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Really Really Belated Advice to New Law Students:

I know it's probably too late, since you're already deeply embroiled in your first year classes (and have given up, among other things, trolling through the Volokh Conspiracy), I did want to pass along two thoughts in response to master conspirator Eugene's calls for our thoughts on the matter, for what they're worth.

The summer before law school, I read Charles Rembar's wonderful book "The Law of the Land," and I recall myself thinking, many times during my first year, how glad I was that I had done so. Rembar takes you through the history of the development of Anglo-American law, and I found it both fabulously entertaining and extremely helpful as a practical matter -- trying to extract some meaning from those inscrutable texts that one encounters early on in most first-year classes (Pierson v. Post in property, Hadley v. Baxendale in contracts, and all the rest) is not easy, and I found it helpful to have some rudimentary understanding of the archaic and arcane forms that the law had taken in the past -- about the old pleading rules and their "writs" and forms of action, about the Field Code, about the differences between law and equity courts in the old days, and like matters. Highly recommended.

Second: I agree with all that was said, in several other postings here, about different learning styles for different people. But I suspect everyone would agree on one thing: to be a good lawyer, you have to know how to write well. You're probably taking some kind of "legal research and writing" class during your first year, and, if you're tempted to blow it off (as you may well be), my advice to you is: Don't. In many, many ways, what you learn there is more important than what you learn in any one of your doctrinal classes -- there are a lot of terrific lawyers out there who never really understood (and still don't understand) property law, say, or constitutional law, or contracts. But there are very few terrific lawyers out there who haven't mastered legal writing and legal research. (And consider this, too: all of those judicial opinions you're reading in your "doctrinal" classes are themselves the output of judges (and their law clerks) engaged in the process of "legal research and writing"; the more you understand about that process, believe me, the better you'll be able to understand those opinions and, therefore, the better you'll be able to understand the various doctrinal subjects you're encountering). If I had the magic bullet to get you to write well I'd reveal it to you, but I don't. Legal writing, in my view, is one of those things (like playing the piano, or juggling, or carpentry) that you get better at by practice, and only by practice. There are lots of guidebooks out there -- Volokh's, of course, and Bryan Garner's got a good one -- and I've even tried (here) to put down on paper pretty much everything I could about how to write good legal prose. But you won't learn how to write good legal prose by talking about it or reading about it -- you learn by practicing it, so look for every opportunity you can to do so

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Really Really Belated Advice to New Law Students:
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enjointhis:
I agree wholeheartedly. Legal writing is the most important class in law school. A lawyer MUST communicate effectively and concisely. Brilliance is useless unless the author can convey information clearly.

I'm a rather senior commercial litigator, and I've seen innumerable briefs bearing the hallmarks of last-minute authorship. Confusion, disorganization, repetition, the works. It can be very frustrating. And it appears in the writing samples that come across my desk, too (I vet job candidates in my department). A poorly-written sample will doom a candidate regardless of his or her pedigree. Conversely, a well-written sample will earn a candidate a careful second look, notwithstanding seemingly objective criteria like grades.
9.7.2008 11:41am
CDU (mail) (www):
I think this advice can be generalized far beyond the legal profession. Learning to write well, to communicate your ideas to others, is a key to success in a great many endeavors.
9.7.2008 12:00pm
JimmyL:
I agree. I worked for a federal judge and many of the briefs he received were terrible. It was truly amazing how many lawyers did not know how to write well.

Learn in law school while you have plenty of time, and if your school offers an advanced legal writing class, take it. Finally, read anything by Bryan Garner--he's not the be all, end all, but his books are best legal writing books out there.
9.7.2008 12:21pm
Fat Man (mail) (www):
Bleak House
9.7.2008 1:12pm
Curt Fischer:
As an outsider who will never attend law school, let me ask the following: is law school, especially the first year, the right place to hone one's writing skills?

It sounds like all the adverse effects that poor writing would inflict on one's career come largely after law school, and definitely after the first year, when actually working as a lawyer.

If so, and if 1Ls have to take a writing class in their first semester, doesn't it make sense to blow it off in order to focus on boosting their 1L GPA? Because doesn't the 1L GPA determine if you get sweet summer associate jobs at big money BigLaw firms much more so than having great writing skills?

Am I way off track? For example, has anyone ever heard of a 1L who got a cool summer associate position but then wasn't offered a follow-up position because their briefs sucked?
9.7.2008 1:42pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
It seems to me a reflection on our educational system that it is necessary for law students to need to learn to write well. Granted, there are a few technical points specific to writing briefs and a few others specific to writing for law reviews, but for the most part, the writing skills needed in law are the same as in many other fields. Isn't it rather disturbing that law students haven't already acquired the skill after four years of college, not to mention high school?
9.7.2008 2:10pm
The River Temoc (mail):
I hate to disagree -- because over the long run, David is quite correct. But in legal academia, what determines success is grades in the short run, perhaps coupled with a willingness to be aggressive about pursuing jobs once the NALP deadline comes and goes. And everything during the first semester of law school is about prioritizing things. The first priority needs to be focusing on the substantive classes. The second needs to be the 1L summer job hunt.

I would hope that new 1Ls would show up to law school with decent writing skills in any event. If they do, I happen to think that they've already won 90% of the battle. Too often I hear that new 1Ls start trying to "write like lawyers" by adding a lot of jargon and stilted language, which is definitely barking up the wrong tree. Much writing in law reviews is little better. I wonder if 1L writing classes are contributing to this problem.
9.7.2008 2:17pm
The River Temoc (mail):
A lawyer MUST communicate effectively and concisely.

