1. I wish I’d known that law was a writing profession.
I came to law school thinking law practice was an oral profession. I pictured myself in court, making an argument to the jury or to the judge. I pictured myself seated across the table from another lawyer, negotiating a deal. I pictured myself in my office, meeting with a client to give advice. Sure, lawyers do those things.
But mostly, they write.
Lawyers are professional writers. They get paid to produce quality written work that is subjected to serious scrutiny. I wish I’d known that.
2. I wish I’d known that becoming a good legal writer would take years.
I thought I was a good writer in college. I also thought the basic training I received in law school would enable me to write well in practice. I was wrong.
In Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he reports on a theory of developing expertise. The theory suggests that it takes 10,000 hours to develop expertise in a particular area. If the theory is right, it certainly applies to legal writing. So if you work 2000 hours per year, and 1000 of those hours are spent writing, becoming an expert legal writer would take you 10 years. That’s a long time.
But it’s not enough to just do the skill for 10,000 hours. You need to work at it—study, learn, and implement what you’ve learned. If you don’t study your craft—if you just write on auto-pilot—it’ll take you more than 10,000 hours. And if you write for fewer than 1000 hours per year, it’ll take you more than 10 years. It could take you 15 or 20. I wish I’d been aware of that long haul.
As an aside to the law students and young lawyers reading this, may I say that I sometimes hear from senior attorneys that law students and young lawyers are ineffective legal writers. This bothers me because it’s unrealistic to expect high-quality legal writing from novices who have spent far fewer than 10,000 hours practicing legal writing. I believe these often misguided complaints arise from two causes: First, some complainers are not expert legal writers themselves and are not in a position to fully judge expert legal writing. Second, some complainers have forgotten how ineffective and inexpert their own legal writing was when they were novices.
So hang in there, young lawyers.
3. I wish I’d known that time pressure would be a significant obstacle to good legal writing.
Law is a busy, demanding profession. Many lawyers feel compelled or are compelled to take on more work than would be ideal. The heavy workload impinges on effective legal writing.
Let’s take editing as an example. If your writing is less than expert, it might be because you don’t know how to edit. Or it might be because you know how to edit, but you’re too lazy to edit. But most often it’s probably because although you know how to edit and you’re hard-working, you don’t have time to edit. Editing is what makes weak writing good and good writing great. But in a busy law practice, careful editing often has to be sacrificed.
4. I wish I’d known about the best sources on good legal writing.
I didn’t own a book on legal writing until I quit practicing law and began teaching legal writing. How could that be? If I’d studied journalism, I would’ve known about and acquired books on writing style. Likewise if I had studied English composition. But I finished law school and entered a writing profession without a single source on legal writing in my library. Sure, I read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I read On Writing Well by William Zinsser. But I read no books on legal writing.
Given what was available when I graduated from law school in 1989, I wish I’d had these sources:
- The Texas Law Review Manual on Usage and Style
- A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, by Bryan A. Garner
- How To Write Plain English, by Rudolf Flesch
Somebody should’ve given me one of these as a graduation gift.
Ultimately, I simply wish I had taken the skill of legal writing more seriously. You’re forewarned.