A Valuable Lesson
by Adarsh Parthasarathy
I think the most valuable lesson I learned from my 1L writing courses is evidenced in an assignment I’m doing right now for the a public-defender organization. I am writing a memo on jury charge errors and how they might be litigated in state habeas proceedings in Texas with application to a set of facts specific to the client’s case. My initial research has revealed that the issue is extremely complicated, with several competing state and federal standards. The decision of what standard to use depends on several factors, both factual and strategic: whether error was preserved at the trial level, whether the nature of the claim is constitutional in dimension or based in state law, what the nature of the jury error is, and what standards give us the best chance of success given the applicable facts.
As my 1L final memo serves as evidence of, my untrained reaction when approaching a complex legal issue was to break the issue down in several different “roads” and then do a detailed analysis of each “road” with its own “Question Presented,” “Brief Answer,” and “Analysis” pieces. In my 1L year, the issue we were asked to write our final about was whether a defendant can assert any one of four different defenses to a breach of contract claim. These four defenses were chosen intentionally, of that I have no doubt, for although they were all used in Texas law, the effective differences between them from a legal point of view were, in some cases, negligible. The most important lesson of the final memo was therefore likely that the ability to analyze an issue to death is but a stepping-stone to what makes an advanced legal writer: the ability to recognize redundancy in the legal landscape and condense. That is something I failed to do, instead writing a seven-thousand-word memo that treated each of the defenses as separate “roads” rather than recognizing, at some point in my research that, although the roads may start at different places, they merge further along.
It’s pure happenstance that I ended up using my 1L memo document as a formatting template for my current memo assignment. It ended up being good luck; it jogged my memory as to the mistake I made in 1L and forced me to realize that I was making the same mistake two years later. I think that it reveals an important step that I do not remember explicitly being taught in my legal writing courses: that it is important, after doing research on an issue, to see where answers to your initial questions seem the same and where they seem different. It sounds basic when stated like that, but I think that it is against natural instincts to finish researching a legal issue and then pause to re-structure what you’ve found. I feel that the natural instinct is to write in the same structure as your research.
While I am not able to speak to the specifics of my current assignment beyond what I have already described, it suffices to say that there were many tests set out by the courts that “merged” as their analytical steps progressed even if they started at different places. A memo that exhaustively analyzed each path as isolated would have been repetitive. However, an organization that corrals different starting points that lead to the same conclusion ends up being far more efficient and effective.
While I don’t feel that my first-year writing courses set out this lesson explicitly, I think I ultimately learned the lesson from looking at the comments on my final paper and understanding why what I did was not the best way to analyze the issue. I think that the redundancy in the research findings for the final memo is a common problem to run into in legal research and that the lesson should be set out explicitly so that students are better equipped to realize that a potential issue they are likely to confront is a decision as to what distinctions in the law are meaningful and what distinctions are not. That is generally a subject specific judgment, of course, but I believe that it will raise one’s raise one’s awareness to the possibility of such an occurrence to be given examples of this issue in the law (perhaps on the factual sufficiency versus legal sufficiency standards for convictions, which Texas courts have given up defending a distinction between?). Legal writing courses cannot prepare one for the specifics of every issue that one will encounter, but it can at least forewarn students of the variety of issues they may encounter, in a general sense, so that they recognize an issue as it happens and are able to address it in the appropriate context-specific way.