Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Dear Lady (Legal) Writer: Tips for Success in Legal Writing Courses

Dear Lady (Legal) Writer,

I start my first year of law school in a few weeks. I feel confident that I can learn the material in most of my classes, but I’m not the best writer. I’m worried about doing well in my legal writing class. Do you have any tips?

Law School Rookie

Dear Rookie,

There's no formula for success in legal writing courses. Legal writing is difficult—it's a new way of thinking and writing that's foreign to everyone. So don't go in discouraged just because you don't think you're a good writer. Legal writing can trip up even the strongest writers. I'd suggest you follow these tips to maximize your chance of success in your legal writing classes.    

Minimize Class Absences

You may have coasted through undergrad attending only a few classes. That’s not going to work in law school. No matter the course, each class builds on the prior one, so if you miss even a single class, you’re going to be behind.

This is especially true with legal writing. Because of the vast amount of material that must be covered in legal writing courses, students often complain these courses move even faster than doctrinal courses. Law school is a full time (or more) job and you should treat it like one. Classes are important, so don’t miss them!  

Meet with the TA

If your professor has a teaching assistant, use that person as a resource. The TA has taken the course and done well in it, knows the professor’s teaching style, and can offer helpful hints and tips. Sometimes TAs offer supplemental workshops or lectures, and you should always take advantage of those, if at all possible. Depending on your school’s honor code, the TA may even be able to read drafts of your written assignments and offer feedback. Take advantage of the TA’s knowledge and experience.  

Take Advantage of Office Hours

Professors keep office hours for the benefit of students—use them! Many students never set foot in a professor’s office until after they’ve done poorly in a course. At that point, it’s too late. After receiving a bad grade, a student can learn from past mistakes, but the damage to the student’s grade point average is done. Students should take advantage of office hours during the semester.

But don’t come just for the sake of getting face time. Come with specific questions for the professor. Did you have trouble understanding something the professor said in class? Could you not read a comment your professor made on a written assignment? Did a study group member or classmate have a different understanding of an upcoming assignment than you? These are the types of questions you should bring to your professor during office hours.     

Review Written Feedback Carefully

Most legal writing courses are structured so that students receive written feedback throughout the semester—feedback that’s for their benefit. You likely won’t receive this type of feedback in any other course, so you should take advantage of it.  Few things are more frustrating to a legal writing professor than to have students ignore feedback the professor provides on a draft and to make the same errors on the final. Review written feedback carefully. Implement the changes your professor suggests. If you don’t understand something, ask in class or make an appointment to see the professor. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the written feedback. It’s the best source of information on how to improve your legal writing (and your grade)! 

Come to Conferences With Questions

Most legal writing courses include professor conferences, where students have an opportunity to meet with the professor after they receive written feedback on draft memos and briefs. Many students come to these conferences unprepared. Students are responsible for their own learning, and legal writing professors expect students to have reviewed written feedback before their conferences and to come prepared to ask specific questions. Here’s a helpful hint:
“What do I need to do to get an A?” is not
an appropriate or specific question.
Appropriate, specific questions include:

-This comment says my Question Presented needs to be more specific. How do I go about making it more specific? What types of specific facts should I include?

-You said I mixed up the Factual Background and Procedural Background. I guess I don’t really understand the difference.

-I lost points on my first draft because you said my Statement of Facts was too argumentative. What can I do to make the Statement of Facts less argumentative in my final memo?

-I’m not good at proofreading. Do you have any tips that will help me proofread better before I turn in my assignments?     

Take Your Legal Writing Courses Seriously
Many law students blow off legal writing courses in favor of doctrinal ones. Doing so is a mistake. Legal writing classes teach you the skills you need to succeed in every area of law. Legal writing professors teach students how to read cases, formulate rules, apply those rules to a set of facts, and predict the likely outcome. Why is this important? It's what you're going to be asked to do on your doctrinal exams and every day of your life in practice.
And unlike in years past, when legal writing courses were worth very few credit hours, they're now worth as many credit hours as doctrinal courses at most schools. So doing well in your legal writing courses is at least as important for your grade point average as doing well in doctrinal classes, and a strong legal writing grade can make up for an average one in a doctrinal course.  
Do you have dreams of serving on law review or moot court? At many schools, regardless of overall grade point average, students must have done well in their legal writing courses to be eligible for membership.   

So take your legal writing courses seriously, work hard, and you should be fine! 

Good luck!  -LLW

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