Legal Writing

Suing a school for giving you bad grades seems ludicrous. On the other hand, there’s something respectable about filing a 60-paragraph complaint in response to a law school telling you that you’ve failed Legal Writing and Civil Procedure. It’s kind of meta when you think about it.

The crux of the story is that a the law school demanded that a 3L retake CivPro II: Electric Boogaloo because he got a D the first time around. This interfered with his plans for his 3L year, so he decided to take them to court. In the process, every complaint he has about the school worked its way into the filing.

Which law school is getting sued?

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Yeah, yeah: That title caught your eye.

I thought about titling this column “Litigation Aphorisms,” but who the heck would have read it?

So I went instead with the first of three critical things you should know about litigation, all of which I learned from Neil Falconer when I practiced at the 20-lawyer firm of Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco back in the 1980s. (I also dedicated The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Neil. He wasn’t a “mentor”; he just accidentally taught young lawyers by osmosis what it meant to be a lawyer.)

Neil’s first aphorism was this: “Never tell a small child not to stick peanuts up his nose.”

Why does that matter?

Or maybe I should start with a more basic question: What the heck does that mean?

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One of the things I hear from lawyers is: “I want to write, but I don’t have the time/know where to post/want to start a blog.”

Now I’m not in the blog-selling business or believe that every lawyer should have a blog because I’m not in the blog-selling business. (Get ready commentariat.) Not every lawyer can write (there commentariat… go!), but if you want to write, I’ll offer my thoughts. I offer them because this is my column, and I can do whatever I damn well please and I feel like it.

The first thing you have to determine when thinking about writing is your audience.

Unfortunately, many of you law review types actually think anyone out there wants to read something closely resembling a law review article. You can’t write anything without citing to case law or other articles no one has read or wants to read. You believe you’re still writing for adoration of your ability to analyze the history of some statute. You believe you can’t write anything unless it takes you weeks to research and is perfectly cited. You believe writing is done to impress rather than educate or inform.

When you write, you’ll see — ahem — comments about the writing style. Those are coming from those that can’t write like normal people. They spent months writing some over-cited, boring article that no one read and are raging against anyone who writes something interesting that contains a non-law-review-type writing style…

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What’s the difference between an ATL commenter and an ATL correspondent?

A commenter writes, “Screw you, Herrmann, and the horse you rode in on. And your wife, and your kids. And your grandma. And your cat.”

A correspondent writes a long, thoughtful email, like the one I received from a reader in Rochester, New York, who read my column, “On Tweedledee And Tweedledum, Esq.,” and accused me overvaluing good writing:

“In litigation, while writing is important, it is not paramount. Just as, or more, important are analyzing law and facts and knowing what claims or defenses to assert. Then developing a strategy for discovery – knowing what documents to ask for, where to search, what questions to ask at deposition – none of which requires much writing at all and certainly not great writing skill. Developing the facts – and developing them in a way to help and not harm your case – is often much more important than writing a great brief. Knowing what issues to dispute in discovery and which to cede is important. Negotiating skills are important. Legal research skills are significant. Then, if a case goes to trial, entirely different skills are needed. Using an example from your column, because a lawyer writes an excellent brief does not mean they know how to properly prepare a witness or question a witness. . . . Someone can write with great style and flair but use bad analysis, miss significant facts or fail to find an important case.”

I have two reactions: First, thanks for writing. And, second, maybe yes and maybe no . . .

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, Noah Messing of Yale Law School — author of the newly released book, The Art of Advocacy: Briefs, Motions, and Writing Strategies of America’s Best Lawyers (affiliate link) — explores how law firms might reassess how they select junior associates.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have hired thousands of employees over the last decade by relying on brain teasers such as “Why are manhole covers round?” and “How would you weigh your head?” One psychology professor concluded last year that this sort of “puzzle interview is being used with greater frequency by employers in a variety of industries.” Earlier this week, however, a top human resources executive at Google reported that his company had scrapped the practice, offering the following admission: “brainteasers are a complete waste of time.” Google realized that its tests failed to identify the traits that correlate with success. For instance, Google now seeks managers who are “consistent and fair,” even if they aren’t good at estimating how many golf balls can fit inside a school bus.

Law firms are overdue for a similar reassessment of how they select junior associates. And as a corollary, law students should pay attention to the skills that law firms ask them about.

Let’s start with the employers. Several years ago, I organized a focus group of partners from top-10 Vault firms. I wanted to learn which skills Yale Law should emphasize as we continue to modernize the way that we train our students. The partners (including two corporate attorneys) all said that legal writing was the most important skill for junior associates.

