After ramming through thousands of pages of homework and hundreds of pages of writing assignments, often at the last minute — perhaps a little too often — college students and graduates may think they are at the top of their game.
Law school, however, takes reading and writing to a whole new level. Compared with undergraduate texts, legal code and court opinions can seem written in an alien language. And many law students find legal writing to be the hardest core class they have to take in their first year.
There’s no question that college makes you a better reader and writer, but the quirks of undergraduate writing can also leave you with some bad habits. To prepare for law school, improve your written communication skills by following this advice:
— Take better notes.
— Write succinctly.
— Clarify your assumptions.
— Don’t show off.
Take Better Notes
The writers of the articles and textbooks you read in college often take great pains to communicate difficult concepts clearly and concisely. To prepare for class discussions and writing assignments, it is often enough to highlight key points and jot down a few notes or a brief summary.
Law school, however, is based on the case method. You learn by reading important legal cases and deducing common principles of how to interpret and apply real laws.
If you think your brain can recall all that information based on some highlighted passages, you may find yourself at a loss for words the first time a law school professor calls on you to analyze and critique a judge’s opinion.
Instead, law students “brief” each case by writing down key facts and legal findings and compiling long, carefully organized outlines that integrate all those cases.
Before law school, you can get a head start on briefing by developing more consistent and rigorous methods of note-taking. Try using color-coded highlights for different types of information. Try reading an article, summarizing the argument as briefly as possible and then coming up with counterpoints.
College often rewards writing long. Written assignments are more likely to have a minimum length than a page limit, and it rarely hurts to throw in extra quotes and supporting evidence for your arguments. You may even get the impression that long-winded sentences sound weightier and more mature.
Legal writing, however, is more structured and focused. While legal papers can be quite long, every sentence must contribute to the overall argument. Law professors have little patience for bloated and meandering paragraphs.
Even if undergraduate professors don’t explicitly require it, practice editing your papers to be direct and concise. Cut out redundancies and sentences that are not clearly related to your main points.
Clarify Your Assumptions
Because college is intended to cultivate independent thinking, students are often encouraged to share thoughts and reactions from their unique perspective.
In contrast, legal writing should be universal, because the law is meant to cover everyone equally. In order to develop your arguments, you need to carefully ensure that everyone can understand your reasoning from the evidence you present.
Even in college, you can start thinking about the unstated assumptions behind your arguments. Some of these assumptions may not be worth pointing out, like the meaning of common terms or agreed-upon facts.
Are there any assumptions that might not be so obvious to someone with a different background or perspective? If so, try to state those assumptions clearly, so all readers can understand how you came to your conclusions whether or not they agree with you.
Don’t Show Off
College students have a reputation for pretentiousness. The word “sophomoric” is even used to describe writing that is immature, conceited and overconfident. No one can look back at his or her adolescence without cringing about some of the things he or she said or wrote.
Because law school is a professional school, students are held to higher standards. If you start bloviating, referencing ideas you don’t understand or using big words just to sound smart, your law professors and fellow students will cut you down to size.
While college is a great time for taking intellectual risks, always be conscious of the limits of your knowledge. Great readers and writers focus more on what they still don’t know than what they presume to understand.
Reading and writing are lifelong practices. Not only will practice help you succeed in law school, it will make you a clearer thinker.
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Before Law School, Learn to Read, Write Like a Law Student originally appeared on usnews.com