Vol. 41 No. 1
Let’s talk about your writing
Part 1: Wherever you are in your law school career, chances are, you’ll do a lot of writing this year. And, chances are, it has been a while since you had any instruction in grammar and proper word use.
As a quick refresher, the blog for the Touro Law Center Career Services Office recently referred readers to a post at litreactor.com called “20 common grammar mistakes that (almost) everyone makes.” Here are just a few of the problem areas, as explained by writer and editor Jon Gingerich:
Continual and continuous. These are not the same. Continual refers to something that’s always occurring, but with some lapses in time. Continuous means that there are no stops or gaps.
Lay and lie. Gingerich calls this “the crown jewel of all grammatical errors.” Briefly, lay requires one or more objects (and is what you do with something you’re setting down), and lie does not require an object (and is what you do when you want to rest). One source of confusion is that layis also the past tense of lie.
Since and because. These are not interchangeable; since refers to time—and should not be used to express that one thing caused another.
Part 2: With some basics out of the way, you’re ready to work on your style. Marie Buckley, a lawyer and writing coach, hopes you’ll keep it simple rather than trying to impress with a lot of fancy stuff.
In a post on her blog called “The three essential rules for writing,” Buckley offers the following pointers, which mostly apply to the type of communicating a lawyer would do (but there’s no harm in practicing now):
Rule One: Use plain English. “Our clients speak a modern language and we should too,” Buckley writes.
Rule Two: Lead from the top. Buckley calls this idea “the single, most effective tool for strong writing and the essential rule for structuring any piece of writing.” If you tell your reader from the very beginning what information is most important, she explains, he or she will follow that information throughout the piece.
Rule Three: Tell your reader what to do next. “Sane people don’t read briefs, contracts and business letters for pleasure,” Buckley says. Instead, she adds, they read these things because they need the information—and they need you to tell them clearly what it is they should do with it.
Tip: Learn to use many different legal research tools
Westlaw? Lexis? Bloomberg Law? Google-type search, or Boolean and keyword search?
You probably have a favorite among the types of online legal research available at your law school. That’s fine, writes law librarian Greg Lambert at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog—but make sure to learn how to use the others, too.
Law students who come to the end of their third year of law school not even having activated their ID on one of the search platforms because they prefer one of the others have “played into the hands of the vendor at the expense of their own experience,” writes Lambert, in a post called “Should law schools teach process or products?”
You never know which platform you’ll be using as a summer associate or once you start your career, Lambert notes—and you should resist the temptation to use your student login for your favorite platform to do free research for the firm. (Besides being shady, this is “a tactical error in [your] understanding how the law firm works, recovers costs, and tracks expenses of the work performed,” he says.)
Indeed, the fact that this type of research has a price tag is a great reason to give all the different products a test drive now, Lambert advises: “Students should take the opportunity to learn a broad array of resources while in school because never again will they have access to so many platforms with no pressure to think about the cost of the product.”