Category Archives: Legal Writing and Oral Arguments

Learning from Mistakes: Editing Tips for Legal Writing

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We’ve all had that experience—you drafted an assignment for a legal writing class or upper-level writing course, or maybe a project for a legal internship or job. When you got the assignment back from your professor or supervisor, it was covered in corrections and comments. The real question: What did you do next? If you were required to revise the assignment, you probably made the corrections and submitted the final version. But did you take any steps to learn from your mistakes so that you won’t repeat them in future assignments?

Successful law students and lawyers constantly strive to improve their writing. One of the best ways to improve your writing is to learn from past mistakes. But learning from mistakes requires some conscious effort—simply making corrections to an existing document is usually not enough to reinforce how you should approach your writing in the future. Instead, one way to learn from your mistakes is to create your own customized editing checklist. You may already have an editing checklist that a professor or supervisor has given you. If so, you should continue to use that checklist as well. The customized checklist should supplement any more general checklist, focusing on specific issues that you personally have had trouble with in the past.

Here are some tips for creating and using a customized editing checklist:

  1. Divide a large piece of paper into five columns. At the top of each column, put one of the following headings: (a) grammar errors; (b) citation/Bluebook errors; (c) analytical issues; (4) writing style issues; and (5) formatting problems.
  2. Pull out old assignments that contain corrections and comments from a professor or supervisor. Go through each of those assignments, placing each error in one of the five columns you’ve created. For example, maybe your professor commented that you improperly used a comma to separate two independent clauses. That issue would go in the “grammar errors” column. Maybe you find a comment about your analysis being too conclusory. You would place that feedback in the “analytical issues” column. Maybe you keep forgetting to italicize “Id.” Put that error in your citation/Bluebook errors column.
  3. Each time that you see a comment or correction that relates to an issue you’ve already put in your checklist, add a star by that issue in the checklist. Making the same error multiple times is a sign that you want to focus on that issue more.
  4. For grammar and citation errors in particular, look up the appropriate rule in a grammar guide or the Bluebook. Make a note of the proper rule(s) that relate to that issue, as well as where that rule is found. When you edit documents in the future, you will then have easy access to the rule as well as the cross-reference for where to find further information if necessary.
  5. After completing a draft of a new assignment, use your customized checklist to make sure that you do not repeat old mistakes. Go through the paper focusing on one column at a time so that you don’t miss anything in the editing process.
  6. As you get feedback on new assignments, go through the same process. Add any new editing issues to your checklist. Regularly update your checklist to reflect your editing priorities. And, as you improve your writing, analysis, and citations you may remove old issues that are no longer a problem for you.

Creating a customized editing checklist is one of the best ways to learn from your past mistakes so that you don’t repeat them. Take an intentional approach to your editing, and your legal writing will continue to improve more and more over time.

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Tackling Legal Writing Assignments (and Other Law School Projects)

Image courtesy of ratch0013 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of ratch0013 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just when you think you have everything under control, it happens: You’re making progress on your outlines, and you’re keeping up-to-date with your assigned reading for each class. You think you may even have some time next weekend to meet up with some friends from undergrad or catch up on the new episodes of your favorite series on Netflix. You think you have developed a study schedule that is working for you, and then your legal writing professor gives your class a new major writing assignment. Or maybe you are an upper-level law student, and you have a seminar paper, draft of a law review note, moot court brief, or some other project coming due soon. How can you maintain your study plan, complete this new major project, and still maintain some semblance of a balanced life? The key to your success in this instance is going to be developing a strong plan of attack.

Law students tend to have problems with these types of big assignments for three main reasons. First, they may be intimidated by the size of the project from the beginning, viewing it as one colossal mountain that must be conquered. Second, students often underestimate the amount of time it requires to do a good job on a writing assignment. They may remember how long it took to write a paper in undergrad and assume that the new writing task is similar in its time demands. Finally, law students often procrastinate in starting a new project, either because they are intimidated by its size or because they underestimate its requirements. By the time that they actually start the project, they may not have left enough time to do a good job on it—and in the meantime, they let their other studies slide.

Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So how can you approach these types of major projects in a way that will maximize your opportunity to successfully complete them and prevent an increase in stress? Here is a step-by-step method for tackling your big law school projects:

  1. Develop a “project plan” as soon as your professor assigns the project. One key to successful planning is to avoid delay.
  2. Break major projects up into several smaller components. Dividing the project into smaller pieces will help you to not be intimidated by the project’s size. It will also help you to better evaluate what needs to be accomplished and how much time the project will take. Make a list of the “tasks” that have to be accomplished and estimate how long each task will take. For example, maybe you have to draft an appellate brief for a class. Some of the tasks that you might list for this assignment include: reading and taking notes from the case record; researching the applicable standard of review and relevant legal issues (treat each legal issue as a separate task); drafting the brief (treat each section of the brief—for example, statement of the issues, statement of the facts, statement of the case, jurisdictional statement, argument/analysis of each legal issue, conclusion, etc.—as a separate task); formatting (i.e., creating case caption, signature block, Table of Contents, and Table of Authorities); and editing. Even editing might be broken up into separate tasks. For example, one editing task might be to edit argument and analysis. Another editing task might be to edit for grammar, typographical errors, and spelling. A third edit might focus solely on citations and Bluebooking.
  3. Set a separate deadline for each task you’ve identified—create a place for each task in your study schedule. Spread out the tasks so that you are able to maintain your other studies as well. Make conscious choices about scheduling—some tasks will require less brain power than others. Schedule difficult tasks for times that your brain is fresher, and easy tasks for times that you may be more tired. These types of conscious decisions allow you to make the best use of your time.
  4. Hold yourself accountable—don’t become complacent because it seems like the deadline is far away. Thinking “I have plenty of time” results in procrastination and less successful outcomes.
  5. Don’t forget time for editing. Editing is one of the most important parts of the writing process, and most students don’t give it the time that it deserves. Schedule tasks early enough to give yourself plenty of time for editing. The quality of your work will be much better, and your grades will reflect the extra effort.

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5 Tips for Reading Statutes

Law students must develop a number of important skills to be successful in their legal writing assignments and exams. Those same skills are equally important for success on the bar exam and in legal practice. One skill every law student needs is the ability to read statutes. Because statutes are a primary source of law, the ability to read, understand, and apply a statute can be critical to academic success in many law school classes. As an attorney, your ability to read and interpret statutes will enable you to provide better legal advice to your clients and predict legal outcomes. But reading statutes is not always as easy as it seems on the surface.

Here are some suggestions for how to be more effective in reading statutes:

(1) Slow down! Don’t read too fast. Statutory provisions are often pretty short, and it is easy to let yourself skim the statutes without really seeing the important details. Take the time to read the statute carefully, and you will understand it better.

(2) Put the statute in its proper context. Law students (and lawyers) often try to read statutes without putting them in context. But statutory provisions do not exist in a vacuum. Statutory codes often contain tools to help you interpret their provisions, if you take the time to look for them.

It can often be helpful to look at related statutes. For example, in criminal law, there can be different degrees of felonies or misdemeanors, each set out in a separate statute, for the same general criminal act (such as drug possession or drug dealing). Comparing the differences between these related statutes can help you understand how a court might interpret them and apply them.

You should also look for statutes that provide definitions for key terms. Sometimes definitions are included as provisions in the statute at issue, but often there is a separate statute that provides definitions for key words. You don’t want to make assumptions about what a word means when the legislature defined it for you.

In some cases, the legislature may have even provided specific interpretive instructions. For example, sections 15.15 and 15.10 of the New York Penal Law provide specific interpretive rules for interpreting culpability requirements for state criminal offenses.

If you look at the table of contents surrounding the statute at issue, you are more likely to find these context clues.

(3) Pay attention to the details. Every word in a statute has a specific purpose. Certain types of words are signals. For example, if you see a list of requirements for a legal test that are connected by the word “and,” you then know that all of the requirements must be proven in order for the test to be met. In contrast, if you see a list connected by the word “or,” then the test may be met without proving all requirements. Other signals include words such as “unless,” “except,” “shall,” and “may,” but this is not an exclusive list. Specific areas of the law may have their own signal words as well. So, for example, words specifying mens rea (such as intent, knowledge, recklessness, etc.) can be signal words for criminal law statutes.

You also want to pay attention to punctuation. Where a comma is placed can affect the meaning of a statute, as can the use and placement of other forms of punctuation.

