Catherine Wasson: Building a strong legal communications and research program
Buried within the ceases and desists, the whereases and heretofores of any ponderous legal document is a clear thought trying to get out. As an associate professor of law and director of the legal method and communication program at Elon, Catherine Wasson’s job is to make sure law students leave the school able to research thoroughly and write clearly.
“To watch how a student’s mind works, to be able to reach different kinds of learners, to see them ‘get it’ and participate in the process of becoming a lawyer – I never get tired of that,” she says.
Wasson has taught legal writing for 20 years. Since she came to Elon in 2008, she has assembled a cohesive team of six full-time professors who help students learn how to find, understand and use the law to solve problems and prepare them for the rigors and professional obligations of law practice. Professors John Flynn, Keith McCrickard, Tom Noble, Robert Parrish and Patricia Perkins embrace Elon’s commitment to engaged learning, sharing their innovative teaching techniques at regional and national conferences and bringing a practical approach to their teaching in a variety of other courses, from Family Law and Prisoner’s Rights to Negotiation and Business Drafting. In addition, Janet Keefer, a former journalist with CNN and dean of the journalism school at Drake University, works as a writing specialist with students.
One of the more challenging parts of Wasson’s job, she says, is designing a curriculum that will allow students to make the transition from law school to the legal field with ease.
“It’s like putting a big puzzle together,” Wasson says. “What do they need first? What order do they need to develop their skills? What do we need to get our students ready to practice law?”
Wasson gains insights into best practices in legal research and writing through her scholarship and engagement with national and international organizations. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Legal Writing Directors. She is the co-author of A Practical Guide to Legal Writing & Legal Method, a popular textbook first published in 1981 with a fifth edition forthcoming. She is working on a second book that integrates her speech and theater background and her passion for clear legal communication.Plain Speaking for Lawyers - A Practical Guide to Oral Communication in the Law, has been approved for publication by Aspen Publishers in 2014/2015. Her co-authored article, “How Metacognitive Deficiencies of Law Students Lead to Biased Ratings of Law Professors,” was published in volume 28 of the Touro Law Review (2012). She is a frequent conference speaker, and has twice travelled to Africa to build collaborations between American legal skills professors and law faculty in Nairobi, Kenya and Pretoria, South Africa.
Wasson has shaped Elon’s legal method curriculum to emphasize the analytical process, from an intensive introduction to legal research – 12 classroom hours alone in the first semester – to the production of a final written document.
“Writing and thinking go hand-in-hand,” Wasson says. “The more students engage with the writing process, the deeper their understanding of a subject becomes and the better they are able to communicate that understanding to others.”