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Enhancing your writing skills the key to succes in the legal world
by Nikki LaCrosse
All first-year law students take at least one legal writing class. In some schools, legal writing is grouped with other topics into a legal skills class. While the specifics of how to prepare certain legal documents are important, being able to clearly and concisely present a point or argument in writing is the most vital skill for 1Ls to learn.
However, some lawyers think being able to write well is a foregone conclusion. Okorie Okorocha of the firm California Legal Team in Pasadena, CA, posted on lawyers.com that, "It [writing] is not important because it is not that hard to do once you get the hang of it and in my state at least, if you cannot do it, you are not going to pass the bar exam, so I would think most attorneys can do it."
To others, writing is of paramount importance. Another California attorney wrote, "The level of writing skill necessary to pass the bar exam is phenomenally minimal. In fact, one major bar exam prep company asserts that you can get a 'failing' score on every essay on the bar exam and still pass the exam. Moreover, the writing that you do for the bar exam is a one-shot thing. You are writing under pressure. You don't have time to fine-tune what you're writing, and the graders are looking at the quality of analysis, not the quality of the writing itself. The difference between good legal writing and bad legal writing is staggering. I've won motions I perhaps should have lost solely because my writing was far and away better than that of my opponent."
A practicing tax attorney posted his agreement. "I think good writing skills are extremely important if you want to be a good lawyer. Much of what lawyers do, whether in litigation or in transactional work, is persuasion. A well written document is more likely to be persuasive than a poorly drafted one." Another West Coast counselor emphasized the sheer volume of writing in a legal practice. "For most lawyers, written product amounts to 90-95% of their work. In other words, good writing skills are imperative."
Motivation to write well starts in law school. An attorney who has participated in a law review will be more attractive to firms, so making a law review is a major goal of virtually every law student. For most schools, acceptance to a review is hinges upon grades, year in the program, and writing skills. A handful of institutions, such as the University of Iowa College of Law, base review participation solely on writing ability.
Some law schools are beefing up their legal writing programs. The California Western School of Law in San Diego, CA, recently hired two professors to focus solely on legal writing. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law offers multiple courses on legal writing, most of which are taught by Professor Coleen Miller Barger, who is a well-known authority on legal writing. Barger opens her online faculty profile with a statement on legal writing. "The novelist E.L. Doctorow said, 'Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.' It is much the same with legal writing, whether we are novices or high court judges. The process of writing a legal analysis-whether it takes the shape of a memorandum, a brief, or a law school exam-forces us to confront and revise our thoughts and theories until we can clearly communicate them to others."
Mercer University School of Law (MUSL) in Macon, GA, offers a one of a kind legal writing program that has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the top legal writing program in the U.S. MUSL is also the only law school in the country to offer a Certificate in Advanced Legal Writing, Research, and Drafting.
There are also several organizations focused on legal writing. The Legal Writing Institute was founded in 1988 and strives to have its 1,800 members "encourage a broader understanding of legal writing and the teaching of it." Once a year, the group publishes a peer-edited journal, Legal Writing: The Journal of the Legal Writing Institute. Another organization, the Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD), boasts 200 members and offers annual grants to professors working to establish legal writing programs at their schools. It also publishes the widely used ALWD Citation Manual, which is utilized by more than 90 law schools.
There is plenty of help for the law student who is worried about his/her writing skills. A search on Amazon.com for books on "legal writing" brings up almost 1,700 hits. In addition to coursework, many law schools offer web pages with examples of various legal documents and practice forms for students to use.
For those students who worry that they do not have a gift for writing, Professor Jeannie Lugo, who teaches composition and rhetoric at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, GA, wrote, "Writing is not a gift-although some people are quite gifted with language. It is a skill. It can be learned, and through practice, the learner can become a highly skilled practitioner, turning the skill into an art. As such, it is perhaps the one art accessible to all human beings who have the will and desire." She goes on to add, "I have read US Supreme Court opinions as moving in their beauty and logic as a Jane Austen novel, dissents as uncomfortable to the soul as the world created in a Dickens novel. Even though some legal writing is formulaic-the proper wording for a divorce decree, or a will, or a contract, for example-some of it is as worthy of professional study as MLK Jr's Letter from Birmingham Jail or Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown."
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