by Wayne Schiess
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 paper 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 for legal writing 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 the 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.
Finally, persevere. Legal writing is new, complex, and demanding. It will take your best effort, so stick with it. You can do this.