(4) Break the statute down into smaller pieces. If the statute is complex, it can help to chart or diagram the statute so that you force yourself to identify the key components. Maybe the statute sets out specific elements for a legal test—identify the parts of the test and see if you can define what each of those elements mean, using those context clues I mentioned earlier. Ask yourself what the statute is meant to do. Understanding its purpose can also help you to separate out the parts of a more complex statute.

(5) Use cases to inform your understanding of the statute. You can often find cases where the court analyzes the meaning of a statute. If you are having difficulty understanding a statute, try Keyciting or Shepardizing the statute to find cases that interpret and apply the statute. Case law can further your understanding of a statute’s meaning. (In some cases, you may also find a government agency’s interpretation of a statute helpful—you may want to look for administrative code provisions, administrative law rulings, and advisory letters if you are reading statutes in areas of law with agency oversight, such as tax, immigration, employment discrimination, securities, etc.)

The key to reading statutes is to go below the surface—take the time to get to know the statute and its context, and you will have a better understanding of its meaning and application.

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Tackling Conclusory Legal Analysis

One of the common comments that law students receive on their legal writing assignments and exams is that their analysis was too conclusory. Often, students don’t really understand what the professor means by this comment. Even if they do understand what the comment means, they don’t know what to do to improve their legal analysis.

So what does the professor mean when he or she writes that your analysis was conclusory? Legal analysis is conclusory when it jumps too quickly to the answer to the question without explaining how and why the answer is correct. For example, in your exam essay, you may have appropriately identified an issue, mentioned some of the facts related to that issue, and then concluded what the result should be for that issue. You may have thought that you appropriately explained your answer, but, in reality, you left too much of the answer in your head instead of putting it on the paper. This type of answer will generally receive limited credit from the professor.

There can be several reasons for conclusory analysis in an essay exam. First, most law school exams have time constraints—when students are concerned about running out of time, they tend to rush through their analysis so that they can move on to the next issue. This is particularly the case when the professor has designed an exam with more issues than are possible to cover during the time allotted. When you are trying to mention as many issues as possible, it is easy to gloss over more detailed analysis. Second, many students assume that they don’t need to explain the law that is applicable for an issue because the professor knows that law—they think that, because the professor taught them the material, they don’t need to explain why their answer is correct. Third, students often fail to fully develop their explanation of the relevant legal rules and how courts have interpreted those rules because students do not know that law well enough—they may not have memorized the appropriate tests or definitions, or they may not have thought about the course material in a way that allows them to connect what they have studied to the issue. Without that explanation of the applicable legal rules, there is no foundation for the rest of the analysis of that issue, and your legal analysis is vague and flat.

The problem with conclusory analysis is that it prevents you from receiving full credit for that issue. Professors generally give the smallest amount of credit for identification of the issue and your answer for how that issue should be resolved; most of the points for each issue are awarded for the parts in the middle—the explanation of the relevant legal rules and how courts interpret those rules, and how those rules should be applied to the fact pattern set out in the instant question. Even if you identify a lot of issues, you still will be lacking the points you need for a higher score on the exam. It’s a lot like what it used to be like in those math classes you took as a child, when your teacher wouldn’t give you full credit if you didn’t “show your work.” It isn’t enough to just get the right answer—the path you took to get there is important too.

So what can you do to make your legal analysis less conclusory? One way to make sure that you go through the appropriate analysis is to apply a form of the IRAC/TREAC/CREAC analytical structure that you have learned in legal writing. Each professor has his or her own preferences for the analytical structure, but usually your analysis should follow some sort of IRAC, TREAC, or CREAC form. Commonly, the professor prefers that you state the resolution of the issue up front, as either a thesis or conclusion, rather than just stating that the issue exists. Using an analytical structure helps to remind you not to skip important components of the analysis. It also allows you to demonstrate to your professor that you understand why the answer is the answer—you didn’t just get there by accident.

Although it may seem like you are taking away from the time you need to write, your analysis will usually be better, and therefore receive more points, if you quickly outline or chart your answer before starting to write your essay. Outlining in advance helps you to determine how much time you need to spend on your analysis of each issue. If the issue is not complex, the facts demonstrate that part of the legal test is not at issue, or there are few facts to apply to the law, that is a signal that you can be more concise in your analysis of that issue. You can state outright that two elements of the legal test aren’t at issue, based on the facts in the hypothetical, and move on quickly to the elements that need more development. You will make better use of your time as you write and score better because your analysis will be organized, focused, and efficient.

