*The following materials have been developed for the Principles of Public Law, Constitutional Law and Criminal Law and Procedure syndicate tasks in the Melbourne Juris Doctor. They have been in part adapted from materials used in the Legal Academic Skills Centre (LASC) syndicate task presentation.
For general information about assignment timelines, see the Assignment Timelines Post here.
Setting the Scene
All assignments in law school take time. But syndicate tasks can be particularly protracted and frustrating if you don’t have some sort of timeline in place to keep your group on task. There are a number of variables that may pose a challenge, like:
- Group members with conflicting timetables that can make finding a time to meet difficult;
- Group member with conflicting priorities (both academic, extra-curricular and non-curricular) that may mean there are variations in the effort expended on the assessment;
- Group members with differing approaches for communication, decision making and learning which might be difficult to overcome in a high stress environment;
- Different research or writing styles that may require members to spend a longer time planning, writing and editing your submission;
- Different expectations of the assessment task and the grade sought amongst group members, which might lead to disharmony; and
- The fact that syndicate tasks require members to deploy potentially unfamiliar skills in communication, dispute resolution and leadership – that aren’t necessarily staples of undergraduate courses (though as you’ll see, they are very important in law school)
Fortunately, most of these problems can be neutralised or mitigated with the right organisational approach which will be discussed below. But before that, take a second to appreciate the opportunities that come with group work that you don’t get with your conventional exam or essay. These include:
- A chance to acquire a deeper understanding of the subject matter by engaging with a multitude of different perspectives;
- Enhanced creativity made possible by many minds working at once;
- A support network made up of students all working towards a mutual goal;
- An opportunity to leverage varying skill sets; and
- A chance to develop professional skills (more on that here)
There are obvious phases in a group assessment that most students will be intuitively aware of, such as:
- Distributing responsibilities when the assessment task is first released;
- Writing a response (often apart);
- Editing (or ‘stitching it together’); and
- Submission (party time).
However, there can be many other ‘sub-phases’ in between that help ensure effective communication, support and collaboration and ultimately improve your chances at getting a good mark.
As always, these phases are merely a guide and shouldn’t be treated as prescriptive – let’s dive in:
Step 1. The First Meeting
When: As soon as possible after the assessment has been released on the LMS
The first meeting is a chance to start your syndicate task on the right foot. Before the meeting, you should read the assessment in advance and be ready to discuss it at a general level. At the meeting, it is advised you:
- Discuss and select the methods you will use to communicate and collaborate (i.e. Facebook group to communicate; Google Drive to share and edit materials);
- Exchange contact details;
- Set out your expectations for time commitment and grade for the assessment. Whilst these may need to be flexible (especially if you haven’t done an assignment in law before) you should be as honest as possible to avoid misunderstandings in the future;
- Set out a schedule for future meetings. Again these may need to be a little bit flexible;
- Select at least two administrative roles (i.e. a “coordinator” or “group leader” who is responsible for keeping everyone to the timeline; and a “recorder” who takes minutes during meetings)
- Distribute workload. Whilst its tempting for groups to simply distribute one question per member and then simply re-convene for editing, it is strongly advised that each group member be responsible for researching and planning at least two questions each. This way, at least two people will be researching each question, thus increasing your chance of writing an informed and comprehensive response and decreasing the chance your final product resembles Frankenstein
Step 2. The Preliminary Planning and Research Stage
When: In the week succeeding your first meeting
The preliminary planning stage is when each group member begins researching his or her questions and planning out a response. Ideally, you should keep the rest of your group updated with your findings (i.e. by posting the resources you’re using on the FB group or Google Drive) and perhaps fill out a ‘skeleton’ plan of the entire assessment (also on Google Drive so all group members can edit and augment) so you can witness the structure of the assessment coming together. If two people are doing the same question (like we advise) you might want to keep separate documents and then periodically compare them to see if there are sources / ideas you have missed.
Step 3. The Second Meeting
When: Roughly a week after your first meeting
The second meeting is a chance to re-convene and discuss the results of your research and planning. At this stage, you should still be coming together as a group – not just meeting with the people assigned to the same question as you. This ensures you have a basic understanding of the issues relevant to other questions, which may be important for your oral presentation (for PPL) or moot (For Constitutional Law). It also gives you a chance to discuss issues with structure and formatting – like how many words you predict each section will require and cross referencing – which may end up being important in the editing phase.
At the end of the second meeting, you should assign the task of writing out responses. This might be done one group member per question, or perhaps as pairs (although this might be logistically difficult).
Step 4. The First Draft
When: In the fortnight after your second meeting
The initial writing phase is when you actually start to put some flesh on that skeletal plan you and your group have been working on. This can be an autonomous process, however it’s recommended that you all work on the same document (on Google Drive or Dropbox) so you can review other members’ progress and offer advice or constructive criticism where appropriate.
Step 5. The Editing Process
When: Ideally a week before submission
The editing process is perhaps the most difficult part of a group assessment. This is more likely to be the case if you’ve skipped a few of the above phases (i.e. if you simply allocated one question to each group member and are working in ‘silos’ instead of collaboratively) and find that your assessment looks a bit like Frankenstein. Editing can be done together or remotely – but its likely that you won’t all agree on everything so physically meeting up is preferable.
The key here is to be patient, consultative and comprehensive. Decide on the substantive issues first (like whether certain parts of the assessment need to be amended or removed) and second on more ‘procedural’ issues (like grammar, word count and formatting). It is recommended that after you finish editing, each group member print out a copy of the assessment and read it out-a-loud for any outstanding problems with grammar or “flow”. When you’re all happy, move on to step 6!
Step 6. Submission
Some good programs for organising group work are –
- Facebook groups
- Dropbox – a useful tool for storing and sharing group documents
- Google Drive – also good for storing and editing documents as a group
- Wiggio – allows you to share and comment on documents, as well as plan group meetings and create to do lists
- Trello – a great, easy to use tool for organisation. Used by the engineers at Google.
- See the Useful Links page for more
If you experience any problems with your syndicates, the following tools might be useful for resolving conflicts.
- BBC – Future – The best way to win an argument
- ‘Guidelines for Effective Teamwork‘, Chapter 10 of the Guide to Academic Success
- Conflict Resolution– Communication skills training from MindTools.com
‘Getting to Yes‘ is also particularly helpful, specifically:
- Chapter 1 – The Problem
- Chapter 2 – Separate the People From the Problem
A few other articles of interest are:
- BBC – Dealing with the office Kanye
- Implementing Strategies in Extreme Negotiations– for serious difficulties
Other FSG Posts: