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Hidden Lessons: How My Creative Writing Major Helps Me In Law School.

When I first got to law school, everyone was so shocked when they asked my major and I said “English, specifically Creative Writing.” Most of my peers were political science, business, or international affairs or something equally as “pre-law” as those majors. Everyone was curious about why I chose to go to law school. To be honest, I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t be as prepared for law school as some of my poli-sci peers. But, as the first semester of my 1L year started, I found that my creative writing major had some hidden lessons that apply to law school, and to life.

  1. I Know The Grammar Rules

Starting with the most obvious benefits that could come from a writing major, I know how to write and edit. I know the grammar rules and I know how to use a semicolon. In my creative writing classes, half of our work was writing our own pieces, and the other half was editing other students’ pieces, so not only am I confident in my own writing, but I am also confident helping my peers with their writing.

In the field of law (and in every field) grammar is extremely important. When writing legal briefs and memos you have a very short amount of time to make your point. With this in mind, you don’t want your legal professor (or the Judge in the case you’re working on) to be distracted from your argument with grammar mistakes. Being able to condense, expand, twist, and shape what you’ve written into a coherent, succinct argument is extremely useful for legal writing and it’s something I was able to perfect in undergrad.

  1. I Know How To Give And Receive Criticism

In the world of creative writing, we do these lovely little things called “workshops.” Workshopping a piece consists of a student pouring their heart and soul into a short story, poem, or personal essay, handing out copies to the rest of the class, then coming back a week later and sitting, silently, while the rest of the class tears your work to shreds. A common mantra of the creative writing major is “I want improvement more than praise.” Through my degree, I learned to separate my own personal worth from the value of my work. I learned that just because my work isn’t good right now, that doesn’t mean that I’m not good. I learned to listen to others tell me everything wrong with what I did and take it as instructions for what to do in the future. This was not an easy thing to learn, but it has been extremely beneficial.

I am going to let you in on a little secret… law school is HARD. No matter what background you come from, you’re going to find that law school is an entirely different beast that needs taming. As with anything in life, you’re going to stumble a few times. The important thing is to pick up and keep going. Luckily, law school is a learning environment. This means your stumbles will come with lots of help to pick you back up. This help is often found in the form of constructive criticism. Whether it be red scribbles from your legal writing professor on your first memo, conversations in office hours with your torts professor going over a practice exam, or getting reviewed by your first employer in an internship, you’re going to experience constructive criticism. My creative writing major helped me learn to be gracious in accepting this criticism and helped me know how to change these constructive criticisms into action.

  1. I Know How To Communicate

Boiling creative writing down to its most basic form, what I really learned was communication. I learned how to better communicate my thoughts, my opinions, and my ideas into a form for others to understand. Whether this be in indirect ways like poetry, or extremely direct ways like in creative non-fiction, I learned how to say what I mean. This may seem like something easy and obvious, but it is surprising how useful this skill is in everyday life.

One of the most important parts of law is being able to communicate. With other lawyers, with judges, and with clients; a lawyer must know how to explain their thinking and their arguments. A lawyer must also know how to explain other people’s arguments. Communication is so important. Not only must a lawyer understand the “legalese” but they must also be able to translate that into everyday language for their clients. Everything about law is hinged upon communication, and my creative writing major makes me an expert in communication.

When I was looking at my options for my future, I talked to the pre-law advisor about what major I should choose and she said “it doesn’t matter what your major is, as long as your GPA is high enough to get in to the law school you want.” I took that to heart. Rather than going into political science or other pre-law major, I chose something fun that I could enjoy doing while still getting good grades. I chose creative writing. When I finally started law school, I didn’t expect my creative writing major to help me all that much, but I found that my poetry-writing, story-editing, sci-fi-fan-fiction-ing major had so many hidden lessons that have aided me in the transition to law school.

