Category Archives: Teaching Legal Writing

Over-simplified writing advice, 1

Part 1 of 4

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

I recently read some writing advice offered by a capable lawyer with 10 years’ experience. The advice was offered in absolute terms, and I thought it was oversimplified. Here’s the advice with my own take.

“Never use adverbs.”

You can’t follow this advice literally. It’s not possible to write a memo or motion or brief and never use an adverb.[1] Based on the examples the lawyer gave, what the lawyer probably meant was something more like avoid over-using adverbs. But for a sophisticated legal writer, even that advice is too simple. I’d offer something more like don’t overuse intensifiers and qualifiers in legal writing.

I’ve written about intensifiers (clearly, extremely, blatantly):

and a modified version of those three posts appeared in a Michigan Bar Journal article

I’ve also written about using qualifiers (probably, somewhat, typically):

My view is that for high-caliber, sophisticated legal writing, absolute prohibitions aren’t the best advice. Inform yourself about the advice, consider your audience and purpose, and exercise your editorial judgment.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It


[1] In fact, in an example legal document the lawyer displayed for some other point, there were three adverbs in the first four sentences. All three uses were appropriate; I’m just pointing out that it’s not reasonable to advise, “Never use adverbs.”

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—it seems like 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.