Category Archives: Law Practice

Plagiarism in Law School and in Law Practice

Some examples and a new view

This column summarizes two kinds of legal-writing plagiarism and then presents a recent article that proposes a new view of plagiarism in law practice.

Law school plagiarism

In In re Zbiegien, a student who committed plagiarism in a law-school seminar paper was confronted, admitted the plagiarism, and accepted the law school’s penalty: a grade of F. Although he disclosed the plagiarism and penalty on his bar application, he was denied admission. He appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which granted him admission, stating, “He has been punished; he is ashamed. … [The law school] elected to give him a second chance. We, too, believe that this conduct will not be repeated.” Two justices dissented.[1]

Reported cases in which law-school plagiarism results in bar discipline are rare, but here are two more that involved lawyers who went back to law school to get an L.L.M. In In re Harper, a lawyer was publicly censured for failing to disclose on his bar application that he had been dismissed from an L.L.M. program for plagiarism.[2] In In re Lamberis, a lawyer committed plagiarism in an L.L.M. thesis and was publicly censured by the state bar. One dissenting justice would have suspended the license.[3]

Plagiarism in court

As those bar-discipline cases show, judges take academic plagiarism seriously. But many courts are just as serious about law-practice plagiarism. In United States v. Sypher, a lawyer’s brief stated the law governing ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims, but the trial judge discovered that the statement had been copied from Wikipedia. According to the judge, “such cutting and pasting, without attribution, is plagiarism.” The judge also reminded counsel that “Wikipedia is not an acceptable source of legal authority in the United States District Courts.”[4]

And in Columbus Bar Association v. Farmer, a lawyer took over a criminal appeal from another lawyer. He told the client that the appellate brief filed by the previous lawyer “wasn’t worth the paper it was written on,” and withdrew it. But he then filed a brief the court described as “a nearly verbatim recasting of his predecessor’s brief.” His two-year suspension for plagiarism was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court—though the suspension could be reduced to one year if he refunded all but $1000 of the fee collected in the case.[5]

A new view of plagiarism

In a 2019 law-review article, legal-writing Professor Andrew Carter of Arizona State proposed a bold thesis: Plagiarism of previously written legal briefs by practicing lawyers should no longer be considered a violation of professional norms. (Academic plagiarism is a different matter, he says).[6]

Professor Carter accurately reports that courts in the United States consistently enforce a strong professional standard against plagiarism in legal briefs (see the two cases above). However, although courts condemn plagiarism as “reprehensible” and “wholly intolerable,” they rarely provide a clear rationale for why plagiarism deserves such severe sanctions. Instead, they treat plagiarism as an inherently immoral act, assuming that its prohibition requires no further justification.

In reality, Carter opines, the courts are mistaken. Plagiarism of a previously submitted legal brief violates no universally accepted moral code. Moreover, when we remove moral considerations, it becomes challenging to identify any benefits served by the courts’ prohibition of plagiarism. Carter then argues that if plagiarism of filed briefs were acceptable, society would see certain benefits.

We could increase access to justice if high-volume, low-resource practitioners acting in the public interest were allowed to plagiarize other lawyers’ briefs. In fact, virtually no cognizable harm would arise, and tremendous good might be achieved. Ultimately, Carter concludes, if we consider advantages gained through plagiarism, the argument is strongly in favor of regarding it as a legitimate method for crafting legal briefs.[7]

Carter’s thesis is controversial. What do you think?


[1] In re Zbiegien, 433 N.W.2d 871, 872, 877 (Minn. 1988).

[2] In re Harper, 645 N.Y.S.2d 846, 846-48. (App. Div. 1996).

[3] In re Lamberis, 443 N.E.2d 549, 550, 553 (Ill. 1982).

[4] United States v. Sypher, 2011 WL 579156, at *3 n.4 (W.D. Ky. Feb. 9, 2011), aff’d, 684 F.3d 622 (6th Cir. 2012).

