Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University
This Month @ Moritz

Legal Writing Champion: Professor Mary Beth Beazley

Mary Beth Beazley
Mary Beth Beazley

When Mary Beth Beazley arrived at what is now The Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law in 1988, legal writing accounted for just one half -hour class in one semester. It didn’t even have a textbook.

Today, things have changed, as the program has expanded into multiple hours over three semesters of a student’s tenure at the school.

As program director, Mary Beth has been a driving force behind that growth, which has placed OSU’s law school at the leading edge of national changes in the perception and handling of the field of legal writing.

“A lot of people think you can’t teach someone to write,” said Mary Beth. She set out to prove that theory wrong. “I’ve taught it in pretty much every role possible-- tutor, teacher’s assistant, adjunct, professor.”

If national accolades are any indication, Mary Beth is making good on her mission.
She is the 2005 recipient of the Thomas F. Blackwell Award, given by the Legal Writing Institute and the Association of Legal Writing Directors for outstanding contributions to the field of legal writing.

It is an especially meaningful honor, she said, since the award in named in honor of her friend and colleague, Thomas F. Blackwell, a legal writing professor at the Appalachian School of Law who was tragically killed by a student in 2002.

Mary Beth Beazley
Kristin Gerdy, president of the Association of Legal Writing Directors, presents the Thomas F. Blackwell Memorial Award to Professor Mary Beth Beazley.

Moritz’s legal writing program is earning praise as well, earning a top 20 ranking this year among more than 180 legal writing programs in the country in U.S. News and World Report’s first-ever rankings for the field.

It’s clear Mary Beth is not driven by rewards, but rather a desire to further expand the scope of a once-neglected aspect of the student’s education.

“When I started, this was not something you could have a career in,” she said. “You’d have to leave a school after two years. There were no long-term positions, so you couldn’t really study the field.”

Some believe the boom stems from a diminished level of skills in today’s students as compared to those of 20 or 30 years ago, but Mary Beth disagrees. She compares the perception and evolution of legal writing to that of the field of alternative dispute resolution--something that was in use for a long time, but now is being studied and focused upon much more than before.

“There was a paradigm shift in composition theory at the undergraduate level, which has seeped over into legal academics,” she said, citing the 1984 founding of the Legal Writing Institute and the 1986 publishing of “The New Legal Rhetoric” by Teresa Godwin Phelps as touchstones in the field’s growth.

Mary Beth said the first big advance was to begin teaching writing and analysis, to have students break down and deconstruct the vocabulary involved and the practice of legal writing. It is something she said the faculty and students at Moritz are accomplished at doing.

As the field continues to evolve, she said she expects some of the next advancements to be in the realms of contract drafting and mandated legal writing, found on such items as drug labels and collection letters. A personal interest she would like to explore more is the writing that goes on within law firms.

She said legal writing is important for myriad reasons; chief among those is its function as the “canary in the coal mine” for law students--an indicator of a student’s abilities and, most importantly, work ethic.

“OSU has been very good to me. A lot of my (legal writing) colleagues have had to leave their schools in order to grow,” she said, praising her co-workers for their willingness to listen, learn and help with the program. “Our casebook faculty have really stepped up to the plate to encourage the growth of the program. It shows their dedication to teaching. I’ve had colleagues at other schools who didn’t have that kind of support.”

She has taught virtually every student who has attended Moritz Law since the class of 1991. “Although I’m sure they didn’t all enjoy my classes, I have always enjoyed teaching, and I’ve learned so much from my students.”

Before coming to Moritz, Mary Beth worked as the co-director of Vermont Law School’s legal research, writing and reasoning program, and as a research and writing instructor at the University of Toledo. A Chicago native, she grew up in Toledo, earning a B.A. from Bowling Green State University and her J.D. from the University of Notre Dame.

An avowed Chicago White Sox fan still basking in the glow of her team’s first championship since 1917, she currently serves as the editor-in-chief of Legal Writing: The Journal of the Legal Writing Institute. She also serves as the chair of the ABA’s Communication Skills Committee.