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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Case for Law School—Part II

This is the second post in a series exploring why a student might consider law school over no advanced degree or another advanced degree.

2.Writing skills. Like my first example, every lawyer does not acquire amazing writing skills out of law school and there is always a range, but in general law students learn how to write. They learn how to write cohesive arguments that address important counterarguments systematically. They learn how to write quickly and not to waste any words. If you can say something in 10 words, a law student will learn never to say it in 15. The flowery adjectives that are acceptable to add into your essays for your English or Sociology undergrad class will be quickly excised in your first semester law school memo.

If a student loves writing and wants to improve at it, they are a great candidate for law school. I remember saying to an undergrad professor that I wasn’t sure I should go to law school because I hated arguing. They responded, “do you like writing”? Because you will do a lot more of that in law school than arguing. I couldn’t agree more with this observation. And this is the same in practice. Lawyers in practice write often and often effectively. My colleagues at Kirkland & Ellis used to joke that we were the best email writers around (which is basically most of what we did early on in our legal careers in litigation)—write really good emails. (I would argue that many white collar office jobs are just people paid way too much to write really nice emails all day, but that is clearly an aside) But obviously writing a quick—to the point—email that effectively communicates your argument is important. Effective writing will help a person in any field they decide to work in. It is a life skill for an individual, even if they decide not to practice law. I have heard from friends who studied business regret that they didn’t also get a law degree for the writing skills they would have gained.

Rather than hiring a lawyer to write a “lawyerly” letter to your landlord, or to a subcontractor working on your house, or to your Senator to help you with a small immigration issue—you can do all of that yourself. It is an empowering skill, which you can really only learn through law school. (Since I’m writing to a large audience of lawyers, I will say, of course there are exceptions and a lot of people without a law degree have these skills but the best way to gain them for someone who doesn’t have great writing skills is law school). Many of the most talented journalists today have gone to law school (Linda Greenhouse, Bob Woodward, Adam Liptak, Dalia Litwick just to name a few current examples). Some very popular political commentators on both sides (I don’t want to name these because you will all mock me but there are many very popular ones that you might be surprised by—including Geraldo Rivera and Megyn Kelly). Some of the most effective presidents and world leaders (Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and so on). This is not by accident and at least a part of many of these leaders’ successes I would say is excellent writing.

More reasons to study law in my next post…

Posted by Shima Baradaran Baughman on August 9, 2017 at 11:58 AM | Permalink

Comments

This seems to be less praise for legal education, and more an indictment of undergraduate liberal arts education. Learning how to form an argument, see the other side's point of view, and write decently well are things you should get in undergrad and not have to sink an additional $150k into.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Aug 9, 2017 12:18:21 PM

And just because I'm feeling in a snarky mood...

"Like my first example, every lawyer does not acquire amazing writing skills out of law school and there is always a range, but in general law students learn how to write."

You mean "not every lawyer acquires." What you've written is that no lawyer acquires amazing writing skills out of law school -- and you mean during law school, of course. You can *have* amazing writing skills out of law school, but the acquiring would be *during* law school.

"My colleagues at Kirkland & Ellis used to joke that we were the best email writers around (which is basically most of what we did early on in our legal careers in litigation)—write really good emails."

In this sentence the dash is functioning like a colon, which is fine, except that the idea being expanded on is the parenthetical. The dashed-off section should have been included inside the parentheses.

"(I would argue that many white collar office jobs are just people paid way too much to write really nice emails all day, but that is clearly an aside) But obviously writing a quick—to the point—email that effectively communicates your argument is important."

The sentence structure here is confusing. The capitalization looks like this is maybe 1 sentence, but the flow of ideas feels more like 2. I think maybe there's a period missing at the end of the parenthesis. The repeated "buts" are also a bit odd. Which idea is the second "but" meant to diverge from, the "I would argue..." part, or just the preceding "but that is clearly..." clause? And in this instance the dashes are acting as parenthesis; again that's fine, but using dashes in multiple ways in a single paragraph is distracting. And in this case, the use is likely mistaken. It reads as if "quick" is being defined as "to the point," but the more natural and logical structure would have presented them as two distinct items: "a quick, to-the-point e-mail."

