Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Improve your legal writing

Introduction: Legal writing in your continuing legal education.

I'll say it directly: include more legal-writing training in your continuing legal education. Never rest on a plateau of adequacy; always strive to improve. Now you might think it's awfully self-interested of me to recommend legal-writing courses; after all, I make money from teaching them. But all kidding aside, I know you'll never regret seeking to improve your writing.

For example, you keep up on the substantive law in your area of practice, right? Of course you do. It would be career-damaging if you didn't. So you should also keep up on topics in legal writing. Now you might ask, does anything in legal writing really change? You bet it does.

Here are three short examples of things that are changing in legal writing.

1. The accessibility of legal writing is changing.

More and more lawyers are starting to believe that legal documents need not be so different from other professional writing. More and more clients and government agencies are insisting that legal writing be understandable to nonlawyers. And fewer and fewer lawyers, clients, and judges are willing to accept gratuitous jargon, hyper-formality, and unnecessary density.

2. Legal-writing education is changing.

Law schools are teaching legal writing differently from the way they have taught it in the past. Schools are investing more money and teaching credits in legal-writing courses. Schools are hiring better teachers and paying them more. Those teachers are publishing scholarly articles about writing. And schools are offering more advanced writing courses.

These changes will affect many things:
  1. recent graduates who will come to work for you should have better general writing skills (though their writing will probably never be as good as you think it should be, right?)
  2. recent graduates should have better specialized writing skills in areas like persuasive writing and drafting (because of the advanced courses)
  3. the scholarly output of legal-writing teachers is creating a large body of excellent training materials that all lawyers ought to use to improve their legal-writing skills.
On that note, there has been an explosion of books and articles about legal writing; there are so many I can't keep up with them all. But you now have a wide choice of excellent sources as you put more legal writing into your continuing legal education. [I'll be recommending some of the best books and articles on this website.]

3. Legal citation is changing.

Besides the Bluebook coming out with a new and different edition every four or five years, and besides the Internet changing the way many legal sources are cited, there is a new citation manual that competes with the Bluebook. It is called the ALWD Citation Manual, and it is gaining ground so quickly that it may achieve parity with the Bluebook soon.

These are broad changes in legal writing, but smaller changes occur all the time. Keep up with them; you'll be a better writer and a better lawyer if you do. [This website will help.] In fact, some have even suggested that legal writing (and legal research) should be required parts of every lawyer's continuing legal education, just as ethics is. After all, legal writing is the one skill that crosses your entire practice.

Wayne Schiess, Better Legal Writing: 15 Topics for Advanced Legal Writers 8-9 (Wm. S. Hein & Co. 2005).

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