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Friday, September 07, 2007

Legal Writing Books

I told Dan I would post something about legal writing and shamelessly plug a book I've written. A common lament from colleagues is the poor quality of our students’ writing. Professors are often heard complaining that seminar papers and journal notes are sloppy, poorly organized, and carelessly written. Exam answers (at times written like lengthy text messages) can bring seasoned professors near to tears. Law firms find they need to devote significant resources to training their new associates. And the quality of written advocacy (or lack of quality) frustrates judges. Of course, law professors are not immune from criticism. As a group, law professors are notoriously poor writers when it comes to writing law review articles and, yes, even blog posts. (I'm sure this post itself is filled with typos and other errors!).

I suspect that the underdeveloped writing skills we see with our students is not for the lack of trying. Students and junior attorneys have often told me they would like to improve their writing skills, but don’t know where to turn. Undergraduate universities seem to have given up training students on how to write clearly (at least we can blame someone else). And students hardly have the time to read massive tombs that discuss the ins-and-outs and nuances of writing.

Not to worry. There are many wonderful books out there to help that are not War & Peace imitations (see this earlier post for a slew of suggestions -- Earlier Post). The difficulty is determining, in a sea of literally hundreds of books, which ones are worth picking up to read. For what it’s worth, here are some of my favorites (of course, there are many, many other wonderful books):

1. Seminar Papers & Law Review Comments/Notes: Several good books exist. But the one that I recommend most often is Eugene Volokh’s Academic Legal Writing (Link). It just came out in a third edition. It’s a wonderful book. It provides concrete and practical advice on how to get started writing a law review article or seminar paper. Volokh even recently took part anonymously in UCLA’s law review write-on competition, just so that he could speak more authoritatively from a student perspective when revising the book (a bold yet admirable move!).

2. How to Succeed as a Young Associate: Mark Hermann, a partner at Jones Day, last year came out with a small book called the Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (Link). The book is well-written, concise, easy-to-read, and humorous. The book is written in a no-nonsense, in-your-face way from the hypothetical perspective of a cranky, grumpy partner giving advice to a young associate. But Hermann has some wonderful practical tips on how to succeed as a junior attorney. The WSJ Law Blog posted extensive reviews on the book last year.

3. Grammar/Punctuation/Style Guides: Sometimes you need a book to help you remember all those pesky rules of grammar, or a style guide. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a classic, but sometimes referring to a book that is more law-focused helps. If so, Bryan Garner’s The Red Book: A Manual on Legal Style (Link) is among the best. Garner is the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, and has made a career out of teaching legal writing. The Anne Enquist and Laurel Oates book -- Just Writing -- is another good option.

4. Handbook/Style Guides: Okay, finally a shameless plug (you knew it was coming...). I recently wrote with a colleague a short book on legal writing (Amazon.com Link). The book -- Effective Lawyering: A Checklist Approach to Legal Writing and Oral Argument -- uniquely provides a series of checklists to turn to when undertaking a writing project. Unlike many other books, it provides advice in a very short, truncated fashion – as a way to remind lawyers and law students how to write effectively. Paul Horwitz posted a very kind review of the book here at Prawfs Blawg last month, so too did Elizabeth McKenzie at her Out of the Jungle blog, and KC Sheehan on her Doing Justice blog. Wayne Schiess noted the book on his blog, Legalwriting.net (Wayne, by the way, has published two wonderful legal writing books that are also worth checking out). More descriptions of our book and shorts reviews and blurbs by professors can be found at the Carolina Academic Press webpage.

Posted by Austen Parrish on September 7, 2007 at 06:21 PM | Permalink


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Reading a lot of books is necessary but not sufficient to enable good writing.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Sep 11, 2007 12:15:14 PM


Just by way of clarification: I expressed the belief that we need to think carefully about how in general to cultivate "a passion for reading that is at least a necessary condition for good writing." Which means when you state that "Reading lots of good books, does not necessarily imply that the reader will be a good writer," you could not have been attributing the contrary claim to me, namely, that reading lots of good books implies you will be a good writer, for as I said, reading oodles of books (generally speaking: it's a generalization and all such generalizations admit of exceptions) is at least a necessary condition of being a good writer, meaning it is not necessarily a sufficient condition of same, hence one could read lots of books and never be a writer of any distinction whatsoever, but if one aspires to be a good writer, at least one of the things that would appear to contribute to attaining that goal would be reading lots of (good) books. And I did not say anything whereby one would deny or lessen the nature of the differences between reading and writing. I would endorse the proposition that "vigorous writing" contributes to good writing, but one can certainly imagine not a few people writing a lot such that this energetic output does not result in anything close to "good writing," even if in *their* case it leads to better writing, an improvement upon what came before. I might add I don't think there is any (magical) key to good writing, one reason it is so difficult and elusive no matter how hard one tries, no matter the degree of perseverance.

And for the record I agree with Austen's comments in reply to mine on how the use of manuals such as the one he co-authored can lead to at least incremental improvements in *legal* writing. In the one semester I attended law school I was able to enhance my legal writing skills with the use of one such book, Charles R. Calleros' Legal Method and Writing (4th ed., 2002), in conjunction with the instructor's comments on my writing (sample memorandums, etc.).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 10, 2007 9:17:26 AM

P.S. The "earlier post" link is dead.

