Many first-year students are struggling with their legal writing assignments. Whether graded or not, these assignments often cause anxiety for students because legal writing can, at first, feel like a foreign language. Even if you consider yourself a good writer, legal writing can be baffling. As you continue to work on legal writing assignments, these are some tips to keep in mind.
- Follow the format outlined by your professor. It is likely your legal writing professor has given you instructions for the overall format of your legal writing assignment. In addition, your professor may have given you formatting instructions for the body of your assignment, such as that you need to follow IRAC. Whatever the instructions, follow them. Sure, you may think it is an overly formal or a frustrating way to write—but to be honest, no one cares. You need to write for your professor. It is more important to write in the way your professor has outlined, than as you personally prefer. And it is not going to be the last time your writing will need to conform to someone else’s rules. As a working attorney you often need to write in the format requested by your boss or even by the court. So get used to it!
- Remember, your writing doesn’t need to be full of legalese—the best legal writing is often simple! So many law students make the mistake of thinking that to “sound like a lawyer” they must use every possible legal term out there. This is just not the case. Often the most effective legal writing is very clear and concise and only uses legal terms or “legalese” when appropriate (say, when you are using a term of art). It is also important to work on writing in a clear, concise way because your assignments may have maximum word count. So using extra words to sound “more professional” won’t really help your grade in the end.
- Answer the question asked by your assignment. Often students get so caught up in writing their assignment that they forget to focus on the question that was asked of them. It is important to read and re-read (and even read again) the assignment sheet. You don’t want to make a mistake and write something off topic. Remember, answering the question is key to getting a good grade!
- Plan before you write. A great legal writing assignment is organized. And for most of us this means that you need to plan your paper just as you would plan an essay or any other project. Organization is key and it takes time to sit with the research and develop your answer. Make sure you build this time into your plan of how you are going to get your assignment done.
- Proofread and double-check citations. As an attorney-in-training, it is very important to present yourself in a professional way. That means that you need to proofread your assignments to present yourself in a professional way to your professor as well. If your assignment is riddled with typos, it is distracting for the professor and likely will cause your grade to drop. Also, students often are lax when handling citations. You are typically graded on the accuracy of your citations. Citations are not hard, but you must be detail oriented and look things up! I have seen many a legal writing grade go down because students didn’t spend adequate time or energy on citations. Don’t let this happen to you.
Legal writing, like most things, gets easier the more that you do it. So do every practice assignment assigned and get as much feedback as you can. This will help you become an excellent legal writer, which is a critical skill in our profession.
Check out these other helpful posts:
- Surviving the first weeks of law school.
- Law school exam prep 101.
- Getting feedback on past exams is critical.
- Pay attention in class, it can save you time!
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