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Category: Legal Writing



The Case for Streamlining Citations

November 01, 2014

A pressing issue in legal writing: We must—absolutely must—develop a short-form method for citing cases, even in a first reference to a case. Given where things stood 20 years ago—when virtually all legal writers stuffed their cumbersome citations mid-text and often mid-sentence—I’m delighted by how many courts have taken to

Why, As a Legal Writer, You Must Research in Two Realms

September 01, 2014

Back in 1985, when I was deciding which law firm I wanted to join as an associate, a pivotal factor for me was that only one of them owned a full run of the Federal Supplement, or F. Supp. The firm was Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal in Dallas. The

Eliminate Zombie Nouns and Minimize Passive Voice

May 01, 2014

One thing you’re certain to be doing in a law-related job is writing. So take every word you write seriously. You’ll be judged by your words. At the sentence level, two perils can spoil your writing: zombie nouns and passive voice. You need to be thoroughly familiar with them, or else

Taming Legal Information Overload

April 01, 2014

It happens every year. A student sits in my office and asks for a life jacket—figuratively, of course. They’re drowning in legal information. It’s a common problem. Legal researchers today deal with a rising sea of legal information. In 2012, for example, the US Courts of Appeals and District Courts published

Growing Up Linguistically

March 01, 2014

A senior lawyer encounters a junior colleague in the law library and asks how the morning’s hearing came out. “The judge came down hard on us. He was like, ‘The doctrine of primary jurisdiction applies only in administrative-law cases.’ And I was like, ‘No, Your Honor, it can have broader

Local Ordinances: The Often Overlooked Laws

February 01, 2014

Quarterbacks. Wide receivers. Running backs. They get all the hype. Offensive linemen? Not so much. And, while it defies logic that such enormous men could be overlooked, they may very well be invisible to the casual football fan. Like an offensive line, local government law is often overlooked. Federal and state

From Rough-Hewn to Refined

January 01, 2014

What’s your biggest challenge as a writer? It’s figuring out, from the mass of things you might possibly mention, precisely what your points are—and then stating them cogently, and with adequate support. Although this advice might seem obvious, legal writers constantly overlook it. The result is a diffuse, aimless style. And

Smart Researchers Save Time by Starting with Legal Treatises

December 01, 2013

“I will not reinvent the wheel.” Say it a few times. Memorize it. Make it your legal research mantra. There’s simply no need to do work that’s already been done. You already have enough to do. In most cases, what you’ll be asked to research isn’t totally new. Someone has

How’s Your Command of Grammar?

November 01, 2013

In the writing seminars I teach for practicing lawyers, I frequently ask how many don’t know what the passive voice is. In a group of 100 or so, typically one or two will fess up. At least 98 percent will claim to know what passive voice is. Then I’ll give

Restatements: An Influential Secondary Source

October 01, 2013

Nobel laureate Niels Bohr once remarked, “It is difficult to predict, especially the future.” Such was the case with Proposition 8 and the Restatement of Agency at the end of the Supreme Court’s latest term. Few likely foresaw that a Restatement would feature prominently in the back and forth between

Your Verbal, Mental, and Material Wealth

September 01, 2013

With that thought in mind, let’s take some words of general interest and see how well you know them. I’ve selected some terms that O’Connor used in testing audiences, favoring ones that might be of some use to lawyers. Each of the terms listed was known to no more than

Do Law Students Become Worse Writers?

May 01, 2013

We’ll stipulate to a loss of writing confidence among many law students. But let’s investigate whether this self-perception of deteriorating skills is an accurate one. Once praised for their writing, some law students find that commendation has turned into condemnation. They wonder what’s happened. Are they now engaged in a fundamentally

The Importance of Legal Research

April 01, 2013

I doubt Steven Spielberg thought anyone watching Lincoln would think about legal research, but that’s what happened to me. In one pivotal scene, Lincoln and his Cabinet gather to discuss the proposed amendment abolishing slavery. Various Cabinet members are opposed to supporting an amendment they see as unlikely to pass

Transactional Law Research

February 01, 2013

A focus on litigation in TV and movies is unsurprising in that the courtroom provides a stage for drama. What is surprising is that law schools, the training ground for real lawyers, have traditionally shared a similar focus on litigation. This is problematic because many law students will become transactional

Speak of the Dictionary

February 01, 2013

First, as I was lecturing with Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday, January 5, he paused to admonish the professional audience to read the “front matter” of their dictionaries. He pointed out that in a judicial opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer mistakenly suggested that the first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary

Becoming a Cost-effective Researcher

December 01, 2012

Unfortunately, however, it’s easy to get through law school with little understanding of the real-world costs of legal research. As a law student, Westlaw and Lexis are virtually handed to you on a silver platter. Your library pays for access, so you never see a bill. Not only that, but

The Bad Writing in Casebooks

October 01, 2012

If you entered law school with a literature or journalism background, the reading can be especially torturous to your sense of style. If you’re inattentive, tone-deaf, or just impervious to bad grammar and clunky style, you may be fortunate enough to miss all the linguistic vandalism taking place before your

Litigation Practice Materials

October 01, 2012

Law students and young lawyers often have little experience in creating the actual documents upon which a court case is founded. Whether it’s a subpoena duces tecum, a motion for summary judgment, or a complaint—the very foundational document on which a civil lawsuit is based—law students don’t get much hands-on

Interview Answers That Torpedo Your Chances

May 01, 2012

“It’s not what you said,” as your parents warned you. “It’s the way you said it.” We learn at an early age that our manner of speech—not just its substance—can be objectionable. When it comes to job interviews, it can be fatal. The point can be subtler than you might think.

Lexis Advance

April 01, 2012

While LEXIS spearheaded the change in legal research, it too has changed over the years. It eventually abandoned the capitalized “LEXIS” and became LexisNexis. Various versions have come and gone until today it has arrived at its newest iteration, Lexis Advance, which attempts to move the legal research system into

Tuning Your Language

April 01, 2012

Until well into the 20th century, there were traditionally thought to be only three professions: medicine, the ministry, and the law. Strange, isn’t it, to think that teachers, executives, accountants, scientists, and engineers were not considered professionals? That’s the old‑school view: only doctors, the clergy, and lawyers belonged to what

Becoming a Better Online Researcher

February 01, 2012

Pavlov’s dogs are famous for salivating at the sound of a bell. As you might remember, the reason wasn’t that the bell looked particularly appetizing, but that the dogs became accustomed to being fed when the bell rang. Eventually, the sound of the bell, even without the food, triggered a

The Top Dozen Grammatical Gaffes in the 2010-2011 Law-Review Season

February 01, 2012

“A lawyer,” wrote the great advocate Frederick Bernays Wiener, “is a professional in whom bad English should not be tolerated.” And where, you might wonder, are you least likely to encounter bad English? Perhaps in law reviews—which are so heavily edited by battalions of our best law students serving as

Annoying the Judge: Recent Examples of What Not to Do in Federal Court

January 01, 2012

Most judges are reasonable people, trying to do their jobs and solve the problems that come up in their courtrooms. But sometimes judges get pushed to the limit by attorney behavior that reflects a lack of attention to professionalism. Some interesting orders and opinions result. For instance, in a recent, much

Getting to Know Administrative Decisions

December 01, 2011

G.I. Joe was a favorite cartoon of mine growing up. I don't remember much about it now, but I do remember that each episode ended with a public service announcement of sorts. Here's how it went every time: Kid is about to do something dangerous (electrocute himself, hide in a