[5] Columbus Bar Association v. Farmer, 855 N.E. 2d 462, 465, 473 (Ohio 2006).

[6] Andrew M. Carter, The Case for Plagiarism, 9 UC Irvine L. Rev. 531, 535 (2019).

[7] Id. at 554.

Readability of Briefs

Two empirical studies

This post discusses two studies of appellate-brief writing that reached different conclusions and call for different explanations.

The first study scored nearly every merits brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court from 1969 to 2004 using four readability-assessment tools,[1] two of which are described here.

The Flesch Reading Ease Scale:

  • uses sentence and word length to assess readability and assigns a score: zero to 30 is “very difficult,” while 90 to 100 is “very easy,” and 60 is “plain English.”[2]

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level:

  • reports the number of years of formal education a reader needs in order to understand the text: 12 means a high-school graduate, 16 means a college graduate, and 19 means a law-school graduate.

For the time period assessed, U.S. Supreme Court briefs averaged a Flesch Reading Ease score of 35 (difficult) and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 14 (sophomore in college).

Also, during that time period, the grade level of Facts sections moved from 15 to 12—becoming simpler. The grade level of Argument sections moved from 14 to 13—again, becoming simpler. And the readability score for Argument sections moved from 33 to 39—becoming more readable.[3]

What does this trend to simpler, more-readable writing mean? Does it represent “the dumbing of America”? Should we conclude that even Supreme Court advocates are incapable of writing complex, sophisticated prose?

No. Given the high caliber of attorneys writing briefs to the Supreme Court, I draw a different conclusion. These advocates understand that a readable brief, written as simply as possible given the complex subject matter, will be more persuasive and engaging. It’s a good reminder for all legal writers.

The second study assessed briefs to the New York Court of Appeals from 1969 to 2008, and it relied on the tools already described: the Flesch Reading Ease Scale and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.[4] But this study didn’t have good news.

Based on scores by decade (1969-78, 1979-88, 1989-98, 1999-2008), the average Flesch Kincaid Grade level moved from 13 to 14—becoming less simple, and the average Flesch Reading Ease Score moved from 42 to 32—becoming less readable.[5] The author was dismayed by these results in part because the time period, 1969-2008, roughly corresponds with a trend toward more and better legal-writing instruction in U.S. law schools.

Does this mean that legal-writing teachers, like me, aren’t making writing better—we’re making it worse? I took that pretty hard. I wanted a different explanation, and I think I found one.

Granted, when viewing the numbers by decade, you see a trend to less simple, less readable legal writing. But if you view the numbers by year, you see that there probably isn’t a clear trend.

In fact, when viewed by year, the numbers fluctuate widely and almost annually. For example, the grade level for 1990 is 8, but for 1996 it’s 16. From legal writing an 8th grader could understand to writing that would require a college graduate—in 6 years? It’s hard to explain.[6]

The readability scores rise and fall in a similar way. The score for 1981 is 52 (a high score for legal writing) but drops to 40 (difficult) in 1982. It then moves back up to 52 in 1990 but drops to 30 (very difficult) by 1993.[7]

In fact, the author’s charts that report scores by year look like up-and-down zig zags without (to me) a clearly discernible trend.

So here’s my explanation: briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court are produced by a fairly small and highly sophisticated group of appellate attorneys, and their writing gets better—simpler and more readable—over time. Briefs to the New York Court of Appeals come from a wider range of attorneys with a wider range of experience and skill, and their writing shows no definite pattern of improvement.

Now I feel better.


[1] Brady Coleman & Quy Phung, The Language of Supreme Court Briefs: A Large-Scale Quantitative Investigation, 11 J. App. Prac. & Process 75, 76 (2010).

[2] Rudolf Flesch, How to Write Plain English 25 (1979).

[3] Coleman & Phung at 98, 99 (numbers rounded).

