Why You Need to Self-Critique in Law School

In law school, you should learn everything from practical skills to how to network with esteemed legal professionals.

The danger of being in the safe and warm embrace of law school, however, is that you become too reliant on other people’s insights and feedback.

Whether you are a first year or third year law student, now is the perfect time to learn how to self-critique.

Why it matters

When you graduate law school, you should be able to think, talk, and write like a lawyer. You also need to be self-reliant and able to work on your own.

With the legal economy undergoing a transformation, employers want young attorneys who jump into the fire right after graduation. You will still learn as a young attorney, but most employers expect you can complete a task on your own. In other words, you will be assigned a writing assignment and expected to finish it without much, if any, assistance.

Every lawyer is different, but most attorneys probably don’t have the time (or interest) in reading an outline or a rough draft of a task they assigned you. Even if you have a mentor—it’s your job to research it, write, polish it, and submit a final product. If you can develop the ability to self-critique in law school, you will put yourself in a better position to succeed after law school.

If you decide to take the plunge into solo practice, self-critique is absolutely critical. While you can always bounce ideas and questions off your colleagues, asking them to review and critique a brief is very uncommon.

Of course, this does not mean you should live in a bubble during law school. You will have access to tenured professors, legal writing instructors, and all sorts of other individuals who can assist you. By all means, take advantage of those resources. That said, you can develop your own self-critiquing skills and utilize those resources simultaneously. If you are completely dependent on detailed feedback from other individuals, you are in for a rude awakening after law school.

Easy ways to self-critique

Read, read, and read again

The process of writing, editing, writing, editing, writing is tried and true. The fast paced world of lawyers can be misleading and trick law students into thinking every brief is written two hours before a deadline. Those circumstances are more the exception than the rule. Admittedly, most lawyers do not have time to spend weeks working on something, but they do have more than two hours.

In my humble opinion, there is nothing more helpful than writing a draft, letting it sit for a few days, and then reading it again with fresh eyes. When I force myself to this process, I am always amazed at how many changes I make on round two. More importantly, I am amazed at how helpful those changes are. You will notice organizational changes that need to be made.

You will pick up on those awkward sentences that are way too long because you are trying to make more than one point and use way too many superfluous words in one sentence (yes, that was intentional). You will noibice typos, formatting errors, and page numbers in a different font.

To really excel at this, I highly suggest printing out your work and reading it by hand. If you are super-eco-friendly, then go to a coffee shop and read it there on your laptop. Changing locations and changing perspectives (paper v. screen) will help you look at your work with fresh eyes.

Read out loud

According to unscientific study, most people read by saying the words inside their head. With that in mind, wouldn’t it make sense to read your writing outloud? It’s not the most enjoyable thing, but it works.

It will help you catch more awkward sentences and will dramatically improve your flow and clarity. I find it is especially helpful for eliminating run-on sentences. If you are running out of breath, then your reader’s internal voice will do the same.

Even if you think this concept is crazy talk, at least use it for portions you are struggling with. If you are writing a brief, you are going to say it outloud anyway. Talking your way through it will force you to understand the tricky concepts. More importantly, you will figure out a way to effectively  and persuasively convey that information.

Sure, it sounds crazy. But it helps.

There are more than two techniques

At some point—whether in law school or after—every attorney has learned and hopefully mastered the art of self-critique. The techniques here are not the only way to develop the art.

What has worked for you?

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/woicik/4277002287/)

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  • Ronique Breaux jordan

    Minimizing the amount of information researched is beginning to make it easier to draft a document, concisely, in a shorter period of time…maybe business school is helping the process…

  • http://www.meganhuntlaw.com Megan C. Hunt

    This is true for more areas of practice than only legal writing: when you decide what cause of action to plead, or whether to file a specific motion, or which witnesses to present, or really any number of “judgment calls,” you have to recognize when there’s no one but you to make the decision.

  • http://jrwilliamslaw.com/ Josh Williams

    I try to read opinions from judges I have identified as strong writers–Posner, Easterbrook, and Roberts, to name a few–every month.

  • http://www.passthebaton.biz Susan Gainen

    Every kind of writing benefits from multiple re-readings.

    Reading out loud is a critically important way to get the bugs out, and to decide whether you are making your points with the words on the page or with the inflection in your voice. Until you can submit audio briefs, you’ve got to rely on the words on the page.

    Very useful post!