Law school teaches law students to think like a lawyer, write like a lawyer, and talk like a lawyer.
Taking practical skill classes and/or getting practical experience during law school will go a long way towards enhancing those skills. One of the most valuable skills law students need to learn on their own, however, is how to edit and self-critique their own work.
Lawyers do not have editors
I run a solo firm, which means I write everything, I print it, staple it, address my envelopes, etc. That means before anything goes out the door it usually gets proofread at least twice, if not more. Do I make mistakes? Of course. But I’m almost certain that I make far fewer mistakes than opposing counsel, who are usually fortunate enough to have support staff that can edit documents.
Grammatical errors, typos, and other “easy” mistakes are fairly embarrassing. While they are unlikely to lose an otherwise victorious motion, sloppiness just looks bad to the court and opposing counsel. Most of the problems are easy to fix—if you start developing those skills during law school.
How to self-critique
Write a draft, edit it, write another draft, edit it, rinse, repeat. It is sometimes that simple. Just like real lawyers, law students get overwhelmed with work and tend to leave things to the last minute. When you are in a time crunch, however, it’s usually the little things that are overlooked.
I teach appellate advocacy and I give my students a suggested timeline for writing their rough draft over two weeks. Spend the first week writing a draft and spend the second week editing to get all the stylistic and formal elements perfect. I also tell them to print out a copy and read it aloud before handing it in. I still follow this pattern in my real practice (although sometimes I skip reading it aloud). Same thing with blog posts (although Sam is a sneaky-good editor).
In other words, make sure you read something at least twice before considering it “final.” As attorneys progress in their careers they become much better writers and spend less time editing and revising. Young attorneys, however, do not have that same skill level and need to learn how to edit and rework their briefs without someone else’s assistance.
To me, the most important element is giving something multiple looks. When you can step away from something or look at it with fresh eyes—reading it on paper versus a screen—you will see elements that need to be re-worked and you will catch the minor errors.
Editing in law school is just as important
I just read eleven appellate briefs from law students. By and large, I was impressed with my students’ understanding and analysis of the issues. I was also surprised that almost every student used a different font for the body of their brief and their page numbers.
On a computer screen, that might not be easy to spot. But during a final read-through, that error would be obvious. If you rely on an instructor to catch those mistakes in law school, that can be a recipe for disaster after law school, when you become your own editor.
If you can teach yourself to catch these mistakes while in law school, you will not only set yourself apart from your peers, it will accelerate your learning curve as a legal writer. That means after law school, your writing will also be more polished than similarly situated lawyers.
Start developing those skills in law school and set yourself apart from your peers after law school.