Posted by: Brian | Sep 10, 2007 12:16:12 AM

Mr. O'Donnell & Mr. Parrish:

First and foremost, I'm not a law student or an academic and while I aspire to be both one day, I hope you'll forgive what might be improper legal writing below.

I agree with Mr. O'Donnell that there are no quick fixes to improving one's writing. However, he asserts the importance of reading lots of books in the development of good writing skills. Mr. Parrish believes it's likely a necessary condition; to which, I add that it's not a sufficient condition. (Did I utilize the necessary and sufficient conditions correctly?)

Reading lots of good books, does not necessarily imply that the reader will be a good writer. I grew up reading lots of books (starting, admittedly with John Grisham, for what it's worth); today, I still read a lot of periodicals--including blogs--and a greater number of books (predominantly non-fiction with an added effort to read more of "great books"). While reading and writing have their similarities, one should not discount their differences. Naturally, the writers are the communicators, if they fail, their work fades into the void, but they gain the experience of having written and can learn from their mistakes. On the other hand, readers, by default, are not required to communicate, unless they choose to or are required to do so for an assignment.

My TWO required English courses in college didn't help my writing much, but I'd say it was more my fault than anyone else's. What helped were the writing assignments in my other courses, particularly these hellish weekly 1-page assignments in Law and Economics. (In hindsight, they were quite beneficial.) Succinct writing is still not my strong point, but I'm getting better and I don't think reading deserves all the credit. Rather, I credit the improvement to my conscious effort to write and rewrite vigorously. The reading helps, but to paraphrase from Strunk and White, vigorous writing is the key to good writing.

That being said, thanks for the book recommendations and the CO blog link-it's found a place on my daily blog route.

Posted by: Brian | Sep 10, 2007 12:06:32 AM


Perhaps you know, but Deven Desai over at CO has some nice things to say about your book. Congrats!

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 8, 2007 10:32:48 PM


While I agree with you concerning exams, those of us in the legal writing field emphasize communication equally with content. This is why legal writing and other skills courses are an important part of the curriculum.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Sep 8, 2007 5:28:15 PM

Part of the problem is that good writing isn't rewarded on exams, at least not in my experience. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that good writing isn't rewarded in legal writing classes either. In both cases, reliance on a limited script based on a checklist of "points" rewards dashing out points of law and analysis (even in bullet points on exams) over crafting good essays. I absolutely endorse both Volokh's book and the Curmudgeon's Guide, however. The first chapter of the Curmudgeon's Guide is great advice for anyone in a legal writing class.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Sep 8, 2007 2:12:14 PM

Well said. Certainly reading is incredibly important, particularly at a young age. I saw the "4 books a year" statistic a few days ago -- very troubling, even scary. And I agree that a passion for reading certainly helps one develop (and is likely a necessary condition for) good writing. So I think you're right. Bigger issues exist here. But you're taking on a monumental challenge - it seems a problem tied to systemic problems in our elementary, secondary, and college education, if not our broader culture.

Also I do think there's only so much one can do by imitating, for those students who have been fortunate to be passionate readers. Strong readers are likely to be better writers instinctively, but still may have bad habits. Or they may be unfamiliar with the concise, to-the-point, easy-to-read style needed for busy (if not overwhelmed) lawyers and judges. To improve your writing beyond the basics then, I believe requires consciously and methodically thinking about what you're doing. Only by understanding how it is that you craft effective letters, briefs, memos etc. do I think you stand a chance of improving your writing over the long run. It's at this point that turning back to books, and examining the skill of effective writing is most helpful. Or at minimum, using the books may be a way to get a slight edge over other junior attorneys starting out.

Posted by: AP | Sep 7, 2007 8:11:47 PM

I have no doubt the above books have their place and are useful resources for law students, but I'm inclined to think the only thing that, in the end, makes for better writers is *lots* of reading, both inside and outside the law. Many of my students rarely read anything book-length, and then only when required. If one hasn't learned to write well by law school it seems unlikely there's much one can do in the short-term to alter such a sorry state of affairs. This doesn't mean one should give up trying, but rather that we draw a bigger picture here, one involving current pedagogical practices, family environments, socio-cultural effects (especially the impact of new technologies), and so forth. Even if one looks askance at how much is routinely but mistakenly inferred from such things, a recent survey that finds the "average person" reads four books a year is quite disturbing (assuming of course the typical law student is not your average person) (See Daniel Solove's post at CO: http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2007/08/four_books_a_ye.html#comments). Not a few teachers respond to this lamentable situation by assigning their students *less* reading, lest they scare off their young charges or stand out for failing to conform to a norm seeking the lowest common denominator. Those conscious of their limitations on this score, namely, the "students and junior attorneys [who] have...[expressed the desire] to improve their writing skills, but don’t know where to turn," may be looking for quick-fixes where there are none. Again, I'm not saying they shouldn't turn to the texts you list here, especially given the time constraints, etc. But rather that we think hard about what might be done before and outside law school to cultivate a passion for reading that is at least a necessary condition for good writing.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 7, 2007 7:55:43 PM

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