Ok, first does anyone even get that Napoleon Dynamite reference? Well, if not please go watch it soon so you can find my little subject line funny…
Anyway, my point today is how to strengthen your writing skills because it’s true–clients want it and being a strong writer makes you an even better lawyer. This post is aimed at anyone who wants to get better, but I’m particularly thinking of my rising 2Ls, who likely took a beating this last academic year and may feel like they’re not as good as they once thought. First, don’t worry! Yes, legal writing is different and can be difficult, but it can be learned. I know many of us go into law school with strong writing skills only to learn that the way we’ve been writing is completely useless in the legal field and not only that, we’re actually bad at it. It’s a kick in the throat. I remember, I struggled mightily my 1L writing course–I just did not get it and didn’t understand why I was doing so poorly when I had always done so well in my papers in college.
So yes, learning this skill is part of the law school hazing process–we all experience it. But as a student of color, the impact is different. We already start at a deficit. Studies show that we’re marked harsher for errors, our potential is down-graded, and overall it can add to the gnawing feeling that this isn’t for you.But rather than letting negative feelings and doubt take over, what if I told you that there are actually simple steps you can take–this summer even–to make yourself a stronger writer? I promise it’s possible. And yes, it means doing a little more, being a little extra, but you should be used to having to do that extra step to shine. Don’t let your writing skills be any different.
One. Check your grammar. Yes, policing grammar is silly and unhelpful (confession, I used to judge people about it, but finally learned to stop). I don’t mean you should work on grammar to lord it over others. Instead, having a better grip on the rules of grammar will make you a stronger writer. My 2L summer I purchased a very basic grammar book (like middle school level ya’ll). I wanted something simple I could pull from whenever I had tricky questions. It was also a quick read so I could easily remember the content (I wasn’t trying to read some nerd’s dissertation on the semi-colon, ok?). I recommend that you have some quick reference book you can also use to make sure your grammar is on point for each paper you submit. Knowing the rules, allowed me to craft sentence structures that were more complex that resulted in stronger arguments.
Two. Be active, not passive. STOP using passive voice. I think in every single paper I wrote my 2L year, my professor would comment about passive voice. And I did.not.get.it. It took me forever to break this habit and I only did when I started working more closely with survivors of domestic violence. When I would write their statements in passive voice, it made them bigger victims and put no responsibility on the abuser. Imagine reading an order of protection petition that says “She was slapped by him.” versus “He slapped her with his open hand.” The imagery, the onus on the actor, all of that matters in the law. Learn which voice you should use and when, but default to active as much as possible. How can you work on this? With a little trick I like to call ctrl + F. Find the word “was” in your paper and then change it to active voice. Eventually, you’ll catch yourself writing it and can fix it as you go, and then it will become second-nature to use active voice.
Three. Be concise. A skill that you need to learn is what fact matters and which one doesn’t. It’s easy to overwhelm the reader with every little thing that occurred, but you need to train yourself to be as concise as possible. Keep it short, keep it relevant. This means you have to edit. You have to become comfortable taking out statements that you think sound great if they aren’t doing much to advance your case. How do you do that? By understanding what you’re trying to prove. Whatever you’re arguing has elements that must be proven (or disproven). Focus on the elements and be concise when offering up evidence for each piece.
Four. Be Formal, but not Archaic. Every writing professor will tell you to not use legalese. Which, yah, legalese is not good writing at all. But what they really mean is that they don’t want archaic, confusing, or overly flowery language. That does not make you a stronger writer. But often in our pursuit to not sound like the 1800s, we get to comfy and write as if we’re just talking to friends. In that case, you’ve gone too far over in the spectrum and need to come back. Your writing should always be formal. Anything going to adjudicators, bosses, or clients, should be formal. This means no contractions, using stronger vocabulary when possible (avoiding general phrases like “get” and “very”). Most importantly, use phrases that most readers would understand–don’t say “nunc pro tunc” when “retroactive” works just as fine; better, actually, because it allows all readers to understand what you mean.
And that really is your main goal as you write–that you master how to breakdown complex legal topics into a way that the general public understands. Imagine that one day your brief will go to a judge, a client, a reporter, and potential employer at the same time–your skills need to be strong enough that all those readers understand what you’re arguing without needing clarification while feeling as though you are respectful of the gravity of the situation. Your tone, grammar, and formality will play a major part in whether or not they understand what you’re trying to convey. As I said, all of this is a trained skill. You can improve and become a great writer. The more you practice, the easier it’ll be. And I promise, if you do the work with intention you will finally start to feel like this major part of being an attorney is actually for you (because it is).