First-year legal writing mistakes & how to avoid them

Student LawyerIn undergrad, you were a term paper pro. You could crank out thought-provoking three- to five-page term papers replete with resplendent prose and droll, pithy observations, impressing your professors by transforming minutiae into master­pieces. You razzle-dazzled them with all your word bling.

In law school, no one is impressed by your word bling. Less is more, especially when it gets right down to business. Legal writers are rewarded for conciseness, precision, sophisticated analysis, and ef­fective communication.

Hot tips for new (and not so new) legal writers in my recent article, First-year legal writing mistakes & how to avoid them, in the January 2016 edition of the ABA Student Lawyer. New legal writers often carry college writing tactics with them to law school like inflating ideas, using fancy words (word bling!), and “more is more.” This idea inflation conflates with students wanting to “sound like a lawyer,” cranking out papers loaded with legalese and quotations.

My article suggests a few easy fixes: cut to the chase, use your words, and lead your reader. Read all about it here.

Reflective Practice in Legal Education: “Debriefing” Our Work

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

So begins Tim Casey’s recent article, Reflective Practice in Legal Education: The Stages of Reflection, published in the Clinical Law Review. I recently had the pleasure of witnessing Casey’s presentation on Reflecting Practice in Legal Education at the Legal Writing Institute’s One Day Workshop at California Western School of Law, where Casey is a Professor in Residence and the Director of STEPPS Program.

In his article, Casey notes that while the ABA accreditation standards require externship programs to include reflective practice, few legal educators have studied the process of reflection, developed models for reflective practice, or know how to teach reflective practice. Casey’s article excellently defines reflective practice, then thoroughly outlines the stages of reflective practice using concepts from cognitive psychology and education theory.

In his presentation at Cal Western, Casey discussed moving law students from thinking about the “self,” concretely, and dualistically to thinking more universally/globally, abstractly, and contextually.

Reflection is extremely valuable for learning. Many legal educators are including reflecting practice in their classrooms. Yet, law students often balk at the concept of “reflecting,” unsure of the value of engaging in an ambiguous, “touchy-feely” exercise.

Let’s reframe the activity: Doctors have post-mortem reviews where they examine what worked and what didn’t and what can be learned from the experience. Lawyers  should “debrief” their work. Debriefing is less emotionally charged than “reflecting,” more analytical, more lawyerly.

Grammar Revolution: A Documentary

Yes, you read the title correctly – a movie about grammar. Grammar Revolution features an all star cast including: Steven Pinker, author of Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Mignon Fogarty, “the” Grammar Girl, and Bryan Garner, author of many legal writing texts including A Dictionary of American Usage. The film is available by download or by purchasing a DVD, both available at http://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/products.html.

Measuring Law Student Learning Outcomes Using Pre and Post Testing

I recently wrote about the counter-intuitive value of pre-testing, giving a test of material not yet learned, in order to prime the brain for learning to come and establish expectations for learning objectives.

I have since stumbled across an article published early this year by David J. Herring and Collin Lynch entitled Measuring Law Student Learning Outcomes: 2013 Lawyering Class. Herring and Lynch discuss the ABA’s potential shift from input measures to output measures for legal education, increasing the focus on establishing learning outcomes as well as ongoing evaluation of the attainment of established outcomes.

Herring and Lynch used a pre- and post-test design for comparison within one particular subject, focusing on measuring the core skill of legal reading and cross-case reasoning. The researchers found that in contrast to traditional law teaching alone, pre-test followed by supplemental instructional interventions, produced significant learning gains. For more about the study and results, see Measuring Law Student Learning Outcomes: 2013 Lawyering Class.

 

Shortcut: Harnessing the Power of the Analogical Instinct

Analogies are not just used by legal writers. According to a recent post on Fast Company, The Creative Life by David Zax, the most creative problem solvers in many industries draw from diverse sources of information to harness the usefulness of analogies. Zax interviewed John Pollack, former Bill Clinton speechwriter and author of new book Shortcut. According to Pollack, the “analogical instinct” – the ability to see how things are like other things is at the root of innovation.

Analogies work because they make the unfamiliar familiar; they help the mind navigate new terrain by making it resemble terrain we already know…. An analogy is a comparison that suggests parallels between two different things, explicitly or implicitly.

Developing analogies requires seeing past superficial differences separating things and looking beyond the surface – not at the actual thing itself, but at what it represents. Good legal writers explore analogies to find connections between ideas. With these connections, good legal writers show (or create) familiarity with unfamiliar concepts and can harness the power of the analogical instinct. Pollack’s book, Shortcut, How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, should be on every good legal writer’s “must read” list.