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In support of the university’s efforts to nurture able communicators amongst our students, this bumper issue features articles on Developing Our Students’ Communication Skills. It includes introductions to upcoming initiatives by CDTL and the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) to enhance our students’ ability to communicate effectively, and also features contributions from colleagues throughout NUS as well as from the industry, in which they will share communication skills courses or collaborations they are currently running in their respective domains and the challenges they face in helping their students develop these core skills.

October/November 2010, Vol. 13 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
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Developing the Communication Skills of Undergraduate Law Students
 
Associate Professor Burton Ong
Faculty of Law
 

Communication skills are perhaps the most important facet an aspiring lawyer’s training—without effective written and oral advocacy skills, the most brilliant substantive legal arguments may lose their potency and persuasiveness. Part of this learning process takes place after the law student has graduated from the University and has commenced his pupilage under the mentorship of legal professionals. However, the foundations for such skills have to be laid during the law student’s academic life, long before he embarks on his legal career. Law moots have thus always been a core component of the undergraduate programme at NUS, where students are tasked with presenting and defending their arguments in a mock trial setting. In addition, a formalised legal writing programme was implemented in the last decade to give law undergraduates a systematic introduction to the writing conventions employed in legal memoranda.

These communication-focused modules comprise roughly one quarter of the compulsory core curriculum taken by law undergraduates in their first two years of law school and may be regarded as part of the skills-based courses offered by the Faculty to its students. In their third and fourth years, students may take electives that expose them to more advanced legal communication skills such as mediation and negotiation, or develop their mooting skills further by taking specialised advocacy-based courses that give them opportunities to receive academic credit for participating in international mooting competitions.

Why have resources been committed towards incorporating such skills-based courses into the undergraduate curriculum? After all, isn’t the (stereo)typical law undergraduate one who is already very articulate and able to express himself without much difficulty? After all, hundreds, if not thousands, of man-hours are put into the admissions process every year where students are required to attend an interview with faculty members and take a writing test before they are given a place at the Law Faculty. The reality is that these admissions criteria only weed out the weakest of candidates—and this is from a pool of applicants with perfect or near-perfect ‘A’-level scores. Successful candidates that eventually gain admission into the Faculty’s undergraduate programme will often have vastly disparate proficiencies in their writing abilities and oral communication skills.

This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing course instructors who have to introduce the basics of legal writing to our undergraduate students, catering to the diverse range of pre-existing competencies possessed by the members of each cohort. Students are exposed to standardised conventions of legal writing in their first year of law school and are required to produce legal opinions which follow templates such as the “Conclusion-Rule-Principle-Application-Conclusion” (CRUPAC) model. While students who have had less experience expressing themselves in words often find in such models very helpful methods of structuring their writing assignments, students with stronger writing foundations may find them uncomfortably constricting to some extent. As someone who teaches law students in their first year of law school, I have seen many instances of students using such writing templates as “crutches” for their written work and examination answers, and have had to remind them that they should not feel compelled to adopt such rigid structures when expressing their legal arguments.

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