Saturday, March 11, 2006

Legal analysis: the biggest weakness

The biggest weakness I see in analytical legal writing is the failure to thoroughly understand the material. It's not easy to spot this weakness; it's much easier to notice comma errors, bad citation form, or wordiness, for example.

But yesterday I had an experience that reinforced my belief.

I spoke to a group of lawyers who work in legal-aid offices around the country. These lawyers hold supervisory positions, and the meeting focused on how to help those they supervise become better legal writers. That's a hard thing to do.

In their questions, I sensed frustration in trying help some lawyers improve their writing. Several asked what to do with someone whose writing is so weak the supervisor doesn't know where to begin.

No one said the writer didn't understand the material. Instead, they commented that the writing was--
  • poorly organized
  • disjointed
  • confusing
  • baffling
Some said they often had to simply rewrite the document themselves. Unfortunately, I did not identify lack of substantive understanding as a cause of writing weaknesses yesterday. Should have.

To any of those lawyers reading this blog: I (hereby?) apologize for failing to properly diagnose this problem, which I've known about for years. In tomorrow's post I'll explain why I should have identified the problem--and give suggestions for identifying the problem in the writing you see. The next day I'll suggest ideas for fixing it.

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