Thursday, June 30, 2011
The Importance of Good Writing
Law schools cannot teach students to be excellent writers. While some new lawyers are excellent writers, excellence for most takes years of effort. Nothing puts you at peril more quickly than sloppy, unfocused, or error-filled writing. Some supervising lawyers are anal-retentive about writing. But that is not unfair in a world where clients pay a literal fortune for legal advice and have the right to expect perfection.
If you wouldn’t accept a sloppy paint job on your Saab, or a shoddy work on your condominium, why should clients tolerate sloppy prose? A simple typo can cause a multi-million dollar headache (just ask Stroock). Lawyers who criticize carelessness are trying to teach you lessons that they learned years ago. Do not resent it. Spell checking and grammar checking are not the guardians of perfection. Take the time to abide by the Mary Poppins Rule (“practically perfect in every way.”). Sometimes the most conspicuous and embarrassing errors survive spell check and grammar check — misspelling the name of the client, the partner, or the project are three favorites.
Consider what happens to your written work product. First, it crosses the desk of the lawyer who assigned the project. Next, it will be read by another partner or two who work in that department. Finally, a copy is sent to the partner who runs the summer program. At the end of the summer writing can be the tie-breaker in determining whether you receive an offer. Remind yourself about this process before you turn in anything written.
Death by Diction
Make every effort to banish slang from the workplace and all forms of written and oral communication. Forgive the partners if they are offended by someone who uses the word “like” 23 times in 30 seconds as a verb, a noun, a gerund, a state of mind, and a verbal tic. It makes you sound like a poorly educated teenager trapped in a mall. While you’re at it, skip the shorthand messages on emails that are used frequently in your text messages with friends. A few years ago I met with a law student with an impressive record who mis-used the word “like” 132 times in a 30 minute counseling session. It was excruciating.
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