[4] Ian Gallacher, When Numbers Get Serious: A Study of Plain English Usage in Briefs Filed Before the New York Court of Appeals, 46 Suffolk U.L. Rev. 451 (2013).

[5] Id. at 465, 472.

[6] Id. at 472.

[7] Id. at 466.

What I Did Last Summer

Gathering opinions on new legal writers

In summer 2022, I had lunch meetings with five local attorneys. My goal was to gather input from practicing lawyers about ways I could improve my teaching of legal writing. Before meeting, I asked my “consultants” to consider three questions:

  1. What do you think of the writing abilities of the new lawyers you work with?
  2. What do you think of new lawyers’ ability to manage research and writing projects?
  3. What are some changes or additions to law-school legal-writing instruction you would recommend?

1. Writing abilities of new lawyers

I was pleased to learn that, according to my consultants, the writing ability of new lawyers these days is okay. No one was gushing about it—after all, new lawyers need lots of practice and experience to become skilled legal writers. But I was pleased that I didn’t hear any “the sky is falling” or “sound the alarm” reports.

I think that’s partly because formal legal-writing instruction in U.S. law schools, once almost non-existent, has been transformed in the last thirty years. At many schools, legal writing has moved from a low-credit, pass-fail course taught by teaching assistants to a graded course taught by full-time faculty.

Still, there’s room for improvement, and the most-common concerns expressed about new lawyers’ writing fell into three categories: tone, concision, and organization.

Tone: My consultants said that new lawyers sometimes write too formally, in a tone that is stiff or stilted. They guessed that new lawyers might be trying to sound …  lawyerly. This is understandable, of course, and it’s a phase nearly every lawyer passes through. You’ve entered a learned profession, and you’ve become a licensed attorney, so you want to sound like one.[1] Yes, writing with an unduly formal tone is a flaw, but it’s not a major one. With some good feedback about audience and purpose, new lawyers will adapt to expectations and begin to adopt a readable tone.

Concision: New lawyers’ writing is sometimes wordy and verbose, my consultants said. They see long sentences, complex structures, and big words. But mostly, they said, they see documents that are too long. A memo the assigning lawyer thought would be five pages is ten; email messages that could be two or three paragraphs are five. New lawyers need to weed out extraneous details and unnecessary background and deliver the key information or analysis efficiently.

I agree that concise writing is a challenge for new lawyers, and my perspective as a teacher of first-year students makes me aware of a risk to keep in mind. If you apply pressure on novice legal writers to be concise, they might cut useful or necessary content just to achieve concision. In other words, to get the five-paragraph email down to three paragraphs, the beginner might just cut two paragraphs—perhaps removing a key legal standard or an important piece of the analysis.

What we want, of course, is for the writer to carefully edit all five paragraphs, removing a few words here, dropping an unnecessary comment there, and then consolidating so that we end up with three paragraphs. Ideally, they learn to achieve concision by a series of small edits that add up.

Organization. Even a concise piece of legal writing that uses the right tone still needs to be well organized, and in this area my consultants had two key comments: First, they wanted more up-front, bottom-line summaries in nearly everything thing they read. Spill the beans: get to the point first and put the background second, they said. It’s a common recommendation for all legal writing.[2] Second, the rest of the document should be sensibly ordered, with headings if necessary and strong topic and transition sentences.

These two key comments—the need for an up-front summary and the importance of a sensible, discernible order—highlight the reality of law practice: Lawyers are busy. These two techniques help busy lawyers read and understand efficiently.

2. New lawyers’ ability to manage research and writing projects

The responses to this question fell into three categories: Getting assignments, following up, and following through.

Getting assignments

I practiced law before the Internet, cell phones, and email, so the way I got assignments was almost always to go into someone’s office with a pen and pad in hand. I sat and took notes on what I was told.

It turns out that’s still a good idea, according to my consultants.

If possible, assigning attorneys and assignment-receiving new attorneys would meet in person to discuss the assignment. The new attorney should have something to write with—probably not just a cell phone.