Finally, one of the key ways to improve your analysis is grounded in what happens before the exam. The more you have synthesized course materials by developing a strong, properly organized outline, the more you have committed to memory the legal rules, tests, definitions, etc. that will be the foundation to your analysis of issues on the exam, the better your written legal analysis will be. This is true whether your exam is open book or closed book, as grounding yourself in the law will help you to think about issues in a more nuanced way. How you approach your studies and preparation prior to the exam is directly related to the effectiveness of your legal analysis in your exam essays.

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Law Student Voices: (Un)Raveling the Mysteries of Legal Research

For untold generations of law students, LexisNexis and Westlaw have dominated the legal research field. Periodically, a challenger appears, attempting to break into some portion of the market, often with little-to-no success. The reasons for such difficulty are manifold, however, one prominent reason may be the lack of time lawyers have to experiment with new research databases.

One company that seeks to reverse this trend and make a name for itself in the legal community is Ravel.

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When you first visit Ravel, you immediately notice that it has the uncluttered Google-like interface we have all become accustomed to over the years. The search engine allows you to enter a variety of identifying information to find relevant case law, just like any other research database. The search box recognizes both natural language and Boolean operators. However, the real excitement begins when you hit that magnifying glass and see Ravel’s visual search at work.

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On the results screen, relevant cases are shown in various ways. To the right is the traditional research method—cases are ranked in order of likelihood of relevance, with pertinent information filling in below the case name. On the left, a complex yet easy to understand graph displays the chronology of a given issue’s development and connects to the most important cases.

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No longer must we sift through a dozen court opinions to find the source of a particular point of law: Ravel will trace the entire history of an issue to arrive at either the court of highest authority on the matter or the first court to address the matter. Not only is this resource good news for visual learners, it can drastically cut down on research time for everyone else. According to Ravel, “[i]n comparisons with traditional legal research tools, Ravel cuts research time by up to 70%.”

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Notably, once you open a case that appears relevant, Ravel imports additional information to allow the user to continue assessing whether or not a given case is on point. If the user has a “Professional” level account or above (note: students with a .edu email address receive the equivalent of Ravel’s “Advanced” plan for free!), Ravel allows you to make annotations, brief a case, and even export those notes to a separate doc.

One unique and much-appreciated feature is that footnotes appear to the side, in line with text instead of at the end of the document. This eliminates the wasteful activity of scrolling to the bottom as well as the often-annoying necessity to hover over footnotes.

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But perhaps Ravel’s single brightest moment appears in the form of its Star Reading System. With Star Reading, users can track the development of a single passage through the law. That level of depth has the potential to be on par with, if not superior to, any other cataloging system out there. According to Ravel:

Mining the connections that link millions of court documents, Ravel’s technology identifies cases’ key passages and shows how later cases have rephrased or interpreted them. This is lawyering powered by two centuries of judicial analysis.

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On the horizon is a feature called “Judge Analytics,” which will allow users to select a judge and view trends in his or her decision-making process. In addition, there will be filters to sort through the plethora of opinions as well as a keyword search. Such a feature would be undeniably beneficial for law students, academics, and practitioners alike.

This review was authored by Justin Iverson, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2015, Savannah Law School. The author acquired some of the images presented by screenshot, while others were obtained from Ravel’s representatives. As a law student, the author had access to Advanced features free of charge.

**This review is not intended to be an endorsement of any product. Its sole purpose is to provide useful information to law students.

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How Citations Strengthen Legal Writing

It’s that time of year when first-year law students are developing their understanding of legal citation, whether they use the Bluebook, the Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD) Guide to Legal Citation, or some other citation guide. Law students face a perennial struggle with identifying and using appropriate citation forms for legal authority. The rules for legal citations are much different than those used in other types of writing. The legal citation rules are complicated, and it’s easy to become frustrated when the professor takes off points because you should not have put a space after the period in the citation. Even upper-level law students struggle sometimes with citations. It is one of those aspects of legal writing that law students generally dread.

So why is there so much emphasis on citation in law school? Why do these details really matter? I’m not talking about universal reasons here—of course there are benefits to having a uniform system of legal citation so that it is easier to identify law and locate it in the original legal sources. But what I want to talk about today is why citations should matter to you. Why should you care if you apply the appropriate citation rules and your citations follow the proper form? A sarcastic student might say, “Because the professor cares, and he or she will lower my grade if my citations aren’t accurate.” This reason is also true, but there’s still more to it than that.

