How College Writing Is Different Than Law School Writing - JD Advising
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Law School Writing

How College Writing Is Different Than Law School Writing

Many students who were lauded as good writers in college are eager to put their writing skills to work in law school.  Political Science and English majors, having written many, many long papers with interesting words and complicated thesis statements, are often sure that law school memos, briefs, and essays will not be as challenging.  This, unfortunately, can prove to be a misplaced thought.  Looking at the differences between college writing versus law school writing before law school is an excellent way to prepare to make that transition. In this post, we’ll discuss how college writing is different than law school writing.

How College Writing Is Different Than Law School Writing

Structurally Different

There is no doubt that writing in college, forming arguments, choosing words wisely, and getting to the point can definitely serve a student well in law school. However, college writing is different than law school writing —in both form and function.  Take for example the traditional law school essay structure. This is commonly referred to as “IRAC.” Simply stated, IRAC stands for “issue, rule, application, conclusion.” (Another form of this structure includes “CIRAC,” or “conclusion, issue, rule, application, conclusion.”)  IRAC will follow you throughout your entire law school career. Students use IRAC in memos, briefs, exams, and yes, even on the bar exam.  As we discuss below, the idea is very simple, but it is not always as simple in practice.

Writing Formulaically

College writing tends to give students leeway to expound upon an idea or thought with few, if any, concrete rules to which students must adhere.  This is patently not the case in law school.  In law school essay exams, students are basically required to use IRAC or CRAC.  So what exactly does that look like?  Well, first students identify the legal issue, (or in some cases, issues), then state the relevant legal rule, (or rules), and finally, using the facts of the case, work to a legal conclusion.  Depending on the professor, students may also be required to write an argument in the alternative, essentially picking holes in the argument a student just made.

However, extraneous information and effusive writing serve as a disadvantage.  More is not better.  Rules that do not apply to the fact pattern should not be used, and mere recitation of general concepts of law is equally discouraged.  (Another pro-tip:  avoid adverbs).  To get a head start on your transition to law school writing, check out this previous post, Five Legal Writing Tips for Law Students.

Based on Research (or at the very least, precedent)

College writing is different than law school writing in that college writing can draw upon novels, textbooks, YouTube videos, and other various linguistic modalities. However, law school writing is almost always based on some form of legal research (which can, and often does, include cases).  This post provides a great overview of how legal research informs legal writing and thinking, specifically during your first year.  Say goodbye to the days of sophisticated post-structuralist critiques.  Law school writing demands that you build an argument based on other people’s ideas and arguments.  Creativity in legal writing arises when the writer can compare and distinguish, in an effective, tone-appropriate manner.

Finally, clarity and simplicity are your two guides as you begin your legal writing journey. Identify the issue.  State the rule.  Apply the rule to the facts and conclude.  Students who adhere to that structure, will not only likely do well on the exam but they will also engage in the process of writing (and thinking) like a lawyer.

Pointed and Precise

College writing often asks students to draw out an argument. In some instances, students use metaphors and similes not as a means to be direct, but rather as a means to have the reader think about what could be meant.  Readers are encouraged to question what something may symbolize or represent, leaving room for interpretation.

Law school writing, on the other hand, looks for precision and plain meaning.  While it is true that the occasional metaphor or simile can be effective, this should never be the norm.  Similarly, while analogies can serve as an excellent way to make an argument or defend a point, it is also true that analogies can also be attacked, leaving the writer’s argument vulnerable to a sharp critique.  

Grammatically Flawless

While a professor may take points off of a college paper for the errant comma or misplaced apostrophe, law school professors may not be as sympathetic.  Law school essays and exams that are peppered with problematic grammar issues present a bit more of a challenge in part because, well, it could change the entirety of your legal argument.  Consider the following:  “Jane Doe sued John Flynn.”  If a student were to write “Defendants’ argument is without merit,” Jane Doe would likely wonder who else she was suing.  (For more information on recent court cases that hinged on grammar, do a google search for case law involving the Oxford comma.)

All Words Matter

One final way that college writing is different than law school writing is that all words matter. This may seem to be stating the obvious, but it’s a point worth hammering home.  Like grammar, words can make, or break, a legal argument.  Like the placement of the comma, the (mis)placement of the word “only,” can leave the argument of the unsuspecting writer susceptible to misunderstanding and confusion.  Students may strongly consider having a copy of Elements of Style nearby.

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