The role of correct grammar, punctuation, and citations—what I generally refer to as writing “mechanics”—early in your legal career is hard to overestimate. Professors, peers, and potential employers will judge you on details that may seem quirky. I offer you two principles and an anecdote that emphasizes them.
- Be obnoxiously detail-oriented in examining your own work (and the work of your team members, if you are in a law firm) for compliance with grammar, punctuation, and citation rules.
- Do not be pedantic about the legal writing of others.
Years ago at the University of Minnesota, we had outside folks come in to judge our students’ oral argument performances. One of the outside judges was a young-ish clerk for a federal district court judge. These clerks are often the first to read a lawyer’s brief—even before the judge—and may be responsible for writing a “bench memo” to the judge, evaluating the arguments of each side on a motion or some other issue. Depending on the judge’s work load and work ethic, she may more or less rely on the clerk’s bench memo in making a decision.
During a break in the judging, this clerk was talking to one of our other judges, and he was complaining about how lawyers do not follow the requirements of the Bluebook, one of which is that when one uses “id.” to identify a previously cited source, one should underline or italicize the period after it, thus: id. or id. (See Bluebook rule B4.2.) I heard our young judge exclaim: “If I see one more brief without the periods after ‘id’ underlined, I’m going to blow my top!”
Given the power that readers like this may have over you and your clients, you need to observe principle (1). But the failure to underline periods after “id” likely has no bearing whatsoever on the quality of arguments made in a brief. So please observe principle (2) and don’t be like this young fellow!
Many citation, grammar, and punctuation rules and guidelines appear in The Redbook and The Bluebook, but it’s not always easy to find out how to do something. I’ve created a guide to finding mechanics answers, which points to answers to the most common errors that 1Ls have.
As you work on your writing in my classes, I will note places where you make decisions that would be considered errors by at least some legal readers. You should work to correct them. I will also note if you persist in making the same mistake after I’ve corrected it. Like your legal employers, I’ll find that annoying.
In order to help you observe principle (1), the law school requires you to complete the Core Grammar for Lawyers program during your first semester of law school, which is intended to improve your writing mechanics.