In the absence of a good prof, how can I teach myself legal research & writing?
September 22, 2010 1:56 PM   Subscribe

Good resources online for learning legal writing, research, and citation?

Anon because I don't want my location to give away where I'm going and get me in trouble for complaining. I'm a 1L at a third-tier school. Full scholarship, I had to stay local for personal reasons. Most of my classes are better than I expected. My legal writing instructor is, sadly, crap, and has announced her intention to grade us very harshly while simultaneously not wanting to answer questions and giving very unclear explanations as to how to do things. She already scolded the whole subsection for how poorly we collectively did on one exercise, and then told us to go back and redo it--without any feedback on what we'd done wrong. Needless to say, most people turned it in with few changes, and she was still really upset, and so far she still hasn't explained what we were all doing wrong.

It seems, if I want to save my grades, I may have to teach myself instead. With that in mind, what are some good books/websites/whatever resources for learning these things that don't need an instructor's interpretation to be useful? I think I'm doing better than most of the class, but I want to really learn how to do this, not just muddle by well enough to pass.
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
With that in mind, what are some good books/websites/whatever resources for learning these things that don't need an instructor's interpretation to be useful?

That's just it, though. If your legal writing class is anything like mine, a LOT will come down to her interpretation when she judges the structure of your writing (as opposed to the citations which are objective). I really think your best bet will be to find an upper class student who got an A in her class and get tutoring from that student. She can probably recommend one to you.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:33 PM on September 22, 2010

Legal Writing in Plain English: A Text with Exercises by Bryan Garner. (Really, anything by Garner -- I also recommend The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, but start with Legal Writing in Plain English.)

But know this -- it may not matter. Your teacher may not be a very good teacher. She may be looking for something very specific but be unable to show you or teach you how to do that specific thing -- and she may not be able to recognize the variations on that specific thing that you might turn in that would be considered "good" legal writing.

I think a lot of people assume legal writing is going to be a crap class -- and in a lot of places, it is. So don't hang your entire year on your legal writing grade. Work hard in your other classes and do well in those. And teach yourself legal writing not to save your legal writing grade but so you learn how to write as a lawyer on your exams (and then, later, in practice).

I commend you for being serious about learning legal writing on your own. Just do it because you actually want to learn it and not because you want to get an A in legal writing. Chances are the latter is just not going to happen.
posted by devinemissk at 2:35 PM on September 22, 2010

Also, go to her office hours at every possible opportunity. Be humble. Don't be fighty and irritable that she is being unclear and opaque even if she is. If one way she explains it isn't clear, try again and try humbly to get her to say it another way. Don't give up.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:37 PM on September 22, 2010

Also -- if this class is graded on on curve -- the difference between an A- and a B+ on any given assignment may end up being something utterly insane, if the instructor is in a situation where they have to slightly raise or lower a few grades to make the curve work, and they look for nitpicky things. We had a situation in my class where the instructor crossed out a single word someone had used, replaced it with an exact synonym, and took points off.

Knowing your instructor's own personal nitpicky things and idiosyncracies can be absolutely crucial, regardless of how good your legal writing would be considered in a general sense.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:48 PM on September 22, 2010

I totally sympathize. My research and writing class was crap too. (If it's any comfort, you will have a crash course in this when you start your first job.)

In a nutshell, good legal writing is (1) making your points persuasively and (2) citing correctly. The second part is easy -- the bluebook is well-written and nicely organized and you can pretty much glean what you need to know from that. The first part is harder because most people are not good writers (I was shocked to learn that even most lawyers and even many judges are not good writers) and even if you are a strong writer, it may take some work to become a good legal writer. Most law students and recent grads have the hardest time varying their style to the type of document they're producing. A memo has a lot of "one one hand . . . on the other hand" kind of analysis, but that same analysis has little place in a brief you submit to court or in a draft of an opinion you're preparing for a judge's signature.

