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Don’t believe the rumors about legal writing

Legal Writing


If you’re a first year student, chances are you’ve already heard rumors about Legal Writing. Every year, news spreads among entering students that the first-year legal writing course is something to be survived, a necessary but dreaded part of your required curriculum. Like many items that serve as grist for the first-year rumor mill, however, the rumors about legal writing are untrue. Rather than being a course to merely survive, your legal writing course is the most important course you’ll take during your first year of law school. Here are the top three reasons you should ignore the naysayers and embrace your writing course from day one:

1. Lawyers are professional writers.

The media depicts lawyers as oral advocates who spend their days conversing with clients or making arguments before judges. Those moments of oratory brilliance shown on television are, however, misleading. Oral advocacy comprises only a tiny portion of a lawyer’s everyday life. The remaining 99 percent of the time, lawyers are drafting emails, memos, contracts, and briefs. If lawyers are paid for their time, and lawyers’ time is spent writing, being a lawyer means being a professional writer. This is particularly true for lawyers in their first few years of practice, most of whom will spend nearly 100 percent of the time writing. Your legal writing course is, therefore, designed to prepare you to perform the activity you’ll be doing all day, every day when you enter practice.

Lawyers are no different, except that their “editors” are other lawyers.

2. Legal writing is different.

You were probably a great writer before law school. You could crank out an amazing essay or term paper, often in a matter of hours. The good news: All that writing helped you earn admission to law school. The bad news: Lawyers don’t exchange essays or term papers. Instead, lawyers communicate with one another in a specialized way, using reasoning structures, terminology, and document formats about which they began learning in law school. Importantly, lawyers expect that other lawyers know about and understand these reasoning structures, terminology, and document formats. You wouldn’t show up for your first day on the job as a computer programmer without knowing the language and format of coding; similarly, you shouldn’t show up for your first day as a lawyer without knowing the language and format of lawyering. Your legal writing course was created with the express purpose of teaching you the language and format of lawyering. It’s never easy to learn a new language. But the sooner you realize that the old forms of writing you used before law school aren’t preferred by your new lawyer colleagues, the sooner you can begin to master their language and assimilate among them.

3. Your legal writing professor is merely your first editor.

Every professional writer has at least one person who reads and edits her work before it reaches the intended audience. For example, newspaper columnists and novelists have an editor and a copy editor. Lawyers are no different, except that their “editors” are other lawyers. Your legal writing professor is merely the first of many lawyer-editors you’ll have in your legal career. You may feel discouraged when you receive your first markup in your legal writing class. Every one of your classmates received a similar markup; every paper can be improved. Further, you may not agree with every comment your professor makes. You’ll disagree with some of your future lawyer-editors’ comments, too. For now, trust your professor’s expertise, and do your best to figure out his or her preferences.

Tailoring your writing to suit the preferences of the lawyer for whom you’re writing is a skill as important as knowing how to make subject and verb agree. By doing this before the end of your first year, you’ll not only be analyzing legal problems and writing about them using the language of lawyering before you take your first legal job, you’ll also have begun adapting your writing to different readers and audiences. What better way to spend your time as a first-year law student than in your legal writing course learning these real-life, practice-ready skills?

WINDSOR ADAMS is an instructor in the lawyering foundations program at Georgia State University College of Law in Atlanta.

Vol 45, No. 1

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.