Specific, accurate citations are important because they signal information to the reader about your competence as a law student and, ultimately, as an attorney. Clients want to feel confident that their attorney pays attention to the legal details, and they are more likely to feel that confidence if they see that the attorney pays attentions to details even when it comes to the small things like citation. (In law school, your professors are your clients—these observations still hold true in that context!) If you make mistakes in punctuating citations because you have decided that the punctuation and spacing rules are unimportant, you signal that you might not pay close attention to nuances in the law as well—even if that is not your intent, and even if it is not actually true.

Likewise, providing specific pincites (in other words, the page number(s) on which the information can be found) is also important. When you provide generic citations, you are basically saying, “Trust me. What I am saying here is found somewhere in the case, but I can’t be bothered to tell you where.” That approach does not build the reader’s confidence in your writing. Like accuracy, specificity builds the reader’s confidence in your legal competence.

If you reframe how you think about citations, you can use them to strengthen your legal writing. Specific, accurate citations are an opportunity to add to the persuasive quality of your writing, and they can increase the reader’s confidence in your professionalism and analytical skills.

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Skipping Class in Law School

In recent posts we have explored some of the important academic skills students need for success in law school, such as reading and briefing cases, taking effective class notes, and outlining. As important as those skills are, law students can easily undermine their study efforts by missing too many of their law school classes. In fact, many students who struggle academically in law school also have a significant number of class absences—it is difficult to do well if you aren’t consistently in class.

Let’s explore some of the reasons law students give for missing class:

  • “The syllabus says that I can miss four classes before my grade will be penalized, and I haven’t used all of my absences yet.”
  • “My parents booked this family vacation six months ago, and they didn’t realize at that time that law students do not get the entire week of Thanksgiving off.”
  • “I have a midterm in Torts tomorrow that I want to study more for, and Property doesn’t have a midterm.”
  • “I stayed up really late last night finishing an assignment that is due for Legal Writing, and I just couldn’t get myself out of bed early enough this morning to go to Contracts class.”
  • “I was going to be five minutes late to class, so I decided it was better if I didn’t go at all.”
  • “I didn’t go to class because I didn’t get the reading done.”

In reality, these types of reasons are rarely an adequate justification for missing class in law school. Here are some explanations for why this is the case:

“The syllabus says that I can miss four classes before my grade will be penalized, and I haven’t used all of my absences yet.”: Your syllabus may list a maximum number of absences, but that doesn’t mean that you have that many “free” passes to miss class. Each time that you miss class, it puts you further behind in the course. In some cases, you may never recover the information you lost from not being in class. Students commonly skip too many classes early in the semester, and then if something happens later in the semester, such as a family emergency or major illness, they end up penalized for too many absences.

Sometimes students decide they can skip classes late in the semester because they still have absences available. This is a bad choice for two additional reasons: (1) in the last few weeks of the semester, your professor may provide specific guidance about the final exam, and you will miss that information; and (2) you may not have enough time to make up what you missed, especially if the professor is playing catch-up and covering a lot of material in each class.

“My parents booked this family vacation six months ago, and they didn’t realize at that time that law students do not get the entire week of Thanksgiving off.”: Vacations are really never a good reason for missing classes in law school, for the same reasons that I explained above. Put your family and friends on notice that any vacations will have to be scheduled around your law school schedule. You are investing a lot of time and money into becoming a lawyer; keep your priorities in focus.

“I have a midterm in Torts tomorrow that I want to study more for, and Property doesn’t have a midterm.”: You should never “steal” time from one class to do something for another. Keep in mind that each of your classes is important—you will earn grades in all of them. It takes much more time to make up what you have missed from a class than to go to class in the first place, and you will end up taking that time from yet another class or another priority if you aren’t careful.

“I stayed up really late last night finishing an assignment that is due for Legal Writing, and I just couldn’t get myself out of bed early enough this morning to go to Contracts class.”: This excuse is usually just about poor scheduling, poor prioritization, or procrastination. As I explained above, “stealing” time from one class to do something for another is never the way to go. Work on creating a study schedule that builds in time to complete Legal Writing assignments and other assignments that will take a lot of time, and stick with it—don’t wait until the last minute!

