Are You Going to Law School Because You’re a Good Writer?

Are You Going to Law School Because You're a Good Writer?This week we welcome back Law School Toolbox Tutor Whitney Weatherly to discuss how writing in law school can be very different from writing you’ve done before (and how to best learn how to write for legal practice).

I can’t even pick out one specific memory of this conversation, because I had it so many times with so many people. Here’s the rough transcript:

Me: So, why did you decide to go to law school?

Law Student: Well, all of my professors at [university] said that I was such a good writer that I should go to law school. So here I am!

Me: Right. OK…so how’s that working out for you?

Okay, so maybe that last reply was (usually) internal. When I first started law school, I certainly didn’t realize what was expected of me from a writing perspective. Like most of my fellow classmates, I usually did well on writing assignments in undergrad, but I’d had the benefit of working for an attorney before law school. Just the fact of working for her helped me shift my mode of writing from “creative” to “professional”, but she also gave me some tips along the way that made me more open to input once I got to my legal writing class. If you’re going into law school with the confidence of a good writer, consider this your wake-up call.

That Essay Structure You’re So Fond of? Toss It

We talk about writing for law school essay exams. But a lot of my students think that they’re supposed to fit that into the standard essay format that their English teachers have been highlighting for years. Rather than replacing their full introductory paragraph with a brief statement for each issue, they do a summary of the issues to be identified, the facts to be used, and the arguments to be made. And then they go on to identify the issues, use the facts, and make the arguments. Those arguments might be good, but what did that introductory paragraph get them? Crunched for time. Most law school exams require extremely careful time management. Even with that, professors often pack their fact patterns so full of issues that they don’t even expect you to spot them all. Wasting time on an introductory paragraph that doesn’t earn you any points is just going to stress you out.

I’ll acknowledge that there are certain legal writing assignments that require fact summaries and other types of introductions. If your professor is assigning you something like that, he or she will almost definitely provide you with drafting guidelines. Stick to those guidelines if you get them. Chances are very slim that they’ll look anything like the paper that earned you an A+ in your Honors English class.

Your Thesaurus Can Join the Essay Structure

Throw away my thesaurus?! But we’re supposed to vary our words! Using the same words repeatedly gets boring! How will we exist without interesting writing?!

Here’s the thing. In undergrad, and even some graduate programs, mastering the language required an extensive vocabulary and beautifully phrased ideas. Legal writing requires a different type of mastery. It requires precision of language. Many of my students get the organization down, but can’t quite manage to give up their thesaurus. The problem is that when they change their wording, they lose precision and consistency. If you’re drafting a contract or a legal brief, you want to make sure that you’re achieving a certain result, not keeping your audience intrigued. So use the words that mean exactly what you want to say. And if you’re talking about a Plaintiff and Defendant at the beginning, don’t suddenly shift into talking about “Alice” and “Bob”. And then back again. And what are we talking about? Changing terms just makes things hard for your reader to follow.

Concise is Key

Speaking of making things easy for your reader to follow, you need to scrap the long, involved sentences too. I’ve had a lot of students who can’t get past that English teacher who was telling them to stop making their sentences so short and choppy. Add a few clauses! Nope. Not going to help you here. You want your writing to be as clear as possible – it doesn’t have to be pretty! If your sentence is so long that you forget the beginning by the time you get to the end of it, your reader isn’t going to know what you’re talking about. And if that reader is your professor who has at least 20 more exams to grade, well, they’re just not going to try. So cut the extra words, and work on being concise. No complex legal jargon, no run-on sentences, and never use seven words when only three would suffice (“the book that belongs to the man” vs. “the man’s book.” Richard Wydick wrote a great book that a lot of law schools use in their legal writing classes called Plain English for Lawyers. The book includes exercises that walk you through exactly how you can minimize words while still making a clear legal argument.

The most important thing to do, however, is to go into law school with an open mind about your writing. If you’ve been told all your life that you’re a good writer, that’s wonderful! But don’t assume that the writing you’ve done in the past is going to get you through law school. Give yourself the time, the space, and the information that will let you learn and grow into writing like a lawyer.

Wondering whether your writing is up to scratch? Check out our Start Law School Right course and get some advance feedback on how to improve your writing before law school even starts!


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About Whitney Weatherly

Whitney started her post-graduate education at the University of Mary Washington, earning a Master’s in Education. She soon decided to change course, and went to the College of William & Mary School of Law. At William & Mary, she was an Articles Editor for the Journal of Women and the Law and a Teaching Assistant for the Legal Skills program. Through the Legal Skills program, she was able to provide mentorship for first and second year law students, as well as instruction in legal writing and client contact. In 2010, she graduated Order of the Coif and was admitted to the bar in Maryland. She is a tutor for the Start Law School Right program, where she combines her legal and educational background to help others grasp fundamental legal concepts. Whitney is also a tutor for the Law School Toolbox and the Bar Exam Toolbox.

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