June 28, 2012 Articles

Young Lawyers: Keys to Successful Writing and Unlocking Your Talent

The best way to improve your writing is to subject it to the crucible of a cold set of eyes.

By Sylvia H. Walbolt

Associates flee in terror when they hear I need help on a brief. They should not do so. As tough as I admittedly am on legal writing, constructive criticism is the best way for young lawyers to improve their legal writing. So welcome tough graders and do not shy from working with them.

That said, you should try to put your best writing foot forward for the hard taskmasters. You should for everyone, of course, but especially for those folks. Then you will do so for everyone as a matter of habit. Here are some suggestions for how to do so, many of which I learned from the painful experience of having my own legal writing torn to shreds by tough graders.

To begin with, the hardest part of writing is putting something on paper in the first place. The New York Times had a hilarious story that makes this point:

One morning at breakfast, when she was in the first or second grade, E.L. Doctorow’s daughter, Caroline, asked her father to write a note explaining her absence from school, due to a cold, the previous day. Doctorow began, “My daughter, Caroline. . . .” He stopped. “Of course she’s my daughter,” he said to himself. “Who else would be writing a note for her?” He began again. “Please excuse Caroline Doctorow. . . . ” He stopped again. “Why do I have to beg and plead for her?” he said. “She had a virus. She didn’t commit a crime!” On he went, note after failed note, until a pile of crumpled pages lay at his feet. Finally, his wife, Helen, said, “I can’t take this anymore,” penned a perfect note and sent Caroline off to school. Doctorow concluded: “Writing is very difficult, especially in the short form.”

Roger Rosenblatt, “The Writer in the Family,” N.Y. Times, May 13, 2012, at BR 43.

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