“I was going to be five minutes late to class, so I decided it was better if I didn’t go at all.”: Unless your professor has a clearly stated policy that you should never to go into class if you are tardy, you should still go to class. It will be easier to make up the five minutes that you missed than it will be to make up an entire class. Just make sure that you are careful about how you come into the classroom so that you reduce the amount of distraction you create for your professor and fellow students.

“I didn’t go to class because I didn’t get the reading done.”: Like the previous excuse, you should go to class unless your professor has a clearly stated policy that prohibits attendance in this circumstance. You won’t get as much out of class if you haven’t done the reading, but it is still a better choice than missing class entirely.

The alternative: Treat Law School Like an Important Job. Here’s the thing. Law school is your job right now—a very important job. So treat it like one. People who have important jobs don’t “skip” work. There can be really good reasons for missing work or class (such as serious personal or family illnesses, emergencies, child care issues, job interviews, etc.), and it’s ok to be absent for those reasons. But don’t let “skipped” classes become an impediment to academic success.

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Law Student Voices: A Review of Citeus Legalus

One of the more daunting aspects of being a 1L is learning to make effective use of The Bluebook. Most students entering law school are familiar with one citation style or another (MLA, APA, etc.), but few have ever used a system as complex and seemingly arbitrary as The Bluebook. Kirk Sigmon, Cornell J.D. and associate attorney at Morrison & Foerster in Washington, D.C., saw an opportunity to straighten out the “veritable leviathan” known as The Bluebook by automating its formatting rules into a website. The result: Citeus Legalus.

Citeus is a fun site, owing in no small part to the comical mascot (a parody of Sigmon) drawn by artist Naomi Milliken. Sigmon has even referred to the site as “the legal citation generator for lazy law students.” However, I would caution readers against writing off this website as academically suspect—there is some serious infrastructure operating behind the scenes.

image 1Students can generate citations based on cases, periodicals, books, statutes, constitutions, and several types of government documents. Importantly, there is no generator for internet citations. The reason for that missing feature likely has to do with the endless variety of sources available online. Once a student chooses a category, he or she can manually enter the relevant information, or search for it through a database. For example, if I wanted to cite a casebook, I would select “Search and Cite” under the Books tab. In the search field, I would type “Roberts Remedies,” and a list of books would pop up with cover photos. After finding the correct book and selecting “Cite This Book,” all of the available publishing information is auto-generated with just a couple fields left for me to do myself. Additionally, students can save their citations in the Cite Briefcase for later retrieval.

image 2Citeus has the potential to teach The Bluebook as thoroughly or more so than those endless Legal Writing workshops and late night scavenger hunts. Building citations from scratch can certainly be beneficial, but it is not the only method of instruction. Legal Writing professors and law reviews both make use of the problem-spotting method where students must painstakingly analyze a citation to ensure conformity with The Bluebook. Used in this way, Citeus eliminates the stress of foraging while reinforcing rule analysis. To utilize Citeus to its maximum effect, students should generate their citations automatically and then thoroughly check them against The Bluebook. In my opinion, students who are not willing to do that extra step should avoid using any automatic citation generator, whether it is created by a law student, Westlaw, or any other reputable source.

image 3I contacted Sigmon prior to this review to get a peek at some features that may be coming in the future. While not mentioning an app specifically, he did indicate that there would be some level of mobile functionality such that students could smoothly generate citations from their phones and tablets. Further, Sigmon hopes to integrate Citeus with scholarship databases such as Google Scholar, which would allow a sort of “one-click citation” functionality. Stay tuned, folks!

This review was authored by Justin Iverson, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2015, Savannah Law School.

**This review is not intended to be an endorsement of any product. Its sole purpose is to provide useful information to law students.

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What Is a Case Brief?

As we discussed last week, incoming law students are now receiving letters and emails regarding first-day assignments from their law schools. This week, I am posting a series of blog posts giving you more advice about how to tackle those first-day assignments—specifically, how to read and brief cases.

Most of the reading that you’ll do during your first year of law school (and beyond!) will be cases. In fact, those expensive books that you have to buy for law school are usually called casebooks, rather than textbooks, for that very reason. Reading a case is very different from other types of reading that you have done—there’s a lot crammed into one case that you will have to unpack in order to make use of your reading in class and on exams. That is why one of the most useful tools you will have in your law school classes is your case briefs.

