November 17, 2009

‘Off-beat’ videos designed to help law students

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- If you ask law students what lasagna, Play-Doh, and martial arts have to do with legal writing, the most likely response is a blank facial expression.

Sheila Simon, a clinical associate professor at the Southern Illinois University School of Law, is hoping a bit of humor assists first-year law students across the country better understand the intricacies involved in legal writing.

Simon and Richard K. Neumann, Jr., a law professor at Hofstra University School of Law, are co-authors of the 2008 textbook, “Legal Writing.” Last year, more than 6,000 law students nationwide utilized the book, which employs traditional written methods in teaching law students how to write.

As a book supplement, Simon, with the help of family and friends, recently pieced together seven vignettes that she believes take away the more mundane aspects of legal writing and help students remember the important theories.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews are welcome to cover the screenings. For more information, contact law school clinical associate professor Sheila Simon at 618/453-8647, or via email at

A “world premiere” screening of all seven videos is set for 5 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 19, in the auditorium at the Hiram H. Lesar Law Building at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Admission is free, and open to the public. Popcorn will be available. Attending in a sequined gown, however, is optional, Simon joked.

Starting in the spring semester, students using the textbook will be able to log on to a restricted-access Web site provided by Aspen Publishers to view the videos and receive additional instruction in some of the more challenging aspects of legal writing.

Legal writing instruction can contain long, verbose, flowery rhetoric that can be “hideously boring,” Simon said.

She used many of the examples offered in the videos in her class through the years.

“This is a way to get more visual, and to get across some of the messages that are sometimes harder for students to process; to see it in a visual way instead of just a chunk in a chapter,” Simon said.

Each vignette, which Simon describes as “off-beat” and “quirky,” is about five minutes long.

“Students come in with some basic level of writing skills. What we are doing is refining those skills and putting them into a format that works for this profession,” she said.

Students sometimes struggle with legal writing concepts. Enter lasagna, with a blender. In getting students to understand the importance of structure, Simon and her helpers use ingredients to make lasagna.

“Even if you have all the right ingredients for lasagna, if you put them in a blender it’s not going to be the same thing,” she said. “When you explain a legal rule it’s like explaining the rules in a card game. You don’t just give the theory; you don’t say, ‘some hands in poker are better than others.’”

Simon’s daughter, Brennan, members of her band, “Loose Gravel,” and other friends were part of the project, with the law school and a science laboratory on campus serving as backdrops. Shooting the videos took about two weeks with additional time for editing, she said.

“It was an absolute blast,” Simon said. “It was really, really fun.”

Simon said there are some students who will read the book, understand the concepts, and likely never need to watch a video. But there are other students who will grab onto legal writing principles more quickly with the help of the videos.

“The videos are made with a sense of humor and a richness of visual images that I hope will stick with people for a long time,” she said. “I don’t know that any of the chapters in the book will stick with people for a long time; I think lasagna in the blender will stick with people for a long time.”