Law School Toolbox®

Embrace the Difference of Legal Writing

As a 1L, you’re adjusting to a new environment, vocabulary, and demands on your ability to consume vast quantities of written material and stay cool when your professor calls on you in front of 100 seemingly judgmental, but actually terrified, strangers. In the midst of all that, you’ve noticed one class is different from the others: Legal Writing (LW). And it’s different in a good way. Here’s why:

It’s smaller than your other classes

You may be sitting in the back row of a large lecture hall for Contracts, but your LW class probably has fewer than 25 students. This may make you think, “Nowhere to hide!” But it should make you think, “Here’s a professor and a subset of classmates I can get to know.” You’ll develop different relationships here than in other classes. You may have group assignments, and you’ll almost certainly pair up for oral arguments. You will learn from your classmates and, with luck, make friends. You’ll also get to know your professor. Through class discussion, individual conferences, and visits to office hours, your professor will get to know you better than your professors in doctrinal courses. You may even end up asking her for a letter of recommendation or career advice.

It’s a skills course

LW is often referred to as a skills course, differentiated from doctrinal courses like Criminal Law, Contracts, Torts, and pretty much everything else you’ll take in law school other than a clinic. What does this mean? First, it means you’ll learn how to do things that transcend content, things that apply to contexts beyond your LW assignments. These skills are fundamental to the practice of law and include research, case reading, rule-based reasoning, organizing your writing effectively, writing objectively and persuasively, document drafting, and oral argument. Second, it means you’ll learn by doing what lawyers actually do. Lawyers don’t sit in lecture halls and get called on randomly. They research and write. These are skills for a lifetime, whether you end up writing appellate briefs for the DA, practicing family law in your hometown, or toiling in Biglaw.

It’s probably the first place you’ll get feedback in law school

It’s likely that your grade in each doctrinal class will rely exclusively on a single exam. Before you take that final, it’s easy to think you’re “getting it.”  Everyone thinks they’re doing well in law school until a final exam tells them otherwise. In LW, on the other hand, you’re likely to have multiple assignments over the course of the semester. Look at these early assignments as a temperature check. Are you grasping concepts, like rule extraction or analogical reasoning? Good. If not, what can you do to improve? If you’re struggling in LW, it’s likely you’re struggling in other courses, even if you don’t know it yet. LW can help you identify weaknesses and challenges before they impact your GPA.

It’s related to all your other courses

One of the biggest mistakes law students make is putting each course into its own box and failing to recognize how it relates to other courses. The law school curriculum builds cumulative connections. Eventually you’ll see that a single act may be a tort and a crime; contracts will turn up in labor and employment law; an act of workplace sexual harassment may be a tort, a crime, a breach of contract, and a violation of federal law (Title VII). In LW, you can begin to make these connections immediately.

After you synthesize a rule from three cases in your first closed assignment, you should recognize that the Torts opinion you just read contains a similarly synthesized rule. When you learn about the hierarchy of authority, you should note the court that issued the opinion you’re reading in Contracts, and scrutinize the sources of authority cited in that opinion. When you draft a motion for summary judgment, Civil Procedure will come alive in a way it didn’t when you read Rule 56. Of course, you’ll also pick up content from the cases and statutes you rely on in your LW assignments. Your LW course may even be linked to a doctrinal course, or base assignments on bar subjects. Let the materials you use in LW deepen your understanding of doctrinal law.

It’s a source of writing samples

You’ll want a legal job next summer, and potential employers will want to see a sample of your legal writing. That sample will come from your LW course. No one will ever see that “A” exam you write in Civ Pro, but your open memo may help you get a job – or hurt your chances. Keep this in mind, especially if your LW course is Pass/Fail and your goal is to pass with minimal effort.

Embrace the difference of Legal Writing – and make it work for you.

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