law professors can teach African lawyers and judges, but Oates and Samuel say it makes perfect sense. They worked in countries where English is at least one of the official languages and where the legal systems share a common law heritage. “It’s a very similar structure and process. For skill training – legal writing, analysis – there are enough commonalities that it easily transfers.” – Professor Mimi Samuel
One of their major undertakings was the Conference on the Pedagogy of Legal Writing for Academics in Africa, which took place in Nairobi in March and was attended by approximately 30 Africans from seven countries representing 11 academic institutions, several legal aid clinics, and two bar societies attended their. In addition, 20 academics from the United States, representing 15 law schools, traveled to Nairobi for the conference.
Legal Writing Professor Janet Dickson from Seattle University School of Law presented a session on writing concisely and precisely. Keynote speakers included Camille DeJorna, associate consultant for the American Bar Association’s Section on Legal Education, and Okech Owiti, dean of Nairobi University Faculty of Law. In addition, Anita Koyier-Mwamba ’06, a Kenyan graduate of the law school, acted as the Conference Assistant, helping the U.S. participants get to know Nairobi and the Kenyan legal system.
In Uganda, Oates and Samuel worked with magistrates, the judicial officers who handle petty crimes, property and contract disputes and family matters. Because Uganda does not have a jury system, magistrates write judgments for each case and read them aloud to the parties. While many of the judgments are typed, a large portion is hand-written. And many of them are written in a way that the litigants – who may have had limited opportunities for an education and who do not have English as their first language – have trouble understanding. Oates and Samuel guided the magistrates on ways to make their rulings more comprehensible to their primary audience.
Other work included a week-long course on clear and effective writing at the International Law Institute’s African Centre for Legal Excellence in Kampala that drew government lawyers from Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Kenya and training sessions for faculty at the Law Development Center in Kampala.
Toward the middle of the semester, the professors traveled to South Africa, where they gave a series of workshops in Johannesburg, Capetown, and Durban, which were sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in South Africa.
“We did 13 consecutive days of training,” Oates said. “We trained hundreds of people.”
Finally, they taught a course in Global Advocacy in the law school’s summer abroad program in Johannesburg to a group of 17 U.S. and 15 South African students.
Along with professional and personal relationships formed across the globe, their trip allowed them to bring a Kenyan law professor to Seattle University School of Law.
Professor Edwin Abuya participated in the pedagogy conference, teaching a session with Oates. They stayed in touch, and Oates and Samuel visited his law school, Moi University, to guest lecture. They then persuaded him to spend a year in Seattle, where is a visiting professor in the Legal Writing Program. He will teach international refugee law next summer.
Abuya completed a doctoral thesis in international human rights and refugee law at The University of Sydney, Australia, and obtained master’s and undergraduate degrees in law from the Universities of Cape Town and Nairobi respectively. He has taught law in Kenya, Australia, and the United Kingdom. His research interests lie in the areas of legal research and writing, international asylum, humanitarian and immigration laws as well as transitional justice.
Though it’s his first time in the United States, Abuya echoes Samuel and Oates when asked what it’s like for a Kenyan law professor to teach American students.
“The skills are standard, but the systems are different,” he said.
Law is an undergraduate degree in Kenya, so his students there are 17, 18, 19. Students in Seattle have more experience – and higher expectations. “The thing I like is the students bring a different background to class,” he said.
He appreciates the technology easily at hand in the United States. Even when he taught in Australia and the UK, he didn’t see every student carrying a laptop, like at the law school.
“You guys are privileged because you have lots of resources for research,” he said.
Abuya applauds the program that Seattle University has created. He said he’s never before experienced such support for faculty, including a two-week training for new legal writing faculty before the semester began.
“The teamwork is impressive.” He said. “That’s something I will take back home. These exchange programs work both ways – you learn from them and they learn from you.”
Oates and Samuel are grateful for the support they have received from the law school and Dean Kellye Testy. They already look forward to another trip to Africa and are working to keep the momentum going.
They plan to continue their partnerships with organizations and programs in Africa and hope to do more work teaching professors to train their students.
In addition, a new organization grew out of the Conference on the Pedagogy of Legal Writing for Academics in Africa. APPEAL (Academics Promoting the Pedagogy of Effective Advocacy in Law) is dedicated to promoting the exchange of ideas, information, and resources about the teaching of legal writing and effective advocacy among academics in the United States. Samuel is co-president, and the group intends to have a conference in South Africa in 2009.
“Ten years from now, I’d be really happy if they had a legal writing program in Uganda,” Oates said.