Writing honor punctuates distinguished teaching career

Language interested Elizabeth Baldwin long before she became a law professor. At UW Law, she teaches writing as a way for students to bring their ambitions to life on the page and in their communities.

This year, the Legal Writing Institute recognized Professor Baldwin for excellence in legal writing with the 2020 Deborah Hecht Memorial Award. The prestigious distinction is given to the writing specialist who pens the best article over a two-year period for LWI’S flagship publication.

The award is one of many highlights of her career as an attorney and educator, and it serves as the latest example of her commitment to the power of the written word. Her winning paper, “Freedom in Structure: Helping Foreign-Trained and International Graduate Students Develop Thesis Statements by Component,” provides a road map for students trained in other legal systems to adapt to U.S. legal writing and craft theses that clearly communicate their visions.

She learned early on this ability is essential to success in the legal field.

“Of all the work I've done with students, I’ve found the thesis template I've created to be the most effective to help students grapple with the problems they're trying to articulate and transform their understanding of what a thesis is and how the pieces of a thesis fit together,” Baldwin says.

“It's really important for students to tighten their own ideas and identify the parts of the problems they are trying to address with their work, which is the beauty of the template this paper describes in that it helps students instruct themselves so they can see where the weaknesses are.”

Because I loved teaching English as a second language, I found I really enjoyed breaking down the structure and ideas to students about legal language and legal writing in English in particular.

Baldwin, who holds a master’s in applied linguistics in addition to her J.D., developed a love of education when she first started teaching ESL at an alternative high school in Portland, Oregon. Working primarily with refugee and immigrant students, she found teaching language to be a particularly important way to help level the playing field for students of different backgrounds.

“Because I loved teaching English as a second language, I found I really enjoyed breaking down the structure and ideas to students about legal language and legal writing in English in particular,” she says. “The more I built skill in it, the more I enjoyed sharing those lessons with students, and it just snowballed from there.”

Think Big, Start Small

Mastering academic legal writing is challenging enough. But for graduate students trained in other countries, adapting to differences in style can take time. More than a decade into her career at the UW, Baldwin draws clear parallels from her early teaching experiences to her work with graduate and upper division law students.

Being a lawyer requires more than mastering various areas of substantive law; rather, an effective lawyer is tasked with applying law to specific client issues and communicating that analysis in a context-appropriate manner. The template Baldwin shares in her paper is designed to help students develop the skills necessary to set up and test that analysis.

At a law school with a diverse graduate student community, a legal writing program that works for people from all backgrounds is critical. This is particularly true for those aiming to deal with issues back home in developing nations or nations with governments in transition. To this end, Baldwin works with students to chisel their broader ambitions into crisp, actionable ideas.

“There are students who just haven't had the experience with writing in this academic legal genre, and on top of that, they are coming from systems where there are just huge problems they are trying to tackle,” Baldwin says. “It's very difficult to go from a big problem you've identified to something that you can handle in a smaller paper like an LL.M. paper.”

Baldwin is also passionate about her work in the broader community, where she lends her expertise to efforts serving underserved and underrepresented populations in the Pacific Northwest.

In the past, she has worked at the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, the Washington Protection and Advocacy System (now Disability Rights Washington), the International Refugee Center of Oregon and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), among others.

This year, she was drawn back to her work at KIND, where she represents unaccompanied children in dependency and immigration cases.

“It is amazing and wonderful to get a chance to work with these children again, especially at this time when immigration laws are really not on their side,” Baldwin says.

Whether she is working side-by-side with law students or helping youth in their times of most need, the central philosophy is the same: Think big, start small and do everything possible to make an impact.