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Each year, law firms waste thousands of dollars on writing training. Good writing and especially good editing skills are sorely needed in a profession that depends on communication for its success. Nevertheless, writing training often goes awry and for a number of reasons. First, because of the participants. Why law firms insist on offering Legal Writing 101 to first-year associates is unclear. After surviving a competitive search and, in most cases, a summer internship, first-year associates are not as illiterate as partners and training directors seem to believe. They’ve taken legal writing in law school, and they don’t need to repeat it. What the novices need to learn is how to practice law in a large, prestigious law firm (the ones that can afford to offer training) and, according to many training and recruitment directors, how to fill out time sheets. They need to learn the law as it is practiced in their firm before they can write convincingly about it. Even more important, however, writing should be taught from the top down, not from the bottom up. How many first- and second-year associates would dare edit a partner’s writing? Many first-years in mandatory workshops complain that the partners use jargon, awkward constructions and faulty punctuation, but they are unwilling to correct them. Thus, first-years’ newly learned skills are not reinforced. Moreover, why spend the firm’s money on writing training when many first-years do not remain with the firm — or even in the law? (I still remember a first-year workshop participant, a graduate of a top law school in a top firm, who complained that several of the choices on the Sticky Situation Letter worksheet had to do with clients. “Why should I care about clients?” she asked. “I have none.” Needless to say, in a couple of years she no longer was practicing law.) The best audience for teaching writing, and especially editing, is a combination of young (a relative term, for a 60-year-old partner can be young in spirit) partners and senior- to mid-level associates. Those are the people most likely to remain in the firm and most likely to make the greatest contribution. They work with clients, they go to court, and they should be able to best help first- and second-year associates. If some of them become polished writers, they can write articles that, if published in a popular magazine or newspaper, may bring the firm excellent publicity and new clients. In addition, if the workshop is individualized, that is, focused only on their own writing, participants can learn from each other, as well as from the instructor. For example, if after five rewrites, a sentence still reads awkwardly, it proves the writer doesn’t fully understand the material. But in a workshop with eight to 10 participants, there is always a person who can help out. This brings up a second misconception: A course called “Legal Writing” is inherently effective. Whether it is called Introduction to Legal Writing or Advanced Legal Writing or Principles of Legal Writing, canned courses do not work. Writing is a skill no different in many ways from playing a musical instrument or a sport. It would hardly make sense to put in the same room someone who had been studying the cello for four years with a mediocre teacher, someone else who had studied cello for three years with a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra and someone with a natural talent who had been playing the cello for 10-12 years, and teach them a canned course called Advanced Cello. Yet, when it comes to writing, the same legal writing course or lecture is offered to participants all over the country in law firms, corporations and government despite vast variations in subject matter and in writing and editing skills. Indeed, no two people have the same background when it comes to writing, nor do they make the same mistakes. A voracious reader is usually a better writer; someone who took Latin in high school is usually a better writer; someone who majored in English or history is often a better writer. On the other hand, someone who had only a basic background in English, but who is bright and competitive, can do extremely well when confronted with his or her own writing mistakes together with the mistakes of his or her peers. When it comes to skills training, one size does not fit all. To be sure, no busy lawyer is going to go home at night to try to figure out how rules and generic examples learned in a class affect his or her own writing. In order for lawyers and other professionals to improve their writing significantly, they must work only with their own writing and the writing of their peers in a group of approximately 10 participants where the focus is on correcting their own mistakes and editing themselves and their co-workers. Repeated studies have shown that learning must be enjoyable to be motivating, and hence, successful. A small group working with their own writing, describing their own cases and clients, generates spontaneous laughter and healthy competition. It’s a fun experience. Tutorials, another misguidedly popular method of teaching, are not usually fun. Nevertheless, when a partner who is a good writer and editor works with a first- or second-year associate in his own firm, in the same practice, that can be beneficial. He or she is teaching the younger lawyer a specific aspect of the law, as well as how to express it. But when an outside consultant goes over a brief written by an associate, it often becomes a defensive situation, especially when the instructor is not as knowledgeable as a partner in that firm’s practice. Finally, how can writing training be evaluated? The effectiveness of a writer is determined solely by his or her readers. Are the partners for whom the associates are writing noticing a major difference in clarity, conciseness, presentation? Are clients commenting on how easy it now is to understand the lawyer’s writing compared to before the lawyer took the course? Are effective marketing letters being generated? Have several articles or op-ed pieces written by course participants appeared in publications? Just as writing is not an easy skill to master — we really don’t have all that many outstanding writers in our midst — teaching writing successfully is also a difficult skill. By starting with more senior participants and working with only their own writing in a small, supportive group, a firm can assure that their skills will improve and, most important, that their readers will be impressed. Lynne Agressis the president of Baltimore-based BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc., which has offered individually tailored writing and editing workshops since 1981. She is also the author of “Working with Words in Business and Legal Writing” (Perseus, 2002). She can be reached at [email protected] or www.business-and-legal writing.com .

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