[Occasionally I resurrect a draft blog post that somehow never made it to publication when I first wrote it. This is one of them.]
C.E. Petit, he of Scrivner's Error, pens (?) a rant about the poor state of legal writing amidst law graduates:
Yet another set of law school deans wrings its collective hands over law schools' failure to teach writing skills sufficient for lawyers to survive in practice. The problem is that it really is the deans' fault…
Among his targets, Mr. Petit would blame the judiciary, for writing so poorly, and the legal academy for inflicting generations of judicial butchery of the English language upon the poor unsuspecting 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls.
While admitting there is a legal writing problem, as a law professor engaged, so it seems, in corrupting the keyboards of the young, I would like to plead justification (necessity).
Mr. Petit proffers a solution to the bad-legal-writing problem:
Perhaps most important of all, the deans need to trash virtually every casebook currently in use. The biggest problem with legal writing is that law students see mostly examples of bad (or worse) legal writing in the bulk of their classwork, particularly in the common law courses. In Contracts, students study Sherwood v. Walker exhaustively, and still can't figure out what the holding is because the judge couldn't bloody write (even by nineteenth century standards in Michigan); in Property, even the casebooks try (ineptly, with one exception) to make head or tail of the actual ruling in Shelley's Case; in Torts, the string of double negatives (which can be helpful rhetorical devices when used sparingly, but not in a string) in the leading cases on product/strict liability causes more confusion than anything in the discussion over comparative/contributory negligence; and in Criminal Law, just try reading M'Naghten's Case. More casebooks need to follow the path that Professor LaFave did in Criminal Procedure: Clear, concise summaries, supplemented by extended quotations where helpful… and that California's Justice Mosk did in establishing the concept of comparative negligence by writing more simply and more clearly than did the advocates of the contributory negligence system.
I think this is mostly wrong. There is real value in teaching from real cases, without potted summaries, even (especially?) the badly written ones. This is the reality of law practice: Judges often write badly. (I have said this for years: see my Legal Writing Tips.) Lawyers need to know how to decipher bad judicial prose. Meaning-extraction (or even and especially meaning-creation) is an important legal skill we work hard to impart to our students. How will they learn whether to appeal a badly written case except by struggling with its ancestors?
In addition, students need to know the big cases. Even if they are badly written, that doesn't detract from the leading cases' importance. A student who knows her way around the original has an advantage over someone who just learned from a summary.
I agree that it is hard to first show students precedents — some eloquent and many ham-handed — tell them the cases matter, sometimes matter a great deal, and then in the next breath ask students not to write as badly as those very judges whose torturous prose we've force-fed them, but those are the cards lawyers are dealt. Those cases are real. They have authority. They must be confronted and dissected, even if that carries risk of their being emulated.
[Original draft, Sept. 2010]