Even when getting an assignment by email (the most common method, according to my consultants), it’s usually a good idea to drop by and talk. New attorneys should ask about the assigning attorney’s expectations on timing, depth, length, and so on to be sure they understand the assignment. Then, after some initial work, they should check back to be sure they’re on the right track.

Following up

New lawyers and law students tell me they sometimes avoid following up with questions because they don’t want to look inept or uninformed. But my consultants said that, in fact, not following up with the assigning attorney is a bigger problem than asking too many questions.

Although it doesn’t happen frequently, it’s a serious problem to do the research and write up a project that isn’t what the assigning lawyer wanted. Of course, it’s best to follow up only after you’ve done at least some research, so you’ll have something useful to say when you check back.

Sometimes the new lawyer gets a project and can’t find anything or, at least, anything that seems responsive to the assignment. When that happens, it’s important to follow up, but it’s just as important to be able to report back with “here’s what I did.” For example, it’s great if new attorneys can say, here are the research queries I submitted, or here are the types of authorities I consulted, or something like that.

Following through

According to my consultants, new lawyers should aspire to do more than merely answer the question; one recommendation is to include a short report on the best cases for and against the outcome predicted. In addition, new lawyers should invest in the problem: ask about it, care about it, try to get involved.

Some new lawyers make the mistake of assuming that it’s a senior attorney’s job to get them involved and pull them into projects. But getting involved is a new attorney’s job. New attorneys should become invested in the problem, ask follow-up questions, and care about the result for the client.

3. Recommended changes or additions to law-school legal-writing instruction

My consultants had lots of ideas, and I’ve listed some below. There are some great suggestions, but given that my focus is on first-year legal writing courses, I’ve categorized them into two groups: (a) good ideas that my colleagues and I are already doing, are hoping to do more of, or are planning for the future; and (b) good ideas that might become part of an upper-division course or clinic but that would be difficult to implement in the first-year legal-writing course.


  • Oral assigning of projects
  • Assignments given and responded to by email only
  • Assignments that ask, “The client has done [or wants to do] X. What do you recommend?”


  • Assignments to adapt a template motion or brief into a motion or brief on a different topic
  • Assignments to find motions, briefs, and other pleadings prepared by opposing counsel
  • Training in transactional drafting
  • Assignments to boil down a complex transaction into a concise report

Overall, it was a great summer project that I hope to do again in a more systematic and expanded way.


[1] Wayne Schiess, The Sound in Your Head, Austin Lawyer 6 (Nov. 2009).

[2] Wayne Schiess, Legal Writing Nerd: Be One 25-29, 30-36 (2018).

Student Essay: Read the News

Yes, Lawyers Should Read the News. But Not for the Reason You Think.

By Emma Edmund

Bryan Garner’s “A Tale of 2 Associates” includes plenty of examples of how polished legal writing can help a lawyer win a client’s case, but its most notable piece of advice is not on how to write, but what to read.

At the end of Garner’s hypothetical situation, second-year associate Denise tells fourth-year Jim to read The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic, telling him, “They’re not using any techniques in their nonfiction work that we can’t use in ours.”[1] While lawyers read the news to stay up-to-date on current events, Garner references the vast similarities between general journalism and legal writing, specifically the techniques within the writing that lawyers can adopt.[2] Journalism contains three essential elements that can shape better legal writing: a tone geared toward a wide audience, an inverted pyramid structure designed to maximize information absorption, and a delicate balance between revealing details and keeping stories general.

