Top-Ranked Legal Writing Program Teaches Bar Success and Client Advocacy

May 25, 2020
Sara Warf
Sara Warf ’06

Carolina Law clinical associate professor Sara Warf ’06 has to persuade some 1L students who already have writing skills that the Research, Reasoning, Writing and Advocacy (RRWA) courses she teaches are essential to their legal education.

But students soon agree. When they’re working the summer after their first year, “I get emails that say, ‘I use your class every day.’ That’s always gratifying,” Warf notes.

Although other law classes are “deeply fundamental to being a lawyer,” Warf says, “ours is very hands-on, coming at it from a client’s point of view…The faculty is very invested in having students actually practice in a low-stakes environment without clients, and with lots of support and opportunity to reflect and to ask questions.”

Students in the required two-semester RRWA program learn how to do basic legal research, write memos and briefs, and practice advocating to a court for clients in
simulated projects. Some students, such as those doing pro bono work, use the skills they gain while they’re still 1Ls.

“It’s key, especially when you’re starting law, to get the hang of researching, finding the law and synthesizing the law… You have to get good at presenting it in a way that’s useful for someone else,” Warf says. “That’s just general lawyering regardless of what students end up doing.”

Craig Smith
Craig Smith

According to Craig Smith, assistant dean for the Writing and Learning Resources Center, many alumni say that what they practiced in the RRWA program “is what they now do all the time. This program really complements what they’re learning in other classes.”

The RRWA program, in its ninth year, is highly regarded nationally. Carolina Law was ranked No. 7 in the legal writing specialty areas category of U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Graduate Schools” 2021 edition. The ranking is an increase of 11 spots from three years ago.

Smith attributes the program’s success to several factors, including innovative, collaborative professors who pursue detailed course goals and give students frequent feedback. “It’s a proven way to teach students how to work as lawyers,” Smith says. “It’s what they have to be able to do to pass the bar exam and get the jobs they want.”

The RRWA program’s relevance is reflected in the North Carolina bar exam, which in 2019 added a performance test. “It’s almost exactly what we have students doing in the program,” Smith says.

Also key to RRWA is a sound structure with a consistent assessment process and uniform expectations for all students. “That’s very unusual anywhere,” Smith says. “We make sure students are performing, so everybody’s got to get over the same bar…That takes an amazing amount of cooperation among professors.”

The cooperative spirit underpins the RRWA program as it supports student success and produces alumni who excel as lawyers. “We have a fantastic faculty committed to a systematic, programmatic way of doing things that makes all students and faculty in on this together and accountable,” Smith says. “That’s really progressive.”

— Jessica Clarke

Read more from the spring-summer 2020 issue of Carolina Law magazine.