Category Archives: Teaching Legal Writing

Some best practices for 1L legal writing

Dear 1L,

You’re about to enter law school, so you’re about to take a legal-writing class. I’m jealous. I didn’t have a legal-writing class in my first semester of law school. My Civil Procedure professor gave me an assignment to write a memo but provided no instruction or guidance. A teaching assistant gave me a few comments—no grade. But that was 30 years ago. Your class will be different, and it will be a challenge. Here are some best practices that can help you succeed on your legal-writing assignments.

Outline. Yes, I know—no one outlines anymore, and that’s too bad. There’s solid proof that outlining improves writing in both form and content. In a book called The Psychology of Writing, Dr. Ronald Kellogg showed that students who outlined got two benefits: (1) they composed faster, typing more words in the same amount of time, and (2) they wrote more correctly, making fewer grammar and punctuation mistakes. Why? One of the important tasks in writing is ordering the content. By outlining first, these writers could devote more brain power to content and correctness—they didn’t have to worry about ordering as they wrote because they had outlined beforehand. These benefits of outlining could be yours, too.

Edit, edit, edit. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” He meant we’ve all got to edit. As I mentioned, legal writing requires a lot of effort just to get the content right. You’ll have to master new vocabulary—lots of it, new forms of analysis and argument, and new information. All that effort will inhibit your ability to write flawless prose. It happens to my students every year. “Professor, I’m embarrassed. You found mistakes in my writing when I knew better. I don’t understand. I normally don’t make that many mistakes.” It’s normal. So outline and then get a first draft done early. Then edit ruthlessly, multiple times. Read it out loud. Do at least one edit on paper. Put it aside for a day if you can and then edit again. Editing can take your writing from average to good and from good to great.

Read the comments. When your professor returns your papers, read the feedback. I’ll admit to being frustrated after putting hours into reading and commenting on student papers when I later realize, through a conference or a rewrite, that the student didn’t read my comments. Or didn’t read all of them. Or didn’t understand some of them but didn’t ask. Hey. That’s what I’m here for. Read the comments—or listen to my feedback in conference—and if you don’t understand, ask.

Persevere. Legal writing is new, complex, and demanding. It will take your best effort, so stick with it. You can do this.

This post also appears on Legal Writing Matters.

Texas Law graduate Lou Sirico wins legal-writing award

I’m pleased to announce that Professor Louis Sirico of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law is the 2016 winner of the Burton Award for outstanding contributions to legal-writing education.

Professor Sirico is a long-time and staunch supporter of legal-writing education and of legal-writing teachers and is admired for his work in the field.

He is also, by the way, a graduate of The University of Texas School of Law. Well done, Lou!

Recommended book: The New 1L

I recommend a new book from Carolina Academic Press:

The New 1L: First-Year Lawyering with Clients

edited by Eduardo R.C. Capulong, Michael A. Millemann, Sara Rankin, and Nantiya Ruan.

From the publisher’s online catalog:

In The New 1L, leading teachers in the field describe how, in the first year of legal education, they teach students to act, as well as think, like lawyers. In their courses, clients are central—not extraneous. Working under a lawyer’s supervision, students interview clients, conduct factual investigations, draft pleadings, and write memoranda and briefs. The authors argue that, in isolation, theory and practice are incomplete, and first-year educators must integrate the two. They discuss the benefits and challenges of this new 1L approach, and also provide a range of successful models for any teacher who wants to adapt this pedagogy to a first-year course.

The innovative courses the authors describe bring about collaborations between classroom instruction and legal research and writing (LRW) and create interactions with clinical teachers and lawyers. These collaborative teaching models are essential to the future success of legal education, the authors contend. These models include LRW courses that base assignments on actual legal work, core courses that add practice components to traditional theoretical instruction, courses adding skills instruction and actual client work to the 1L curriculum, and courses that invite 1L students to enroll in clinics.

Yes, I’m a Lawyer

Do you ever lie about your profession? Seriously. When someone asks what you do for a living, do you always say “I’m a lawyer”?

I do, of course. And I always sign my name with esquire. Even on checks. And I insist that everyone call me counselor.

Wife: Do you want any more salad, counselor?
Me: Nothing further at this time.

But there was a time when I didn’t want my membership in the bar to be the first thing a stranger learned about me. Often, I’d just as soon downplay my job—though I admit it took me a while to learn how. When I first came out of law school, I’d routinely do this:

Stranger: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a lawyer. Or attorney. Strictly speaking, the distinction between the terms is disappearing at the present time. Moreover, there are the terms barrister, solicitor, and counselor, inter alia. Nonetheless, any and all of said terms can be utilized by laymen to refer to one who holds, possesses, or retains a juris doctorate.

That usually got a bad reaction.

But it wasn’t just my choice of words. I soon began to realize that as a lawyer, I wasn’t beloved by all. After a few years of law practice, I began to see that people had preconceived notions about lawyers and that telling someone I was a lawyer wasn’t always a good way to start off the relationship. So I fudged.

That was hard to do when I practiced law at a law firm. What could I say? But as a newly trained lawyer, of course, I was able to talk around the truth. That’s what they taught me in law school, right?

Stranger: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a . . . well . . . what do you do?
Stranger: I’m a nurse. And you?
Me: I’m in finance. . . . I work with banks . . . lending . . . that sort of thing.

That was true, at least partly.

I didn’t say I represented the banks as a lawyer. I didn’t say I sued borrowers. I didn’t say I prepared for filing original petitions directed to defaulting debtors. That could come later, after the stranger had seen I was a decent person.

On the other hand, how decent was it to fudge on the truth in our first conversation? Still, I justified it. It was better than getting the typical reaction—usually something like this:

Stranger: An attorney, huh? My brother-in-law’s an attorney—a real jerk, too.

Or this:

Stranger: No offense, but I’ve had enough of attorneys for a lifetime. My ex’s attorney was a real jerk.

Yes, the “j” word came up a lot.

So when I got into academia as a legal-writing instructor, I took full advantage of the chance to obscure my profession. I started telling people I taught writing. Just “writing.” Not “legal writing.” That way I could pass myself off as an English teacher. Cool. Besides, try explaining legal writing, and you usually get a snide remark.

Me: I teach legal writing.
Stranger: So you’re the one who teaches them to write like that.

I still had awkward moments and lessons to learn. I found out that fudging about your profession didn’t always go smoothly. Once, I told someone I was a “writing instructor,” but she heard “riding instructor.”

She: Oh, it must be challenging working with those animals.
Me: Yeah . . . I guess . . . .
She: You always have to let them know who’s boss, right? Use the whip if you have to, I suppose?

But I’ve matured. I’ve learned to accept my profession—and to shrug off the critics. Now, in my 23rd year of teaching, I’ve abandoned the equivocating. I’m finally able to tell the truth. I’m proud to be a lawyer—a legal-writing instructor. So when asked, I now say what I feel, from my heart:

Me? I’m a legal-writing instructor. As a field, legal writing comprises drafting, advocacy, and expository analysis, though that three-pronged regime is subject to critique on the ground that it is not comprehensive. Furthermore . . . .