Saturday, May 26, 2012
The Second Draft was the newsletter of the Legal Writing Institute. It recently got a production upgrade, and now it's a magazine. But despite that change, it continues to share news of your promotions, publications, presentations, and noteworthy program developments of your school's legal writing program. They will appear in the "Program News and Accomplishments" section in the upcoming issue of The Second Draft, the Official Magazine of the Legal Writing Institute.
Submit your news before July 1, 2012. Send it in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. And have the subject line read "Program News and Accomplishments."
Hat tip to Harris Freeman and The Second Draft Editorial Board
We love the (new) legal writer. It's a great blog, with lots of useful information for legal writers and those who teach them. Its latest post shares with us a website that helps track down the origins of phrases. Click here to have a quick look. Really, that phrase is a Klingon proverb?
Hat tip to Raymond Ward, the appellate lawyer in New Orleans who runs the (new) legal writer blog.
Friday, May 25, 2012
If you like to give your students tips about outlining, check this short article by Melissa Henke of the University of Kentucky. She presents good reasons to outline before writing a document and offers some ideas about the outlining process. Henke also gives this helpful suggestion: write an “after-the-fact outline” as an effective way to check a document’s structure and logic.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
The Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law expects to hire at least one legal writing professor next year. If you are attending the LWI conference next week, look for Cynthia Adams, Jim Dimitri, Allison Martin, Debby McGregor, or Joel Schumm. They can answer your questions about the position.
Hat tip to Joan Ruhtenberg
Phillip Sparkes of Northern Kentucky University has published an informative piece on English word order. As an example, he presents this confusing sentence “Many linguists, that modern languages from a common ancestor came, accept.” A speaker of contemporary English can barely understand that sentence because its words are out of the expected order. Sparkes’s article may help students understand why some sentences are awkward. It also contains a helpful discussion of the passive voice, explaining why it is hard to understand and when it may be appropriate.
Last Friday, I had the opportunity to observe closing arguments in a local capital murder trial. I was impressed with the advocacy and was moved by the arguments I heard. One disturbing aspect of the process, however, was the reading of the jury charge. The judge read the charge out loud to jurors who dutifully took notes and flipped through the document as he read. I was struck by how poorly it was written. This wasn't the fault of the judge or lawyers in the case because the charge was taken, in large part, from pattern instructions.
The instructions were rife with style problems and legalese. The definitions were arcane and incomprehensible to jurors without legal training. As a result, little of the argument turned on the jury charge. This was a wise move by the lawyers in the case -- the poorly written charge would never lead the jurors to clarity or truth. But an unfortunate byproduct of the lawyers being forced into this path was the subjugation of law to gut instinct, reason to passion. All of this in one of the most solemn settings our justice system faces: a man on trial for his life (in this case life without parole) for taking the life of another.
We can do better. Plain English in jury instructions should be a priority for those in the legal writing community. In 1998, Professors Steele and Thornberg published an article, Jury Instructions: A Persistent Failure to Communicate. The article "report[ed] on an empirical study of juror comprehension of pattern jury instructions. It demonstrated that comprehension of the original instructions was poor, but that rewriting significantly improved their ability to understand and explain the meaning of the instructions." Nearly fifteen years have passed since this study was dissemenated. Some efforts have been made in the area, but confusing instructions persist. If it is true that rewriting jury instructions in plain English can improve juror comprehension, then we owe it to our clients and communities to do so.