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Aug 9, 2017 12:34:16 PM

I'm not in *that* snarky of a mood so I'll bracket what I think of the writing in this post, though you do put it at issue with your boast that you and your colleagues at Kirkland wrote really terrific emails, which is really one of the few pieces of evidence you offer for your claim that "in general law students learn how to write." (Couldn't you and your colleagues' email-writing prowess be explained by Kirkland's hiring from among the small fraction of law students who write very well, rather than by law school making you and your colleagues into great writers?) That being said, some ipse dixits of my own about lawyers, law school, and writing, mixed with some anecdotal autobiographical evidence that law school isn't a great place to learn how to write:

1. Most lawyers are very poor writers. The vast majority of appellate briefs and trial-court papers that are filed in America are simply written horribly. This is especially true if you look at what gets filed in state courts. A small number of lawyers write very well, but whether law school has much to do with that seems doubtful; most lawyers who write very well were exceptional college students who wrote well in that setting, though naturally not as well as they write now with maturation and more practice.

2. Law school and legal practice actually inculcate all sorts of bad writing habits: legalese, a stilted style, a penchant for defined terms and acronyms, uncreative and wooden structures, etc.

3. It seems really hard to even imagine a causal story about how law school makes people much better writers. You say that flowery adjectives get excised in first-semester legal-writing memos. Yes; the instructors mark up their students' drafts and tell them to simplify and cut. The same thing happens in required writing courses in college or good high schools. Can it seriously be imagined that law students will regularly internalize the lessons they learned in revising a single memo and carry those lessons forward into their lives? And if not, what else in law school makes students into good writers? The speed-writing exercise of writing a dozen or two dozen law school exams?

Pivoting to autobiography, when I entered law school, I was a "fun" and writerly writer - my college professors generally very much enjoyed reading my work - with a fair degree of raw talent but very little discipline or structure, though my writing generally followed a comprehensible train of thought. I wrote a memo in my first-semester writing class, and my instructor (who was also my contracts professor) did work with me to prune some fat out of my drafts, though even he ended up deciding to make some concessions to my rather reticulated sentence structures and style.

After that, I wrote many exams and much fewer papers; no one worked with me on those and my natural tendencies reasserted themselves, if it even makes sense to talk about them reasserting themselves when they were only checked on one brief assignment that never captured my interest. I wrote a note for my journal that didn't get published because it was too unstructured and long. Then I clerked, and at one point I wrote a 100-page bench memo on an appeal that, to be fair to myself, presented a number of issues, some hard, but probably only merited a memo of 50. After having produced a number of opinions, my writing finally began to become more controlled, and it's fairly disciplined today when I need it to be, though rather undisciplined when I don't make the effort to discipline it (see my blog). My point is that I don't see how even that measure of improvement could have been obtained absent clerking or doing something where I had to write a lot and continuously be edited by people who knew about writing and expected a certain degree of control. Law school simply isn't that kind of an environment, and the small amount of writing instruction it does offer can be replicated in any good college and vastly exceeded in a writing-intensive undergraduate program, to say nothing of an M.F.A. program.

4. As for your examples of good writers who went to law school, the journalists you mention are mostly, of course, legal journalists, so it's no surprise they attended law school. Basically you've just handpicked our three most famous legal journalists and pointed out they went to law school; that's about as much of an argument as saying that Paul Clement, John Roberts and Elena Kagan all went to law school, and aren't they awfully good writers? I do think Liptak is a very good and clear writer, and that may well have something to do with his years of practice; I doubt it's because he went to law school. Woodward is famously a fairly mediocre writer. Lithwick is a fun writer, sometimes a good one, and her style owes very little to law school. I suppose Greenhouse is a pretty good writer. As for Rivera and Kelly, I see no evidence that they write very well. I never thought of Castro as a good writer; I do think FDR's speeches and fireside chats were quite good, but he worked with a number of speechwriters. Lincoln was a genius whose writing looks very little like the legal writing of his day, at least judging by Supreme Court opinions from that period. And once we start talking about Jefferson, Gandhi, Mandela, or even Wilson, we're looking at cases of people whose legal educations differed quite a bit from what's offered by 21st-century American law schools, so I don't think those examples are very relevant. In any case, I don't think anything at all can be inferred from the fact that a small number of exceptional writers, assuming the people you mention were exceptional writers and not just otherwise exceptional people, attended law school.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Aug 9, 2017 1:58:41 PM

The ratio of working professionals to the annual number of degrees awarded to train such professionals is in this country variable according to profession but tends to collect around a median of 22.5. That same ratio for attorneys is 15. You'd have to scrounge to find a set of cadres of any size for which that ratio is lower than that for lawyers. (One of the few is clergymen; many divinity school students have from the get-go no intention of being f/t pastors). You guys just need to squeeze the pus out: close schools, cut enrollments, cut faculty and staff.