Cribbing from Bryan Garner and Justice Scalia, you should read good examples of each kind of document if you want to become proficient at writing those documents. In other words, teach yourself writing by reading. If your instructor has more examples, read them all. Read opinions from judges who are awesome writers (Scalia is a great example; many people point to Posner), read memos from attorneys you respect, read briefing from great lawyers in famous Supreme Court cases.
posted by *s at 3:46 PM on September 22, 2010

There are four things you can do:

1. Read this book.

2. Read scholarly legal writing. Find an article on a topic that interests you and read it through, including the footnotes. Do this with as many articles as you need to until you develop a "feel" for what good scholarly legal writing looks like.

3. Read legal briefs and cert petitions. Cert petitions are available in many places - try SCOTUS watch. They'll point out particularly important ones. You can probably get legal briefs through Lexis or Westlaw.

4. If you want, you can send me your writing and I'll give you feedback. I'm a 3L and an editor on my journal, so I've been reading a lot of student notes and giving a lot of feedback. Happy to help if I can! Memail me for my gmail.
posted by prefpara at 4:12 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Garner is fantastic, but he won't help you if your instructor is an idiot who likes flowery legalese. Ashley801's suggestion to find someone who did well is probably your best bet.
posted by Mavri at 4:49 PM on September 22, 2010

Agree with the above re: Garner, and that it won't matter. But wanted to add: tell the school. Either tell someone now, or tell them when you review the teacher, or something. And try to encourage other people to do the same. They need to know you're having this problem. Especially in this market, it's not good of she's grading you harshly for no reason.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:42 PM on September 22, 2010

You need to approach your professor during office hours with as open a mind and as little ego as possible. Even "plain language" LR/LS departments teach a highly structured and initially very awkward sort of writing. It is supposed to tie into the pedagogy of first-year: teaching you how to spot issues, how to determine rules, how to make the analysis, how to come to the right conclusion. Try to compartmentalize everything you ever loved about reading or writing and keep it out of your LRW class. Try to realize that you're basically learning a rigid structure--like those third grade poetry classes when you had to count syllables and memorize ABBAAC rhyming structures--and after you've mastered that, you can go back to writing more naturally. Tell your instructor that you don't understand what she is trying to get you to and have her walk you through the exercise in her office, during her office hours. That is, after all, part of her job.

What was the exercise? If it was a citation exercise, ask any instructor or read the Cornell guide while you're doing your exercises. If you can find an instructor who wants to talk about why they wrote the Bluebook the way they did, it will be incredibly boring, but it will suddenly make sense. If you've got a writing resource center, go to it. The staff there will know the individual instructor quirks and will have good strategies for it. Or go to the journal offices and ask the 2 & 3Ls who had this instructor and what advice they have for her class.

Is the issue IRAC? Or CRuPAC, or CREAC? They are all, in essence, the same thing. They highly ritualized, repetitive formula we teach in LRW. Regardless of which acronym your teacher is teaching, I recommend Anne Enquist and Laurel Oates, Just Memos. Their Just Briefs and Just Research and Just Writing are really good, too. I recommend taking them with you to your first couple of jobs.

I taught LRW for a few years, and used the Volokh text linked above extensively, but not with 1Ls. From the law school curriculum perspective, that Volokh book is worse than useless to a 1L. When you get to the seminar papers/law review comment stage, it will be invaluable, but in 1st year LRW at anything other than Yale, Chicago, Harvard or those schools, it won't help you.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:43 PM on September 22, 2010

Please consider talking to the law librarians at your school. They may know some quirks about the instructor that will help but more importantly....they'll know the ins and outs of citation, how to do research more efficiently, and may well have writing tips (the law librarians at my law school got me through legal writing).

2nding crush-onastick's advice about journal offices or other organizations as well.

Tomorrow when I'm more awake, I'll add some links on research and citation.

And I also would be happy to help where I can via Memail. I am a law librarian. Helping to teach this stuff is part of my job.

It gets easier. I promise.
posted by eleanna at 11:22 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hm, I thought I had linked the Cornell guide.

And, eleanna makes a good point: your law school librarian is a great resource. I forgot that I relied heavily on our TA and the librarians in my first-year (and second-year) LRW/LS classes.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:19 AM on September 23, 2010

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