Top Five 1L Legal Writing tips: As you start your first year of law school, you will be surprised by how much advice you will receive from …everyone! What follows however, is some great advice as you prepare for one of your most important classes, Legal Writing. This is written by a legal writing professor who has seen the same mistakes made by 1L’s – over and over!
The typical law school legal writing course is organized such that during the first semester, you will learn how to write ‘objectively’, and during second semester, you will learn how to write as an ‘advocate’ (i.e. present an argument to the court in favor of your client).
During the first semester, your legal writing professor will likely give you two major assignments (called legal memoranda). In those assignments, you will address legal issues and answer legal questions. You will also tell the reader what the likely result is for each issue.
In these legal memoranda, there are some common mistakes that first year students tend to make. Here are five 1L legal writing tips to make sure you avoid those mistakes!
Top Five 1L Legal Writing Tips
1. Organize your memo using IRAC.
Remember, IRAC stands for: Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion. In essence, for each issue that you discuss, you state the rule of law, apply it to the facts, and arrive at a conclusion.
When students are not comfortable with IRAC, or if they are just starting to learn and understand this new type of organization, they sometimes decide not to use IRAC.
This is a mistake! You will use IRAC throughout your legal career. If you decide not to use IRAC in legal writing, you will confuse your reader. Your memo will become disjointed and confusing. IRAC is a very common organizational scheme which other attorneys, including the reader of your memo are familiar with and tend to expect.
2. Don’t state your opinion without backing it up!
This is another common mistake. Some students will state their opinion rather than using illustrative case law to analyze the given legal issue. When you merely state your personal opinion, you give the naïve reader no law (whether enacted or case law) upon which he/she can rely. Thus, your opinion really has no ‘authority’ to support the analysis of the particular issues.
Remember that even in a memorandum, the reader (typically your advising attorney and/or client) wants to both know and more importantly, clearly understand what the answer is to certain legal questions—in the context of the relevant law. If you are only giving the reader your opinions, he/she will not have a ‘legal’ answer. This is crucial in legal writing.
Keep in mind that in real life, even when you are drafting a memoranda, (a document that only your advising attorney and/or client may read), that document may evolve over time. For example, if your client decides to bring suit against an opposing party, that memoranda that you draft may become the outline for other ‘advocacy’ type documents such as a trial brief, motion or appellate brief. You cannot merely include your opinion in such a document. You must include law in each of these documents. A court cannot and will not decide an issue based only on your opinion.
Another common mistake which is easy to avoid, is when students forget to ‘self- edit’ their final draft of assignments. Self- editing is always important and truly takes your writing to the next level. This is true in law school and in real life. In real life, if an attorney files a motion or brief which contains typos, spelling errors, run-on sentences, etc., the reader (which many times includes judges) can become irritated.
You do not want a judge to become irritated with the form of your written document before he/she even gets to the crux of what you are trying to argue. Thus, make a point that, starting in your first semester, you will carve out time before each of your legal writing assignments is due, to review and ‘self-edit’ your assignments.
4. Don’t wait until the last minute!
Another very common mistake which students make is waiting until the absolute last minute to begin working on legal writing assignments. The result is an incomplete, unorganized memo or brief, which is very difficult for the naïve reader to understand. Students tend to underestimate the time it takes to draft a clear, well written document. And, it takes time to ‘think’.
That may sound funny, but writing a memo is not a process where you just say– “Poof—here is my memo Prof!”. Instead, ‘writing’ a memo first involves (depending on whether it is a ‘non-research’ or ‘research memo’) researching to find the relevant law; reading and re-reading relevant statute(s) and/or case law to make sure that you understand the law first. Then, you have to go through the process of presenting what you have learning (using IRAC) in a format which is clear, concise and easy for the naïve reader to understand. All of this takes time—more time than you think!
5. Pretend your due date is earlier than it is.
Because students constantly underestimate the time it takes to prepare a memo, here is another tip which I always give my students. If, for example, your legal writing professor tells you that your first memorandum is due on October 7th, you tell yourself, and write down in your calendar, that your first memorandum is due October 2nd. By shifting your ‘due date’ in your mind, you will force yourself to be organized.
You will also get in the good habit of doing a little bit each day, as opposed to trying to cram and complete the entire assignment within a few days. Make a promise to yourself that you will make sure to get yourself in this good habit.
Legal writing is a very important class. You will learn a new way of both thinking and writing about legal issues. If you take some of the above advice, you will feel a lot less stress and, may find that you actually enjoy the process!
This post was written by Professor K. Day. Ms. K. Day teaches legal writing to first, second and third year law students at Wayne State University Law School. She teaches both basic and advanced legal writing skills. Ms. Day also served as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Legal Practice at Peking University School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen, China where she assisted in the design and implementation of the Legal Practice Program for the first western style law school in China.