Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Thinking Tuesdays: Practicing the Violin for Legal Writers
Margaret Hannon, guest blogger, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School
A violinist studying to be a professional must practice between four to six hours a day, with at least one hour devoted to studies and simple exercises. Professor Ian Gallacher argues that the same should be true of legal writers—just as violinists must practice the violin every day to become better violinists, so must lawyers practice writing every day to become “more reflective, intentional, and more technically assured, writers.” This comparison is the genesis of Professor Gallacher’s article, “Four-Finger Exercises: Practicing the Violin for Legal Writers,” forthcoming in Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD.
The article begins with a slice of music history, focusing on the origins of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, “arguably the greatest violin sonata composed.” Professor Gallacher weaves together the sonata’s history with the intersection of Beethoven and Rodolphe Kreutzer, “a very obscure French violinist” who found himself the dedicatee of a sonata that he had never performed or heard of, and George Polgreen Bridgetower, a “violin virtuoso” who was the sonata’s likely intended dedicatee (until he got into a fight with Beethoven over a woman, or so the story goes).
But Kreutzer’s greatest legacy is the collection of 42 studies that he wrote while he was a Professor of Violin at the Paris Conservatoire in the late eighteenth century. Each study requires the violinist to explore a specific element of violin technique in a methodical and careful manner. By using only simple and easily remembered notes, the studies allow the violinist to focus on technique without having to worry about musical expressivity. For example, in the famous second study, Kreutzer number two, the violinist is tasked with fifteen versions, or “incipits,” of the first measure of the exercise in order to perfect her bowing technique. The study is a “complete laboratory for bowing, allowing the violinist a place to work on every conceivable style of bow stroke and configuration.”
Just like violinists, legal writers also need to practice the technical components of their craft. But after the first year of law school, most lawyers never practice their writing again. As Professor Gallacher explains, lawyers “perform writing, but don’t practice it.” This lack of practice is understandable: lawyers are overwhelmed by their billable hours, already churning out and handling a “flood of words.” And yet, for “anyone who seeks to persuade, or attempts to summarize complex information in simple, well-structured, and easily read portions,” fine-tuning one’s writing is essential. Thus, Professor Gallacher sets out to propose the legal writing equivalent of Kreutzer’s studies.
So, what does writing training after law school look like? Professor Gallacher begins by introducing suggestions to consider when completing the exercises that he later proposes. His suggestions—“not rules”—include: (1) stepping away from the law and concentrating on the act of writing itself; (2) experimenting with how fonts and text size may impact your work; (3) practicing for 15 minutes, ideally in the morning; (4) practicing daily, or at least regularly; (5) changing your writing medium to see if it affects your style and quality of writing; (6) changing your writing conditions (music in the background? location?) to see if that affects your writing; (7) identifying your writing routine and your “trigger to creativity”; (8) waiting to review your exercise writings for a couple of days, identifying trends (both good and bad), and, for further reflection, joining other lawyers in a writers’ circle; (9) demanding honesty about the merits of the work and kindness to the writer; (10) identifying your weaknesses and coming up with exercises to work on those weaknesses; and (11) recognizing, and being okay with the fact, that these exercises were designed to develop technique, not to produce artistry.
Professor Gallacher builds on the foundation of these suggestions by proposing ten exercises that, like Kreutzer’s violin studies, are intended to help lawyers improve the distinct components of legal writing. Within each exercise, Professor Gallacher includes alternatives and questions for reflection, pushing lawyers to honestly critique their approach and technique. His proposed exercises range from freewriting, designed to “stretch out writing muscles and prepare you for a day’s writing,” to writing about an engaging piece of art without adverbs or adjectives, designed to have you “write objectively about something that is inherently subjective and emotional in nature.” With just a few minutes a day (ideally, fifteen), legal writers can practice their craft so that when it is time to perform, they are ready.
Legal writing is a skill that, like all skills, must be maintained. Professor Gallacher’s article succeeds in explaining why “simple repetition of performative writing is not enough.” His list of suggestions and exercises are both broad enough to stimulate creativity and narrow enough to provide an “action list” for legal writers who want to get better. The article is a great addition to the reading list of any practitioner, judge, or law student who wants to develop and fine-tune their legal writing abilities.
Special thanks to Alison Doyle for her help with this post.