Beyond “good legal writing”

By Kirsten Williams, Staff Writer

I first discovered the power of storytelling in college, during a class about climate change communication. The course investigated the various ways in which information (and misinformation) about climate change spreads from point A to point B. In learning how to effectively communicate scientific information, our professor challenged us to address some hard questions: What’s the story I’m telling? What’s the narrative? And why is that story important? What can I use to make the story more compelling or interesting to those who don’t know about it? What about those who simply don’t care? How does the story change over time? And most challenging of all, how do I tell the story to someone who disagrees with me?

Debevoise Hall, Vermont Law School. Photo by Kirsten Williams/The Forum.

Fast forward, and these questions are more important than ever. In law school, you’re taught to improve your legal writing skills: you’re given rules and suggestions on how to improve the clarity, conciseness, and engagement of your writing. A good legal writer helps legal readers make decisions in the course of their professional duties. The very best legal writers distinguish themselves with elegance, style, and tone. They go beyond plain language, proper punctuation, grammar, clarity of thought, accurate research, and organization—they tell a story.

I struggled with this aspect of my legal writing 1L year. I found myself lost in factual recitations and bogged down in legal analysis. I felt that my writing was flat and unmoving. Boring. That I wasn’t telling a story.

I applied to become a staff writer with JURIST, an international, student-powered, legal news service to develop my narrative voice and hone my storytelling skills. JURIST’s goal is to connect law students around the world for the greater good by encouraging them to research and report legal news that matters, find and share primary sources, connect with experts and on-the-ground observers, and explain legal developments to improve civic engagement and strengthen the rule of law.

I quickly learned how important a narrative arch is in legal news: the stories are often complex, multiyear issues with many parts and perspectives. Compiling this information to produce straightforward articles forces me to analyze the facts, develop a timeline, and strategize about my story delivery. I now write a minimum of two news stories week. And in the process of developing my articles, I’ve become more intentional about my writing style, my writing time management, my message, and overall professionalism.

My bottom line is this: if you’re feeling stuck in brief and memo mode, I encourage you to expand your writing horizons, perhaps starting right here. Writing for JURIST also gave me the confidence boost I needed to write for The Forum. It’s easy to lose sight of issues you care about, current affairs, and personal development in the trenches of The Bluebook. Choose a topic you care about and write a commentary piece or an op-ed. Report on a school event or conference. Interview someone you look up to. Write about an internship experience. You can still tell stories in the legal world!

Kirsten is an Associate Editor with JURIST. You can read her articles here.

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