Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Prepositions, ending with

  1. When I consulted Black's Law Dictionary, I could not find the word for which I was looking.
  2. The contract required Williamson to pay $3000, but it did not say to whom he should make the payment.
  3. If you represent health-care providers, section 282 contains key regulations of which you should be aware.

Your writing would sound more natural and would be more crisp and vigorous if you would write these instead:
  1. When I consulted Black's Law Dictionary, I could not find the word I was looking for.
  2. The contract required Williamson to pay $3000, but it did not say who he should make the payment to.
  3. If you represent health-care providers, Section 282 contains key regulations you should be aware of.
But even if you choose to avoid ending sentences with prepositions, do not impose that mythical rule on others.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Legal-writing seminars: random thoughts

What is it like to teach legal-writing seminars to lawyers?

  • Some will be insecure about writing and will be hanging on every word.
  • Some will be overconfident about writing and will be dismissive of your presentation.
  • Some will be doing something else instead of listening.
  • Inevitably, someone in the audience will want you to explain the difference between “that” and “which.”

Despite all this, legal writing is a dry subject, so you have to make it entertaining. It's hard.

Austin Lawyer magazine: Improving your writing

Improving your writing
By Wayne Schiess (Originally appeared in Austin Lawyer, June 2007)

You know you shouldn't stop working on your writing just because you're out of law school. Legal writing is like any skill or any substantive topic: there is always more to learn and there is always room for improvement. But you're busy. Do you have time to work on your writing?

I say you do, and here are two suggestions: You can improve with modest efforts at study and practice.

Study
You must study the principles of good writing, and you must keep studying consistently. But how, when you're busy?

Set a goal to read one book on writing every year. One per year. You can do that, right? There are a lot of good books on legal writing out there, but here are three I like:
  • Kimble, Lifting the Fog of Legalese
  • Stark, Writing to Win: The Legal Writer
  • Goldstein & Lieberman, The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well
Then get a writing guide and keep it by your computer. Garner's The Redbook is the best guide for legal writing, but you might also use the Chicago Manual of Style or another general writing guide. The idea is to have a handy reference to answer questions: Do I need to capitalize this word? How do I use the dash? Am I using this word correctly? And so on. Plus you inevitably increase your overall writing IQ whenever you serendipitously stumble upon an interesting entry.

Now put some legal writing into your CLE. Okay, so maybe you're a strong writer and maybe the course is nothing but review for you. Still, how can that hurt? We all need refreshers, and there's a good chance you'll learn something new, something that will make you a better writer.

Practice
You're reading, you're consulting references, and you're taking some legal-writing CLE. You're becoming an informed critic of legal writing. Now practice what you are learning.

Train yourself to be a ruthless editor of your own work. Although you may not have time for this on every project, on at least some projects, make time for a thorough and careful editing and revising process. See how good you can make it. You'll learn a lot from that.

Experiment with things you are learning. Try new techniques; develop mastery of new approaches to writing.

Now here's the hardest part: Seek and welcome critiques and candid suggestions for improving your writing. It's tough, though, because it's natural to be defensive and protective of your writing. I know I am. But when I avoid critiques, I don't improve as much. So be open to critiques. And try get the critiques from someone knowledgeable-someone who has read the sources on good writing.

Good luck.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Status: writing gets no respect

From a student paper in my advanced legal-writing class. This will sound familiar to legal-writing teachers:
“Rhetoric and Writing” is a division within the English department. But a rhetoric course doesn't count toward an English degree any more than, say, a history course. The rhetoric division's offices are located in the basement of the building, but the offices for the English department proper are on the first floor. The course descriptions for rhetoric are also located in the basement, but the English course descriptions are posted on the first floor. (The latter area sees a great deal of foot traffic, but hardly anyone goes into the basement.)

In theory, all freshmen have to take an introductory rhetoric course, but about a third of students get out of it through a high SAT II or AP score. Of two upper-division rhetoric courses I tried to take, one had to be canceled due to low enrollment, and another had to be downgraded to a lower-division course for the same reason. And the English courses themselves focus almost exclusively on how to analyze texts; almost no class time is spent on how to frame that analysis persuasively. Commentary on my papers was limited to either the substance of my argument or microscopic issues like punctuation and word usage, but hardly any mid- or high-level structural concerns.
I knew this kind of thing was true because my mom taught English composition at a university for many years. But here it is again, in black and white.

Humor: italics for emphasis

A funny piece about italics from The Onion.

Issue statements: one reason old styles survive

A commenter writes:
I recently taught a second-semester legal writing class. My students had taken first semester from seven different (full-time, tenure-track) young profs. All seven had required rigid adherence to "whether" statements. The students were aghast and sure I was wrong when I told them never to do it in my class.
As a person who cares deeply about legal writing--and admitting that I am prone to overreact about minute matters--I must say that this is sad. Very sad.

These young professors are surely some of the brightest young legal minds entering legal academia, and yet they are hidebound by archaic traditions.

Issue statements: what to teach law students

An experienced legal-writing teacher says:
I teach my law students three formats for issues. I teach the "whether" format and the deep-issues format, plus the "under-does-when" format.

I much prefer the deep-issues format, but I don't know where my students are going, and I want them to be knowledgeable about and competent in all three formats. Some courts and some law firms may require that each issue be written in a single sentence. Some lawyers may believe that a single-sentence format is required because that is all they ever see.
This approach is wise. I would like to do it, too, but my course is short and limited in scope, so I don't think I can afford the time for all three approaches.