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How to ace legal writing

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Legal Writing Success
Don’t let reaching for an A get in the way of mastering the writing skills you need to be a good lawyer.

As the new academic year gets underway, you may be among the 1L students who are quickly adapting to the long reading assignments and the late nights of case work. You may also be adjusting to your first legal writing course, where you’re expected to learn to research and write like a lawyer all in one semester. It’s daunting.

If you’re freaking out even a little, don’t worry, 1L, you’re not alone.

Drum roll, please! Introducing your guide to acing your first-year legal writing course! (And for those of you who snoozed through your first-year legal writing course, here’s a brief refresher.)

Take this seriously

Legal research, writing, and analysis usually consists of conducting a lot of research on a legal issue, writing a brief or a memo, and arguing your case to “judges,” who are usually your course professors. Some lawyers consider it to be one of the most important classes law students take in their entire law school experience because it teaches a glimpse of practical experience rather than textbook knowledge. If the people hiring new lawyers think it’s important, you need to take it seriously.

“I write every day in my practice,” said Dylan O. Drummond, counsel at Gray Reed in Dallas. “As an appellate lawyer, 90 percent of my job description is legal writing.”

This isn’t true only for appellate lawyers. All lawyers do some form of
legal writing 90 percent of the time.

“Most times I’m preparing a brief to an appellate court,” explained Drummond. “Other times, my legal writing may be consumed by dispositive trial court briefings or even correspondence to courts or opposing counsel. Learning to be precise, clear, credible, and easy to read in my legal writing is crucial, no matter who the audience may be.”

Prepare for a learning curve

If you’re used to acing courses, don’t assume you’ll do the same in legal writing. That’s OK. Being able to see what you’ve gained from the class—crucial abilities used in everyday practice—can help relieve some of the fear you might have that receiving a poor grade could translate into you being a bad lawyer.

“In my opinion, the grades you’re awarded in a legal-writing course— while no doubt important for postgraduation employment—have little bearing on what kind of legal writer you’ll actually turn out to be,” said Drummond.

Legal writing was one of Drummond’s most challenging classes, he said, because of the learning curve.

He quickly learned that his undergraduate science writing was much different from the writing style required in the legal world.

“I don’t even remember the grade I got in my legal writing course,” he admitted. “The mantra for writing in scientific journals was to not add in any fluff or filler but instead to just impart the relevant data. Needless to say, that approach was the polar opposite of what’s required to be a successful legal writer, where fulsome exploration of balancing tests and gray areas is required.”

Also remember that you’ll need to be flexible in your writing style throughout your career.” Your legal research and writing instructor will be just the first of many mentors and colleagues from whom you’ll learn to write well,” noted Drummond. “Just because your instructor has a preference for a particular way of doing something, it doesn’t mean that every judge you eventually brief before will agree.”

While some of his most crucial experience came from outside the classroom clerking for an appellate judge, Drummond said you can learn how to write well while preparing for other classes. Read cases assigned for other classes closely for writing styles and the organization of the arguments.

“The only way to improve your legal writing is by reading the prose of good legal writers and practicing and honing your craft by writing as much as you can,” he said.

Beverly Caro Duréus, a clinical professor of legal research, writing, and advocacy at SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas, gives students their first lesson in legal writing every year. She tells her students to have faith in their capabilities and to remember that law schools choose students based on a potential to learn how to write in the legal profession.

“While law school, and legal writing in particular, will take a lot of hard work, many who’ve gone before you have been successful,” she said.

Take every opportunity

Even though you’ll learn the specific mechanics of legal writing, Duréus suggested conducting a refresher on basic grammar rules and writing skills that should already be in your writing toolbox. “Brush up on general writing skills, such as using proper paragraph structures and constructing a good topic sentence,” she advised.

Duréus said there’s not just one how-to guide for getting an A in legal writing, but being engaged in every step of the writing and research process and using every resource available is a good way to get there. “Don’t fall behind,” she advised.

“Learn to use your professor’s teaching assistant, if there is one, and learn that the art of writing is rewriting. Your first draft should never be your final product.”

Use office hours to allow professors to clarify their comments or suggestions. And review as many writing samples as you can, both good and bad.

“A person who has mastered writing objectively and persuasively in a manner that communicates clearly, concisely, and accurately in a product that’s organized logically and written in a tone appropriate for the intended audience is a successful legal writer,” said Duréus.

See the learning curve now?

Ultimately, Duréus said you need to find your own measure of success in your legal writing course because an A doesn’t necessarily mean you mastered the skills needed to be an effective legal writer in the future.

“If you’ve tried your best, then don’t be disappointed about your grade; focus your energy on how to improve your grade,” said Duréus. “At the end of the day, even a C equals commencement and a D equals diploma. Grades don’t totally define a lawyer. What’s important is being able to pass the bar exam.”

Haley Taylor Schlitz At 19 years old, Haley Taylor Schlitz is in her third year of law school at SMU Dedman School of Law. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Texas Woman’s University College of Professional Education. After law school, she hopes to work on education equity issues in our schools.