Posted by: Art Deco | Aug 9, 2017 3:30:34 PM

"This seems to be less praise for legal education, and more an indictment of undergraduate liberal arts education. Learning how to form an argument, see the other side's point of view, and write decently well are things you should get in undergrad and not have to sink an additional $150k into."

About 15 years ago, Barry Alan Shain, then a professor at Colgate University (a tony and selective liberal arts college, not a research institution) penned a circular for his campus delineating a proposal for improving the curriculum. One of his bullet points was founding a writing center staffed with professional editors. He said he himself was encountering too many students who simply could not write and they needed tutoring and remedial instruction (he also thought there should be an exit writing requirement). They ignored him.

Posted by: Art Deco | Aug 9, 2017 3:35:38 PM

"If a student loves writing and wants to improve at it, they are a great candidate for law school. "

The only 'great candidates' for law school are those with the chops to practice law and committed to working within that profession and able to land a foundational berth in it.

Posted by: Art Deco | Aug 9, 2017 3:38:46 PM

As a legal historian I feel I should point out that Abraham Lincoln is not the best example to use in this interesting discussion as he did not attend law school. I also do not believe he attended college, but I may be wrong about this and would be happy to hear from any Lincoln scholars. Also Thomas Jefferson should probably be omitted as he apprenticed with George Wythe, but did not go to law school (although he did graduate from the College of William and Mary with concentrations in philosophy, metaphysics, and mathematics).

Posted by: LegalHistProf | Aug 9, 2017 4:36:13 PM

As in many, if not all, discussions regarding the benefits of higher education, there is seems to be a lack of recognition in this post that correlation does not equal causation.
But this is particularly silly. If one wants to improve his writing, would you recommend he lose out on 3 years of income and spend tens of thousands of dollars to attend law school or spend a few hundred dollars and a few tens of hours on a writing clinic or personal tutor?

Posted by: biff | Aug 9, 2017 5:54:37 PM

"As a legal historian I feel I should point out that Abraham Lincoln is not the best example to use in this interesting discussion as he did not attend law school. I also do not believe he attended college, but I may be wrong about this and would be happy to hear from any Lincoln scholars. Also Thomas Jefferson should probably be omitted as he apprenticed with George Wythe, but did not go to law school (although he did graduate from the College of William and Mary with concentrations in philosophy, metaphysics, and mathematics)."

John Van Voorhis was on the New York State Court of Appeals and was admitted to the bar ca. 1919. His father told him at the time "I want you to learn law through the soles of my shoes". He had a baccalaureate degree. He did not attend law school. Prior to 1920, the majority of superior court judges in the Genesee Valley where he practiced had read law in offices. As late as 1944, the Presiding Justice of the 4th Department was a man who had read law in the Rochester City Attorney's office.

As late as 1928, the majority of youth in this country between the ages of 14 and 18 were not enrolled in high school. About 6% of the cohorts around 21 years of age at that time were enrolled in 4 year colleges or professional schools.

Posted by: Art Deco | Aug 9, 2017 6:07:05 PM

I used to be a partner in a large law firm and very few associates that we hired straight out of law school wrote well. Law review membership was no predictor of writing skill. I spent lots of time working with junior lawyers to improve their writing skills. This problem is rooted in undergraduate education and perhaps even high school, but law school does next to nothing to improve students' writing skills.

Posted by: Doug Richmond | Aug 10, 2017 8:38:24 AM

This is quite a thorough and insightful analysis. I just wonder whether the perception of law school being a good deal will change until law schools have more faculty who appreciate and encouage students to practice law. Asking for sabbaticals during which faculty practice law could be a good move in that direction.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 10, 2017 9:10:02 PM

Having been a paralegal for several lawyers, I can assure you, the vast majority of lawyers are terrible writers. I was a journalism major in college before going to law school. I also took a fair amount of creative writing classes in college as well. I also wrote and edited an award winning weekly news publication. I spent the majority of my time editing the terrible writing of my bosses. That is WHEN they actually wrote something. More often they either A) dictated it, or B)took credit for something I wrote.

Posted by: anon | Aug 10, 2017 9:45:28 PM

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