Monthly Archives: August 2012

How Students From Different College Majors Should Approach Legal Writing

The law is a discipline and a discourse community, and legal writing is a very specific type of disciplinary writing with its own unique set of rhetorical rules. Law students come to law school from a very disparate set of undergraduate and professional backgrounds, and therefore they come to their legal writing courses from a disparate set of perspectives. These different perspectives mean that different students are differently situated in how quickly and easily they are able to transition into understanding the discipline of law — which is new to them.

A new book arrived in my mailbox today that may help students from various educational and professional backgrounds begin to understand legal reasoning and legal writing more quickly and easily.

The book, by Teri A. McMurtry-Chubb, a professor at Mercer University’s law school, is entitled Legal Writing in the Disciplines. The summary of the book describes the book’s purpose as follows:

“Legal writing is disciplinary writing, not just another form of technical writing. . . .  Legal Writing in the Disciplines reconceptualizes law in its disciplinary context. The text is designed to effectively communicate legal analysis and writing skills to pre-law and new law students using the language of their undergraduate and graduate majors.”

The book contains chapters geared toward explaining legal writing to law students who come from backgrounds in five categories: science, social sciences, arts, humanities, and business.

I have a copy of the book in my office if anyone would like to borrow it. Our library may also have a copy (or be willing to obtain one). And of course, you can purchase it on Amazon.com and elsewhere.

Why Lawyers Are So Smart – – The Science!

The first thing I saw when I opened today’s Wall Street Journal was an article entitled “Study Shows Why Lawyers Are So Smart.”  Of course I was flattered, but it turns out that there really is a scientific basis for this base flattery (ha ha). The article explains:

“Going to law school can be a life-changing experience. A new research paper says just studying for the law school entrance exam alters your brain structure – and could make you smarter.

Intensive study for the Law School Admission Test reinforces circuits in the brain and can bridge the gap between the right and left hemispheres, according to neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, in findings reported last week in the online journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy.

These changes can improve reasoning ability and may increase a person’s IQ score, the researchers said.”

The article goes on to explain the researchers’ findings that brain pathways are malleable, and that the type of study involved in prepping for the LSAT and in the close reading and learning to understand the law that occurs in law school actually changes the brain to make it better at legal reasoning.

It’s nice to have scientific evidence that law school teaches students not just legal doctrine, but actually how to reason through legal issues and solve client problems.

The article can be found at this link:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB20000872396390444230504577615443664768610.html

Interview with Litigation Attorney Maura McIntyre, Part Two

Today I’m posting Part Two of my interview with attorney, Maura McIntyre. Ms. McIntyre is a litigation associate at Ungaretti and Harris LLP here in Chicago. (For Part One of this interview, see my post from Jul 13, 2012). Please feel free to pose questions to Ms. McIntyre in the comments.

Q:      What kinds of activities did you spend your daily work life on as a junior associate? First year? Second year?

 A:      I spent the majority of my first year researching a wide variety of legal issues, drafting research memos and basic pleadings, reviewing documents for production or in preparation for depositions, and appearing in court for routine status hearings and case management conferences.

As I moved into my second year, I started to get more experience drafting discovery requests and more substantive motions, including motions to dismiss, motions to compel, and motions for summary judgment.

 Q:      How did your relationship work with more senior associates and partners at that time? Were you able to get mentoring from them? How?

 A:      My relationship with partners and senior associates varied greatly during my first and second year.  I worked closely with a few associates at my firm while I was a summer associate and often reached out to them with questions about my assignments.

By the end of my first year, I started working with a few partners who took me under their wing and helped me develop my skills and my confidence as an attorney.  Once I was comfortable with them and felt they were confident in my abilities, I approached them with questions or problems I encountered in my other cases.

 Q:      How did you get your assignments? Were you able to figure out a way to get the type of matters or assignments you wanted? How did you do that? Did you “market” yourself within the firm?

 A:      When I first started as an associate, most of my work came through two partners who served as the litigation workflow coordinators.  It took me about six months to develop a solid caseload.  During those early months, I would often email the workflow coordinators at the beginning of the week to let them know that I was available to take on work.

I quickly realized that not all of the partners utilized the workflow coordinators when staffing their cases.  Instead, they reached out to associates with whom they had developed a strong working relationship.  In an attempt to be proactive, I started reaching out directly to partners that I enjoyed working with (or that I thought I might like to work with) and asked them to keep in me in mind if they needed any assistance with any of their cases.

Now, as a more senior associate, I often reach out to partners who have certain niche practices that I am interested in exploring, even if I’ve never worked with them.   It never hurts to ask for more work.

 Q:      When did you start to appear in court, and how did you prepare for those experiences?

 A:      I started appearing in court very soon after I received my license—a week later to be exact.  Before my first court appearance, I met with the partner on the case and he explained that I would be asking for an extension of time to file a brief. I reviewed the entire file, wrote out exactly what I wanted to say, and arrived at court about thirty minutes early.  After watching a few other attorneys step up, I started rewriting my argument to follow some of their examples.  Then my case was called.  I don’t remember exactly what ended up coming out of my mouth, but, in the end, we got the extension.

