Are the legal writing classes you had in law school the last writing training you’ll need for your career?
If you practice bankruptcy law, was a law-school course the last bankruptcy training you’ll need? I know the answer to that because I was a bankruptcy lawyer before I became a legal writing teacher. The answer is no. You’ll need to stay current on bankruptcy law; you’ll need to read the recent cases and keep up with changes in the Bankruptcy Code; you’ll need to keep your knowledge and skills sharp.
The same holds true for legal writing.
Don’t rest on the plateau you reached in law school. Legal writing is like any skill or any substantive topic: there’s always more to learn, and there’s always room for improvement.
But you’re busy. Do you have time to work on your writing? I say you do, and I propose three steps for improving your writing throughout your career: you should study, practice, and accept critique.
Study. You must study the principles of good writing, and of good legal 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 lots of good books on legal writing out there, but here are three I like:
• Lifting the Fog of Legalese by Joseph Kimble
• The Lawyer’s Guide to Writing Well by Tom Goldstein & Jethro K. Lieberman
• Legal Writing: Sense and Nonsense by David Mellinkoff
Then get a style manual and keep it by your computer. You can use a comprehensive one intended for writing generally, like The Chicago Manual of Style, or one intended specifically for legal writing, like The Redbook by Bryan A. Garner or Just Writing by Anne Enquist and Laurel Currie Oates. If money’s tight, try the Texas Law Review Manual on Usage & Style. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s cheap and good.
The idea is to have a reliable reference handy to answer questions: Do I need to capitalize this word? How do I use the dash? Am I using this word correctly? Plus, you inevitably increase your writing IQ whenever you serendipitously stumble upon an interesting entry. You’re getting off your plateau.
Now put some legal writing into your CLE. 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 about writing, you’re consulting writing references, and you’re taking some legal writing CLE. You’re becoming an informed legal writer. Now practice what you’re learning.
Of course, for any working lawyer, writing practice is part of the job: you’re writing all the time. Yet we all tend to rest on plateaus—we write in the same way we always have, with the same habits and the same mistakes. That’s why studying writing is so important. Practice without study is usually just repetition. So experiment with things you’re learning. Try new techniques. Master new approaches to writing.
With study and practice, you’ll become a better editor of your own work. And we all know that bad writing becomes good writing only through editing. Most of us (and don’t assume you’re the exception) can’t produce high-quality legal writing in one draft (or two).
Accept critique. Now here’s the hardest part: Seek and welcome critiques and candid suggestions for improving your writing. This one’s tough because it’s natural to be defensive about your writing—maybe even insecure. I know I am. But when I avoid critiques, I don’t improve much. I rest on a plateau.
So open yourself up to honest critique. Find a trusted colleague, friend, or supervisor, someone whose judgment and writing you respect. Then ask for suggestions, and take them to heart.
For more on this topic, I recommend Kathleen Elliott Vinson, Improving Legal Writing: A Life-Long Learning Process and Continuing Professional Challenge, 21 Touro L. Rev. 507 (2005).
Wayne Schiess is the director of Legal Writing at The University of Texas School of Law in Austin, Texas. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Garner on Language and Writing. 2009. PC # 1610057.
Lawyer Writing Package (3 Books). 2009. PC # 1620414P. ABA Book Publishing.Available at ShopABA.org!