Welcome to Ahead of the Curve, our new series for incoming 1Ls. We’re getting lots of questions about what law school to attend, how to pay for it, and what people can be doing now to set themselves up for success in law school. Stay tuned, and be sure to sign up for our free mailing list and check out the Start Law School Right course to ensure you’re ready to go on Day One!
On a recent Law School Toolbox podcast, Lee and I talked about the transition from undergrad to law school. This is Part Two of my synopsis of some of the observations and tips that we discussed.
As I said in Part One, I teach both undergrads and law students; as I prepare for class and interact with my students, I think a lot about how different these learning environments and expectations can be. Giving some thought to what skills you may need to add to your toolbox will help you gain confidence more quickly as you start law school.
Writing in law school can pose big challenges to both students who spent a lot of time writing papers in undergrad and to those who did not.
Improve Your Basic Writing Skills
Do you know what it means to write in the “active voice”? If you are writing something other than a text message, do you automatically check to see that every paragraph begins with a topic sentence? Do you know when to use a semi-colon?
If the answer to these questions is, “Um, not really,” you aren’t alone. You may not have done a lot of writing in undergrad, or you may not have had someone rigorously edit your writing. Your bank of experience doesn’t include going through rewrites and drafts to improve the structure and clarity of what you are trying to convey.
This is not a surprise. Many disciplines in undergrad have scaled back the amount of writing that they expect from students; in part this is due to the fact that many students come to college without good writing skills. There are many explanations offered for this decline (from K-12 curriculum to email/texting habits), but there is pretty solid consensus that many of today’s college graduates do not have high level written communication skills.
Take some time now to think honestly about your writing skills. If you aren’t sure that they are up to par, consider brushing up your skills before you start law school. Google “writing skills for law students” and you will find lots of options to consider. Check out our Start Law School Right course, where you will get written feedback on several law-school-type assignments. Consider investing time in an online course such as Core Grammar for Lawyers (which is required at some schools).
As a law student, you will be graded on your ability to communicate effectively in writing and minimum competency in grammar, structure, and clarity will be threshold requirements for success. Build a strong foundation before you start.
Adopt And Embrace A New Writing Style
Some of you have earned praise for your ability to communicate through the written word. It is an advantage to have a firm foundation, but being a good writer does not always translate automatically to being a good legal writer.
In your first days of law school orientation, you’ll learn about IRAC (or CREAC), which is the format for organization in legal writing. It’s easy to learn that R stands for rule, E for explanation, etc., but it isn’t always easy to learn how to write in a way that follows this paradigm. The sooner you master this transition, the better because this is what legally trained readers (e.g., your professors) expect.
Following a formula sounds easy, but many good writers really struggle against what seems like a rigid structure. For instance, English and history majors are used to spending a lot of time crafting language, but legal writing is best when it is clear and concise. Setting aside old habits can be hard, but you may need to abandon some of the signature parts of your writing until you master the new style. In contrast, some students with science or technical backgrounds worry that they don’t have enough writing experience to succeed in law school, but many of them more readily lean into the organization of legal writing.
All students who adopt IRAC or CREAC as their own language have a much easier time with legal writing in all its forms. Work to develop this skill by looking for the parts of IRAC in well-written case opinions; note how the formula follows a logical progression. Also, really use the sample documents in your legal writing textbook; model each part of your memoranda on the corresponding example. This will save you time and give you valuable practice.
Your take-away: don’t struggle against the new formula. You are mastering new skills in persuasion that will make your writing stronger. Once you get comfortable with the structure of legal writing, you will have plenty of room to blend your skills into your unique, new “lawyer voice.”
Good legal writing is a craft that practicing attorneys and judges work very hard at practicing and perfecting. Work hard at your writing and you will get results.
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.