Like anything else, the more often you appear in court, the easier it gets.  You get used to the process and you become more comfortable speaking to the judge and opposing counsel.

Q:      What were the greatest challenges in your work your first year? Second year? Third?  In terms of the substance of your work?  In terms of handling or managing your schedule?  Other?  Why were these the greatest challenges?

 A:      My biggest challenge as a first year associate was making the transition from law school to the practice of law.  In college and law school, I usually had a good idea of how my work was stacking up.  After working a few months at my firm, however, it was hard for me to what people thought of my work—to tell whether I was perceived as a hard working associate or a complete idiot.  I now know that many people feel this way in their first year.

As I moved into my second year, the uneasy feelings I struggled with during my first year subsided and my challenges shifted to balancing my workload and understanding where my work fit into the larger litigation.  Oftentimes I was staffed on cases in the middle of discovery or at the summary judgment stage.  The next thing I knew, the parties were negotiating settlement and nothing ever came of the motion that I had been drafting.

           Being an associate is an evolving process.  As soon as you overcome one challenge, another quickly crops up in its place.  In some ways, this is one of the benefits of the job – you’re constantly learning new things and facing new challenges.  On the other hand, you do suffer some sleepless nights.

 Q:      If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to yourself as a first and second year associate?

 A:      When you first begin practicing law, there is a huge learning curve – you’re learning how to do substantive legal work, you’re learning how to handle many different (and sometimes difficult) personalities, and you’re learning how to manage your workload.  Every assignment feels like an emergency that needs to be completed right away.  It’s really important to communicate with the partners and senior associates that you are working with so that you are on the same page.  Sometimes, as a junior associate, you are afraid to ask questions.  Don’t be.  It is much better to ask questions to make sure you get it right than to spin your wheels for hours trying to figure out what the partner actually wants you to do for him or her.

 Q:      When did you start to have the status of a mid level associate? What marked the transition — how did your work change?

 I think I was considered a mid-level associate sometime between my third and fourth year.  For me, the transition was marked by one case that I worked on during that period.

I was assigned to the case by a young partner in my firm—I answered to him and he answered to the senior partner on the case.   Sometime in the middle of my third year, the young partner left the firm and I started reporting directly to the senior partner.  Being the only other attorney on the case, I was able to take a number of depositions and was ultimately given the opportunity to argue an appeal before the First District Court of Appeals.  Although I was nervous to lose the “buffer” between myself and the senior partner, it was a great learning experience for me.

Q:       When did you start to supervise junior associates rather than being supervised yourself?

           I began supervising junior associates in my third year.  I started out by managing document review projects and reviewing research conducted by second and third year associates.  In my third and fourth year, I was able to assign more substantive tasks.

Note: Post slightly edited as of 8/29/12]

How to Stop Procrastinating

Law school (and law practice) is infamous for requiring a lot of work, and as we embark on a new school year, many of you may be worrying about how you will get it all done, and done on time. I have recently come across several useful sources of advice about how to avoid (or, perhaps more realistically, how to break through) procrastination.

Perhaps most directly to the point is the following helpful list of “21 Ways to Crush Your Procrastination,” from the site Time Management Ninja. http://timemanagementninja.com/2012/07/21-ways-to-crush-your-procrastination/

Similarly, a post on LifeHack provides thoughtful reflections on why we procrastinate, and lists 11 of the most detailed and concrete practical pieces of advice I’ve seen about how to overcome procrastination and get a job done.  http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/11-practical-ways-to-stop-procrastination.html

Finally, the SALTLAW blog has a post about different types of faulty beliefs that tend to cause law students, in particular, to proscrastinate, and how they can break the cycle of those faulty beliefs. http://www.saltlaw.org/blog/2011/10/13/how-to-help-law-students-overcome-procrastination-and-faulty-thinking/

Please share in comments your own best tips for avoiding procrastination.

New Blogroll of Great Writing Sites

Concision and clarity are crucial to excellent legal writing. Most courts have strict page limits for briefs filed with the court, and your legal writing assignments will also have strict page limits. Moreover, when you enter the legal working world, your employer, colleagues, and clients will want you to deliver your advice to them as directly and concisely as possible. If you ramble on and on, or your meaning is unclear, they will stop reading. 1L legal writing students often struggle to stay within page limits, and ask me for advice about making their writing more concise without sacrificing substantive content.  My advice essentially boils down to good editing.

To help you develop good editing skills, I have added to the site a blogroll of good websites of advice about how to write well. These sites give advice on writing concisely, using correct grammar, and using correct punctuatiion (for example, the important difference in meaning between commas and semi-colons!).  Some of the sites include practice exercises on how to edit your writing for concision — that is, getting the same idea across in fewer words.

One of the most common problems of beginning legal writers is their tendency to write paragraphs that contains several sequential sentences that say essentially the same thing, but worded differently. One of the most effective ways to make a document shorter is to read the document looking specifically for such redundant sentences. Unfortunately, I haven’t found many exercises for practicing this skill (though the article on “Combining
Sentences and Editing Paragraphs” linked to in the blogroll does contain some). But I will keep looking!