Mastering Legal Writing

On the Fast Track to Success. From the first-year course to scholarly writing and legal drafting, students work closely with professors and peer mentors.

Ryan Rambudhan’s first assignment as a summer intern in 2011 at the Nassau County District Court in New York was to write a decision for a DWI case. The presiding judge gave him no further direction.

But Mr. Rambudhan, JD ’13, dived right in. The judge largely accepted his draft, and published the verdict. Mr. Rambudhan felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

He says he was helped greatly by a first-year class, Legal Research and Writing (LRW), “which is the hardest class you can take at GW,” says Mr. Rambudhan, now an associate with First Point Law Group in Fairfax, Va. “It takes the most time. But I learned organization, structure, and how to break things down. I’ll never forget the three rudimentary words of advice that my professor repeated on a weekly basis: clear, concise, and succinct.”

That mantra and hands-on instruction are the hallmark of the Legal Research and Writing Program. From the first-year course to scholarly writing and legal drafting, students work closely with professors and peer mentors as they transition from writing college papers to crafting analytical and persuasive legal documents.

When students need additional help, they often go to the Writing Center, which is directed by Iselin Gambert, associate professor of legal research and writing, and staffed by 45 upper-level students trained to help with outlines, structure, and legal analysis. The tutors—called Writing Fellows—are picked through a competitive process, along with the peer mentors, known as Dean’s Fellows.

Each section of the first-year writing class has about 12 students and is mostly taught by adjunct faculty members who are strong writers. The class introduces students to the particular writing method known as TREAT: thesis, rule, explanation, application, and thesis. What sets this method apart from other legal writing structures is that it’s more “nuanced,” says Christy DeSanctis, director of the Legal Research and Writing Program and co-author of Legal Writing and Analysis and Advanced Legal Writing and Oral Advocacy. “There is considerable emphasis placed on the ‘E’—the need to explain the articulated rule with examples from like situations where the rule has been applied.”

Exactly, says Lissa Percopo, JD ’07, an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington, D.C., who has taught the first-year writing class at GW and has read a lot of writing by young lawyers at her firm. “I have found that when law students think about not only stating but also explaining a rule before they begin to apply it, they internalize it better and conduct a more thorough analysis.  I think the ‘E’ is what is most often overlooked, yet it is the foundation for the strong ‘A’ that everyone knows is important.”

Writing and analyzing, Ms. Percopo says, are the girders on which lawyers must build their careers. “If you can write a good paper, you can be a good lawyer,” she says.

When she teaches, Ms. Percopo stresses “multiple drafts,” she says. “Do your first draft, get all your stuff out, and then cut a third from it. The best writers take a first good draft and cut a third out of it.”

Jake Berdine, a second-year law student, remembers his first writing assignment for the class. “I went into GW knowing nothing about legal writing,” he says. “My first assignment was due in mid-October. We started writing it in early September. The issue at stake was whether you can use someone’s likeness in advertising.”

The paper was supposed to be a five-page analysis. Mr. Berdine’s first draft was “a 12-page fluffed-up paper. It didn’t have the structure of a legal paper at all,” he says. Fifteen drafts later, he whittled his paper into a concise analysis. He learned the value of editing.

“I developed a drafting technique,” he explains. With each new draft, Mr. Berdine combed through the paper looking for one specific wrong, such as the passive voice or using too many words. His next assignment took him 200 hours, but this time he received one of the highest grades. This year Mr. Berdine earned a spot on the GW Law Review, based in part on his writing skills.

His writing abilities also secured him a job this past summer with the patent litigation group at Apple. “Apple offered me one of two internship positions based on the legal writing skills I gained at GW,” Mr. Berdine says. “At Apple, writing is everything. I write all day, every day.”

Phil Schuster, JD ’13, spent a lot of time in the Writing Center his first two semesters of law school. “I really had no experience with legal terminology,” he says. “It was very overwhelming and just hard to grasp, especially with the time constraints. The Writing Center was a great resource for students who don’t quite get what is going on in the classroom setting. Writing classes are fundamental to anything that came after the first semester.”

The following year Mr. Schuster was himself a fellow in the Writing Center, as “a mentor for 1L students struggling with the same new legal writing concepts that I struggled with a year before,” he says. His mastery of legal writing caught the eye of Senior Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., after Mr. Schuster’s first year of law school and of a Swiss law firm in Zurich, Switzerland, the following summer, he says. For both jobs, Mr. Schuster, who is now an associate for Sullivan & Cromwell in Frankfurt, Germany, drew upon the lessons he learned in his first-year classes and as a Writing Fellow.

In the second year of law school, students have the opportunity to try their hand at scholarly writing by working on one of the eight journals housed at GW: the George Washington Law Review, the George Washington International Law Review, the American Intellectual Property Law Association Quarterly Journal, Federal Circuit Bar Journal, Federal Communications Law Journal, International Law in Domestic Courts, The Public Contract Law Journal, and the Journal of Energy and Environmental Law.

Each journal has about five groups of nine students writing notes or articles under the guidance of adjunct faculty members, who are either former editors of the publications or experts in the field. All second-year students who work on a journal enroll in a subject-specific section of scholarly writing; the classes meet six times a year as students research a 30- to- 35 page scholarly paper. Karen Thornton, associate professor of legal research and writing, serves as coordinator of the scholarly writing program.

“The program provides the infrastructure and support system to get through that process and produces something meaningful enough to be published,” Professor DeSanctis says. “It has been very successful. More students are publishing notes.”
Class sizes are intentionally small, she adds, since GW has access to so many qualified adjunct faculty members. “We are in D.C.,” she says, “and they are real lawyers practicing in the real world. That makes our program very unique and novel.”

What Kirk Anderson, JD ’12, an associate at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in New York City, remembers best about being an editor of the American Intellectual Property Law Association Quarterly Journal was gaining the confidence and ease in writing 10,000- to 15,000-word legal documents. In his second year of law school he was on staff at the publication and by his third year he was one of the board members.

Mark Taticchi, JD ’10, submitted his law review article with his application to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and before that for a job with Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. “Good writing was one of the main things Judge Kennedy and the lawyers at Covington looked for,” he says. “My grades and a scholarly paper of substantial length that was well researched and rigorously analyzed got positive feedback.”

Since that article was published and now that Mr. Taticchi has worked for a Supreme Court justice, a circuit court judge, and a law firm, he believes his writing style has evolved. “I have loosened up,” he says. “I can be more narrative, much more strategic about my writing, more persuasive. I am using different styles and approaches based on what results I want to achieve and that means sometimes you want to use the passive voice, especially defending a client. You want to say the college was broken into, instead of who is actually responsible.”

The class that unexpectedly piqued Mr. Rambudhan’s interest in an entirely different kind of writing was Law and Literature taught by Professor DeSanctis. He read To Kill a Mockingbird, The Merchant of Venice, The Scarlet Letter, Billy Budd, The Trial, and his favorite, Native Son.

“It was an extremely eye-opening class, and probably my favorite at GW,” Mr. Rambudhan says. “This class was the intersection between morality and law. Even people who majored in English in undergrad looked at the books in a totally different light, with a totally different perspective on what is right and wrong. While reading To Kill a Mockingbird in law school you understand better why Atticus Finch defended that man. Everyone is entitled to a fair defense.”

by Laura Hambleton