First, journalists write for a broad audience, and legal writers would benefit from writing with a broad audience in mind. For example, The Wall Street Journal, though writing for an educated and wealthy audience, caters to over 42 million unique visitors per month as of 2017.[3] With an audience that large, newspapers and newspaper schools are quick to teach journalists to write simply and give ample, and, if possible, objective, context to their stories.[4]

Lawyers, however, write for a significantly smaller circle; many legal writing assignments go to a supervisor, client, or judge; these people are intimately connected to the legal community. While other lawyers or clients can make up the bulk of the people who read legal work, lawyers should also note who might else read their writing, including students of all disciplines who read legal writing for assignments, journalists who translate lawsuit-related documents into news articles, and people who research legal problems on the internet and stumble across a law firm’s blog. By anticipating a wide audience, lawyers can train themselves to make their writing more accessible, and they can read newspapers for examples of writing style and structure that incorporate accessibility.

Second, lawyers should study the typical news article structure, also known as the inverted pyramid. General, hard news stories employ the “inverted pyramid” by containing the most essential information in the lede, the necessary context in the second, nutshell paragraph, and details organized from most to least important in the rest of the article.[5] Though the practice originated with journalists nervous about losing a story as it was transmitted over telegraph, current journalists also recognize that readers might not finish the entire story as they scroll through a website or social media channel.[6] The inverted pyramid allows readers to get the most essential elements of the story, even if they don’t finish the article.

Lawyers should implement this structure in select situations. In informal memos and other non-templated legal writing assignments, lawyers can style their writing so that the most important argument or topic comes first, with less relevant information near the bottom. Texas Law promotes this style of writing with its emphasis on the “short answer” at the top of assignments, not only because it prevents confusion if someone stops reading early, but because it also presents a more persuasive, coherent argument.

Finally, news articles provide examples of how to play with details. Legal writing is necessarily detail-oriented, but journalists are tasked with writing 500-word articles that contain essential details while generalizing the rest. Studying what journalists choose to write about and why, versus what they choose to keep out or save for a feature piece, could help lawyers determine how to communicate with the public or a judge through a brief with a tight deadline, informal blogs, LinkedIn posts, tweets, and more. Though many cases come down to the smallest details, most blog posts and other public-facing sites address general topics and issues, and lawyers who read news articles can mimic the level of detail needed to fully convey ideas to a wide range of people.

But lawyers should take journalists’ writings with a grain of salt when studying them for writing techniques—after all, most journalists do not have a J.D. and thus do not know how to write about strictly legal issues. But reading well-respected newspapers and magazines serve a dual purpose: they keep lawyers current on events and allow them to investigate and expose themselves to different types of writing. Lawyers can study how to write for a wider audience, mimic or remix a typical hard news structure, and play with the level of detail in assignments to evolve and shift their style for various needs.

[1] Bryan A. Garner, A Tale of 2 Associates: How Polish and Attention to Detail Can Win the Motion, ABA Journal, June 2014, at 1, 4.

[2] See id.

[3] Audience Profile, Dow Jones & Co., Inc. (2017), (noting that readers’ average household income was over $242,000 and 81% of readers graduated college).

[4] Journalism and Journalistic Writing: Introduction, Purdue Online Writing Lab,; How to Write Like a Journalist: 8 Tips, MasterClass, Sep. 8, 2021,

[5] The Inverted Pyramid Structure, Purdue Online Writing Lab,

[6] Id.; Jasmine Roberts, Writing for Strategic Communication Industries (2016),,or%20stop%20reading%20the%20story..

Student Essay: Mistakes Matter

Mistakes Matter

By Belinda Schwertner

“Mistakes don’t matter” was not a phrase overheard in my first-year writing course at The University of Texas School of Law. But, in Bryan A. Garner’s 2014 ABA Journal article, A Tale of 2 Associates: How Polish and Attention to Detail Can Win the Motion, Jim, a fourth-year associate, tries to convince Denise, a second-year associate with whom he is collaborating on a motion, that mistakes are acceptable. Jim contends that minor grammatical errors are not consequential to legal writing if those mistakes are small and the writing’s meaning is clear. After some coaxing, Jim reluctantly allows Denise carte blanche to edit the motion. Denise’s careful editing helps them win the motion and convinces Jim that correcting mistakes in legal writing is worth the effort.