I fully believe what that advisor told me back then, it really doesn’t matter what major you’re coming into law school with. Every single major has hidden lessons that help with law school, and with life. For a chemistry major, they have been trained in seeing the way things fit together and break apart, so they might be faster to see trends in torts cases. For a music major, they see how different instruments come together to make a symphony, so looking at how the different parts of government come together to make a nation will help them understand the constitution so much better than someone without that background.

Overall, come into law school with confidence. You have so much to offer here, no matter what your background is. We can’t wait to have you.

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Four Tips from Creative Nonfiction for Better Legal Writing

Even though legal writing constitutes persuasive writing, litigators are rarely advised to learn from stylists of persuasive writing outside of judges and others litigators. This is surely a missed opportunity. Many forms of writing outside of the law, in particular, creative nonfiction for purposes of today’s post, offer truly insightful suggestions on how to more persuasively make fact-based arguments.

In “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up,” a guide to writing creative nonfiction, author Lee Gutkind describes the requirements for successful nonfiction in a manner recognizable to any successful litigator—an ability to “translate and communicate complicated ideas with compact specificity, even as they are being informative and dramatic.” Similarly, the remainder of the book offers up a number of essential rules for writers of creative nonfiction that are also adaptable to litigators who want to also successfully make engaging and persuasive arguments in their legal writing and briefs, some of which are highlighted and explained below.

1. Use of narrative. “People remember facts longer and more completely when they are part of a story. . . the jumping-off points for you to present relevant and important ideas and information related to these scenes or little stories.”

Litigators often forget that judges are human beings just like themselves, and not simply legal computers that process data and facts only. Judges appreciate a good story as much as the next person. The statement of facts section of a legal brief is as important as the legal argument and should not be overlooked. This section of the brief should be used to craft a coherent, relatable narrative that others would find persuasive and understandable. Such a coherent, relatable narrative provides a roadmap for how the Court should interpret each fact presented, and makes a Court more comfortable finding for you on the merits when it see that the facts support your version of the relevant events.

2. Showing and not telling. “When you’re writing description, you don’t want to lean on adjectives. The key to effective and evocative description is choosing intimate and specific details.”

Litigators often don’t trust the comprehension abilities of their target audience. As a result, they often aim to bludgeon the reader with the importance of each factual detail while often not giving insightful details. (e.g. “My client is too short to have reached the cookie jar. This case is a miscarriage of justice.”) Litigators can express the same sentiment more effectively with more specificity of detail and a lighter touch. (e.g. “My client is twelve years old and four feet tall. The cookie jar was in a cabinet ten feet up from the ground, inaccessible to anyone without a ladder. There was no ladder in the house.”) The extra factual details show that you have a better grasp of your facts, make your argument more memorable, and also allows the reader to feel as if they came to a conclusion on the facts on their own.

3. Get to the point early. “[W]hen writing a scene, think about thrusting your reader into the heat of the action as quickly as possible. . . The faster you get readers involved in the story of your essay, the longer they’ll stay with you.”

Different legal writing instructors offer different advice on how to begin writing the body of a brief or point heading. However, it can never hurt to tell the Court what you want it to do or what you intend to prove in a given section within your first sentence or two before beginning a lengthy recitation of the pertinent statutes or laws. A recitation of the law with no stated connection to what you seek for the Court to “see” within that recitation, has a tendency to make the reader disengage or speed through the section so as to reach the actual “point” of your argument in a later paragraph or page. Obviously, this is not a beneficial state of affairs.

4. Edit, edit, edit. “The power of the memoir is in its concentration, the narrowness of its scope, and the intensity and clarity of its revelations.”

Editing is your friend. Clarity of thought and editing go hand-in-hand. There is rarely a piece of legal writing that would not be aided by being one word (or hundreds of words) shorter. Clearer writing makes for clearer, easier-to-grasp legal arguments, which will make it easier for a Court to rule in your favor. Brief accordingly.

Keywords: minority trial lawyer, litigation, legal writing, tips, brief writing, nonfiction

Handel Destinvil is assistant corporation counsel for the City of Newark Law Department in Newark, New Jersey.

Copyright © 2016, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).