The simplest way to know how candidates write, of course, is to evaluate their writing….

Read more at the ATL Career Center….

The Scripps National Spelling Bee took place this week. I find that contest to be a cruel torture for young people who don’t need the pressure or exposure of being forced to fail in front of a national audience. Also, I don’t like watching little kids who can perform tasks I can only dream about.

But, in honor of the Spelling Bee, we’ve decided to have our own Above the Law spelling contest. How do you have a spelling contest on a blog without audio, you ask? Well, have you ever seen me try to spell without spell check?

Here’s how it’s going to work: I’m going to give you a little vignette during which I murder some legalese, and you’re going to tell me what I meant. No cheating…

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I’ve finally plucked “big firm mediocre” out of my life.

First, I left Biglaw, so I’m no longer revising lifeless drafts that arrive either up through the ranks or from co-counsel.

Then, my corporation entered fixed fee deals for virtually all of its litigation work. We invited only firms that do good work to compete for our business, and the winners have performed as expected: No brief arrives at our doorstep until it’s been reviewed by someone who can write.

But we still have a few strays: There are cases in oddball jurisdictions or involving unusual specialties where we select counsel on an individualized basis. And we still have old cases lingering from before our fixed-fee days staffed by an assortment of counsel. Once in a long while, I still run into briefs written in the “big firm mediocre” style.

What’s funny is how consistent it is. Although the briefs address different subjects in different jurisdictions, and they’re written by different people, “big firm mediocre” constitutes its own distinct literary genre. Care to write in that genre (or assess whether you already do)? Here are the characteristics:

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You want to know what the future of law entails for you? Probably not much. You do the same crap everyone else does. You’re some run-of-the-mill commercial litigator, or you write the same wills as every other estate planning lawyer, or you’re an “aggressive” and “caring” and “passionate” criminal-defense lawyer that will “fight for your rights.”

It’s all garbage. You don’t matter. You compete on price and spend your day wondering what works better — pay-per-click, or your Facebook Fan Page. You’ll pay the bills and get a nice case every so often, but you’re just another lawyer wondering why the world hasn’t lined up to hire you.

The future of law is specialization. I’m not just talking about “niche” practices, I’m talking about specialization within your practice. I’m talking about being a resource in your practice area, or knowing more about a specific issue than the others. And yes, I have examples, calm down, I’ll lay this out for you in simple, easy terms that you can understand. Maybe you can even put some of this to work in the middle of contemplating your miserable life as a lawyer….

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* A study finds that over 93 percent of attorneys, judges, and legal writing professors think the writing they’re reading is bad. One could argue this is evidence of a crisis in writing skills. Or one could argue that lawyers are a**holes who think every voice other than their own is wrong. It’s a 50/50 shot. [Associates Mind]

* If you ever wondered how many OSHA violations one could find with Jabba’s Palace, wonder no more. [Legal Geeks]

* Are you scared of Obamacare? Here’s a roundup of your official survival guides! [The New Republic]

* If you’re trying to enter the United States, border agents can seize your electronics and look at all your private files because you need to respect their authoritah! [Forbes]

* Joseph Kennedy Jr. died helping to invent drones. OMG, you guys! The drone war is the final stage of the Kennedy family’s long-term liberal plan for world domination. [io9]

* Senator Menendez has hired McDermott Will & Emery and Perkins Coie to conduct spin control now that he’s getting flak for privately funded air travel and hooker allegations. See what you can do with your law degree! [The BLT: The Blog of the Legal Times]

* Avvo is expanding their legal rating service into a full research tool to allow potential clients to pick out lawyers. So you’d better get in good with Avvo now. [Avvo]

* Now here’s a trick — watch Magic Circle lawyers disappear! Pepper Hamilton, now led by Louis Freeh, lures Linklaters lawyers to its ranks. [Thompson Reuters News & Insight]

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski at Yale Law School

Last week, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski paid a visit to Yale Law School, where he made two public appearances. He had a Charlie Rose-style conversation with Noah Messing, YLS’s Lecturer in the Practice of Law and Legal Writing, and then he did an event with the Federalist Society, moderated by a current student, Jon Fougner.

Let’s hear what His Honor had to say, about a wide range of topics — his favorite opinion of his, tips for getting ahead in the legal profession, advocates who have impressed him over the years, why you shouldn’t take your mother to your oral argument, and why you should read Playboy (hint: it’s not for the articles)….

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