One question that Garner’s article invites is why Jim is hesitant to accept Denise’s help polishing his motion. Jim believes that editing for grammatical mistakes wastes both time and money. Jim reasoned that he had previously had several successful hearings with this judge without them mentioning any shortcomings in his writings. However, Jim underestimates how grammatical mistakes can take away from the substance of legal writing. Grammatical errors in legal writing can cause the reader to pause to understand the writer’s meaning—the reader’s attention span shortens while their negative perception of the writing increases. Although mediocre writing can be effective, writers should not unnecessarily burden readers with careless errors.

Another explanation for Jim’s reluctance to accept Denise’s help could be an unfounded belief that first- and second-year associates are less-skilled writers. Having more experience, Jim might believe he is a better writer (although Denise’s editing skills are superior). Perhaps Jim is unaware of nationwide advances in legal writing curriculums. Maybe Jim is too busy “working” to work on improving his writing skills. Most people dislike change; similarly, Jim might favor the status quo. However, Jim comes to appreciate that the “cost” of editing—one hour and five minutes of Denise’s time—is well worth the rewards received: their supervising partner’s praise and admiration and the judge’s acknowledgment of their well-written motion.

Bryan Garner’s tale illustrates several critical points about legal writing. For example, correcting grammatical errors can only improve substantive legal writing. A small investment of time in editing reaps huge rewards. Further, legal writers can enhance their skills incrementally, making the process less daunting. Resources available to legal writers today are vast, and many are accessible online and free. Frequently reading non-legal works, such as well-written prose and periodicals, can also improve one’s writing intelligence. Other lessons learned from Mr. Garner are that senior lawyers should not assume that just because a lawyer is their junior, they are not good legal writers. Also, people beyond the presiding judge will likely read legal writings. Impressions about a lawyer, and by extension, their firm, can be gleaned from the quality of their writing. Therefore, given the vast legal writing resources and the cost-benefit analysis of employing editing, most lawyers have no excuse not to write well. Finally, it is never too late to learn.

Since writing is what lawyers spend most of their time doing, lawyers should take steps to improve the quality of their legal writing. Law schools continuously strive to improve their legal writing curriculum. And, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, law students are not hopeless in their legal writing endeavors. Moreover, lawyers are prone to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority, where a person overestimates their qualities and abilities in relation to the same qualities and abilities in other people. If a lawyer harbors this cognitive bias, awareness of it might allow them to be more receptive to learning techniques that could improve their legal writing.

Another way that lawyers could enhance the quality of their legal writing would be for each state’s bar association to require coursework on legal writing as part of continuing legal education (CLE). Currently, Texas requires licensed attorneys to complete fifteen hours of CLE yearly, three of which are ethics requirements. It is not beyond reason to mandate CLE in legal writing because writing is a core skill of the legal profession. The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct states in the comment section of Rule 1.3 (Diligence) that “a lawyer must also act with commitment and dedication to the interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf.” Indeed, the requirement of zealous advocacy necessitates an attorney’s need to present only their best-written work.

Not all lawyers possess the same level of writing intelligence, but most lawyers can improve their writing skills with little effort. There should be no excuse for, or acceptance of, simple errors in legal writing. In 2022, spell check is not hard to use. Mistakes in legal writing are like a near miss in aviation. Even though passengers ultimately make it to their destination without injury, the journey might have been harrowing for them. Similarly, a judge may grant a poorly written motion, but at what cost to the reader and the writer’s reputation? Lawyers are known for their incredible attention to detail. Still, grammatical mistakes in legal writing can cause the reader to believe that the analysis and reasoning of the author are unsound, even though they might not be.

There is almost always room for improvement in legal writing. Most lawyers can learn to improve their legal writing through patience and practice. Also, if legal writers are diligent in correcting their grammatical errors, they will eventually require less time for editing as their writing skills evolve. Good legal writing can be powerful. The time an attorney spends editing often translates to real-world positive results. Just ask Jim.