A long-recurring complaint of legal employers is that new lawyers don’t have the level of writing skills they need for legal practice.
Fear not: You may be able to improve your writing skills before you graduate by practicing your writing in conjunction with other legal skills.
Intriguing research results
This topic intrigued me because, as a former law school career services advisor, I was familiar with employers’ criticisms of law student and new lawyer writing. Writing a doctoral dissertation gave me the opportunity to analyze data and determine which aspects of the law school experience may help students see improvement in their writing skills.
To investigate this, I analyzed the responses of more than 3,000 full-time third-year students who took the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, also known as LSSSE or “Lessie,” in Spring 2018.
Each year, LSSSE asks all levels of law students dozens of multiple-choice questions about their involvement in courses and extracurricular activities, demographic information, and interactions with professors and peers. (You may have even completed this survey—many law schools offer students the opportunity to do it at some point during law school.)
I was particularly interested in student responses that predicted higher scores on a question that asked, “To what extent has your experience at your law school contributed to your knowledge, skills, and personal development in the following areas? Writing clearly and effectively.” I’ll call this outcome student self-reported gains in writing skills.
Interestingly, the responses to the survey that most strongly predicted higher student self-reported gains in writing skills were higher student self-reported gains in other skills, including speaking clearly and effectively, thinking critically and analytically, and developing legal research skills.
This means that students who thought they made more gains in their speaking, thinking, or legal research skills during law school were more likely to also think they made more gains in their writing skills.
How this can help you
What exactly does this research mean for you? It means your writing skills aren’t developed in a vacuum; they’re developed alongside other important skills you frequently use during law school—speaking, critical and analytical thinking, and legal research skills. As such, you should practice your writing in conjunction with these other skills.
However, law school is hectic, and there’s simply not much extra time to fit in additional work, even in the interest of developing important skills. But you can work on your writing skills together with these other skills by strategically selecting courses and cocurricular activities.
Smart moves for 1Ls
Your first-year legal writing course is an excellent way to practice all these skills together, so immerse yourself in the experience. In addition to learning how to write like a lawyer, carefully learn and practice the basics of legal research, as well as how to think critically and analytically about that research to create the arguments in your written memos and briefs.
You may also do an oral argument based on your written work as part of this course. Figuring out how to persuasively present your written arguments clearly and orally forces you to think about your written work in a different way; you may find yourself revising your written brief to incorporate new phrasing, explanations, or common questions you get from judges.
If your legal writing class doesn’t require an oral argument, try to participate in an intra-school moot court competition to get a similar experience.
Also, read the sections below for 2L and 3L students to plan your course selection or cocurricular activities— especially if they require such prerequisites as a moot court or mock trial tryout or a law review or journal write-on competition.
Coursework for 2Ls and 3Ls
All law students are required to have an upper-level writing experience during law school, so take advantage of it. Find an advanced writing or seminar course with a paper requirement on a topic of interest to you.
Both types of courses will most likely require you to conduct legal research and use your critical and analytical skills to translate that research into the arguments or points you need to make in your written work.
However, not all these courses will involve an opportunity to present an oral argument or make a presentation on your paper topic; if not, that’s fine.
There may still be opportunities to talk about your writing and the topics your writing covers with your professor over the course of the semester.
While it’s not always possible to practice writing in conjunction with speaking, legal research, and critical and analytical thinking, practicing any combination of these skills with writing may help you see improvement in your writing skills.
Co-curriculars for 2Ls and 3Ls
Participating in a law review or journal, moot court, or mock trial can also be an opportunity to practice writing along with other skills.
Writing a note or comment for a law review or journal involves in-depth legal research and forces you to think about a legal topic in a new or novel way. Talking through your topic, thesis, and arguments with your faculty advisor can help you refine, reconceptualize, or reorganize your writing, which will make it stronger.
Both moot court and mock trial involve brief writing, which requires careful research and analytical thinking to create and support your arguments and anticipate those of the opposing party. Plus, between oral argument practice sessions and the actual arguments during the competition, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice presenting your arguments, answering questions from judges, and rebutting the opposing party. You may find that as you practice, you go back and revise your written work.
Finally, you can also practice writing alongside these other important skills in the context of a legal clinic or for-credit externship. While the type and amount of writing in these experiences can vary significantly, it’s usually done in conjunction with some type of legal or policy research.
After the research is complete, you usually must talk over your findings or proposed course of action with your supervisor and think critically about the next steps. Another aspect of these experiences may be talking with or writing to a client. Translating legal topics into a conversation or letter a client will understand will likely involve quite a bit of thinking and rewriting.
This is just a start
These are just a few of the ways you can work on your writing skills in conjunction with other skills as part of your regular legal studies. You also may discover other ways at your law school. With practice, you’ll likely begin to perceive gains in your writing skills. These gains will serve you well in the future—for example, on the essay sections of your state bar exam as well as in practice, where legal employers place a high value on good writing skills.
A final note: If LSSSE is offered at your law school, consider participating. Not only does the survey provide valuable information to your law school and legal education researchers (like me), answering the questions allows you to reflect on your law school experience and the gains you’ve made in various skills, including writing.
Best of luck, and happy writing!