So, what is a case brief, and why should you create them? A case brief is a document created by and used by a law student. Your case briefs will summarize the important parts of the case in your own words. The way that the court wrote the opinion in the case may not be the most helpful approach for you to use it in class, and creating a case brief allows you to focus your attention on key aspects that will be helpful both immediately and in the future.

Case Briefs and Class: The initial reason why a law student briefs a case is to prepare for class. Cases in law school textbooks vary in length, and it is helpful to have all important information from the case summarized and organized in a way that that you can easily refer to in class. Briefing cases can also help you to process what you are reading in a case. If the professor calls on you in class, you will have thought about the case in advance in a way that will help you to respond to the professor’s questions and hypotheticals. If your professor uses Socratic Method in the classroom, your case briefs can be especially important reference materials if you are called upon.

Case Briefs and Legal Research and Writing: Another reason why a student may brief cases is to pull out important information for legal writing. You may brief cases as you are completing research or writing assignments for your Legal Research and Writing class. In this context, case briefing helps you to identify important information that you will need from cases to complete your legal analysis and arguments.

Case Briefs and Outlines: Finally, case briefs also create the foundation for further study. As you read and brief additional cases and take notes in class, you will begin to synthesize these course materials and develop a more comprehensive understanding of that subject’s law, a process that many law student refer to as outlining. We will talk more about the outlining process in the coming weeks and months, but, for the meantime, it is important to know that good case briefs continue to have value long after the initial class on that case is over.

Stay tuned this week as I continue providing advice for how to read and brief cases. Next up tomorrow: some specific tips for reading cases.

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Filed under General, Legal Writing and Oral Arguments, Pre-Law, Study Tips

Maximizing Academic Benefits from Legal Work Experience

Recently, my posts have focused mostly on topics of interest to incoming law students or law school graduates preparing to take the bar exam. Today, I want speak to those law students who will be returning to school after spending the summer gaining some type of professional legal experience, whether working for pay in some capacity, completing an unpaid internship, or earning law school credit as an extern. This post may also be helpful to students considering an externship, clinic experience, or other practical legal experience during the upcoming school year.

So what are some of the academic benefits of legal work experience? Practical legal work experience, whether during the summer or school year, can contribute to a law student’s academic success in multiple ways:

  • Inspiration: Let’s face it—not everything about law school is exciting or glamorous. Sometimes it’s just about getting through it, whether you are mired in some complicated federal tax law or attempting to untangle the legal rules that apply to secured transactions. When you’re slogging through a class assignment that makes you feel like you will never understand the law or is just not fun to study, you can use your legal work experiences to inspire and motivate you. There is nothing like experience with the law in practice to remind you why you are putting yourself through the hard work and stress of law school. It’s worth it!
  • Context: Legal work experience can also provide helpful context for legal concepts that you are learning about in your law school classes. Classes like Civil Procedure and Evidence are especially difficult to learn if you don’t have a context for all of the rules you are studying. It’s amazing how much more sense the Erie Doctrine or the rules regarding hearsay evidence make when you are applying them in a real-world context. Legal work experience not only gives you a context for subjects you have studied in the past but can also provide a context for future classes you may take.
  • Guidance: Legal work experience can also give you guidance about what elective classes you take in law school. Maybe you had no interest in bankruptcy law until your supervisor at the law firm this summer assigned you a research project involving bankruptcy issues. You might have previously ignored the fact that Bankruptcy Law was going to be offered next Spring, but now you decide you should take the class to explore further whether it is a possible practice area for you. Maybe you always thought you wanted to be a litigator, but an experience in drafting a contract in your internship in a corporate legal department encourages you to take a Legal Drafting course. Or you may have even received guidance from a supervisor who told you that, if you are interested in going into a particular legal field once you graduate, there are specific courses that will be helpful in that endeavor.
  • Development: Finally, your legal work experience can have direct application to the academic skills that will make you a better law student. Specifically, you often become a more efficient and effective researcher, analyst, and writer as you gain more and more experience in practice. Just as the skills that you learn in law school will contribute to your success as an attorney, further development and practice of those skills will also contribute to your academic access.

Although students often view their legal work experiences as unrelated to their academic endeavors, further success in law school can be fueled, at least in part, by those work experiences. Looking for ways to connect your work to your legal education will enhance your law school experience!

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Filed under General, Legal Writing and Oral Arguments