Out of curiosity, enjointhis, have you leafed through any Forms 10-K or S-1 recently?
9.7.2008 2:20pm
Cornellian (mail):
I agree wholeheartedly. Legal writing is the most important class in law school.

Legal writing is the LEAST important class in law school. Before you excel as a lawyer you have to get the job at which you're going to excel and about 80% of the way you get that job is through your law school grades, especially in first year (assuming you're attending a respectable law school and not one that's still trumpeting its recently acquired accreditation). Legal writing has almost nothing to do with getting those grades.

And before anyone brings up this point, good legal writing isn't all that similar to good legal exam writing. You want to learn the former to get those all-important good grades in first year and you'll have two whole years between first year and graduation to learn the latter.
9.7.2008 2:35pm
Cornellian (mail):
I agree. I worked for a federal judge and many of the briefs he received were terrible. It was truly amazing how many lawyers did not know how to write well.

I've had a similar experience. Sometimes I read a brief and think "how did the guy who wrote that become a partner at [insert name of big firm here]???"
9.7.2008 2:36pm
Bama 1L:
I don't see how focusing on the substantive classes puts one in better stead for getting 1L summer jobs. I guess it depends on the particular circumstances.

1L summer jobs are based on first-semester grades. Going through the semester, you really can have no idea what grades you are going to get in your substantive classes. Those grades are based entirely on end-of-semester exams. 1Ls have no experience with those exams and can't predict how they'll do. Slacking off in any class is taking a huge gamble.

On the other hand, your legal writing grade is based on one or more papers on which you'll get feedback. This is the only feedback you'll receive until you find out your first-semester grades.

Blowing off legal writing just makes no sense. It's something you can actually improve on during the semester. Furthermore, it's a grade that factors into your GPA. (And if you really get into headgames with your sectionmates, you can let them kill themselves trying to get the As in the heavily weighted classes and cruise into an A in legal writing, which they heard on the internet was worthless.) Finally, it makes absolutely no sense to piss off your legal writing instructor by slacking off.

Maybe your law school is different. If legal writing isn't graded, then there goes one reason to do work hard in the class. If your substantive courses include midterms exams or useful feedback, there goes another one. Also, how do legal writing grades and skills factor into making law review, which you are really going to want on your resume for 2L summer jobs and, if you go that route, judicial clerkships? Moot court? Etc.? On the other hand, is your legal writing instructor a recent or current local practioner who might be able to hook you up with a job?

And Curt, a lot of what legal writing presents is the forms and styles lawyers use to communicate, plus the strange ways authorities are found and cited. Even people who came to school with excellent writing skills need to be there--and they tend to be rewarded with high grades.
9.7.2008 3:10pm
Cornellian (mail):
1L summer jobs are based on first-semester grades. Going through the semester, you really can have no idea what grades you are going to get in your substantive classes. Those grades are based entirely on end-of-semester exams. 1Ls have no experience with those exams and can't predict how they'll do. Slacking off in any class is taking a huge gamble.

Take all that time you would have devoted to your legal writing class and instead devote it to writing practice exams and getting feedback on them from someone in a position to know what constitutes a good exam paper, and you'll do far better on your 1L grades than someone who spent all that time learning to Bluebook his legal writing assignments and to title his first paragraph "brief answer" instead of "summary."
9.7.2008 3:33pm
Casper the Friendly Guest:
Bill,

Legal writing is an entirely different beast. I was a very strong writer before law school (my work experience included music journalism and speech writing), but these skills did not prepare me at all for legal writing. If anything, being a talented writer made it harder to learn legal writing because I had to start by un-learning everything that makes normal writing good, like varied sentence structure and effective use of a thesaurus. In contrast, good legal writing means subject-verb, subject-verb; short choppy sentences; no crafty turns of phrases, and repetition, repetition, repetition.

That said, I don't agree with David that the 1L legal writing course is the be-all-and-end-all of a first year education. I blew off legal writing my 1L year because I hated having my superior writing skills criticized by a half-rate hack. Oh how wrong I was. Fortunately, a good internship my 1L summer set me straight, and I turned out okay. I did have to drop music journalism due to writer's block: Once unlearned, those skills are apparently lost forever.
9.7.2008 3:35pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Casper the friendly ghost,

Interesting, but I wonder if your experience isn't a bit different from what I was thinking of given that what you were going, while not writing fiction (unless those were political speeches:) ), was writing for a popular audience. Having read a fair number of briefs and articles in law journals, it seems to me that the good ones (and there are some really awful briefs) are not dissimilar to good academic writing in other fields.
9.7.2008 3:59pm
enjointhis:
@ Temoc - Nope, I'm a litigator. I'd rather pluck my eyes out than deal with 10-Ks (unless I'm suing somebody about them). But I take your point - my bias means my viewpoint might not apply equally to all legal fields.
9.7.2008 5:42pm
The River Temoc (mail):
Having read a fair number of briefs and articles in law journals, it seems to me that the good ones (and there are some really awful briefs) are not dissimilar to good academic writing in other fields.

IMO the quality of writing in law reviews is significantly worse than that in other fields. I agree that the quality of GOOD writing in law reviews is comparable to that in other academic fields.

Concise subject-verb sentences *ought* to be the norm; more frequently you encounter some of the more convoluted, meandering sentences you'll find outside of a German grammar book.

Since no kind of academic writing is going to land you in ROLLING STONE, I'm not sure I see the relevance of the comparison to journalistic prose.
9.8.2008 1:09pm