A digression: re-learning to swim

While attempting—as an adult—to learn how to swim properly, the experience gave me a whole new appreciation for what 1L legal writing students go through. The idea of adults trying new things in middle age is a whole genre, found in a variety of essays and books, e.g. What I learned as the worst student in the class and Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age. Law students may or may not start law school in their 40s, but they do bring beliefs, methods, and habits that may or may not help them adjust to legal writing. On this, my final class of the year teaching 1L legal writing, here are some thoughts.

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What you already know—or think you know—can block your learning.

I already “knew” how to swim. As a child, I took just enough swimming lessons to say I could swim. The P.E. teacher stood in the pool and led us in a lot of bobbing up and down, some survival sidestroke, and a little freestyle. Swimming was not an embedded part of my hometown’s culture, though. The local country club closed down and was bowled over to make a Super Wal-Mart. My exposure to swimming over the next 30 years consisted of watching the Olympics. As a result, I had some mistaken ideas.

Take breathing, for example. It seemed like a good idea take stop kicking and just kind of coast while breathing to the side. Swimming is supposed to seem effortless, is it not? This idea was really, really wrong. I also thought I should breathe on alternating sides—a belief that is not wrong, but also not necessary for a beginner. Other issues were far more important to address, such as body rotation and not putting my palm out like a stop sign.

Mistaken and distorted beliefs afflict beginning legal writers as well. Everyone in law school has some kind of writing background, even if it’s been years in between. Memories of long-past writing lessons may bubble to the surface. Some of these memories are good. Yes, a paragraph should have a topic sentence indicating what it’s about, followed by details. That was true in fourth grade and still valuable now.

But some of the writing memories are bad, at least for legal writing. Law students often come at legal writing brandishing a thesaurus because they don’t want to sound repetitive and, they fear, simplistic. In fact as experienced legal writers know, “elegant variation” (a term coined by Richard Wydick) may introduces ambiguity, which most of the time in legal writing is very, very bad. New legal writers should put the thesaurus away and focus more on reading legal language with a legal dictionary at their side. Experienced legal writers can certainly use the thesaurus; they know which words can be varied and which cannot. But that’s the wrong thing to emphasize at the beginning, just as alternate breathing is a skill to save for later in one’s swimming process.

Skills are like muscles.

What you do becomes who you are. Based on years of running, my legs were pretty strong even if orthopedically challenged. But swimming quickly revealed an upper-body deficit. My arms were accomplishing almost nothing. In fact, using arms actually slowed me down at first, as compared to kicking alone.

Similarly in taking on legal writing, students’ past experiences will have contributed to their strengths and weaknesses coming into the course. Those who have been writing lengthy liberal arts papers are more likely to be comfortable bringing in sources, generating content, and highlighting ambiguities. Those who have been working in business may be very comfortable with summaries up front and concise recommendations.

These strengths of each disciplinary background come with weaknesses as well. Spotting ambiguities is necessary but not sufficient to create valuable, reliable legal advice. Concise summaries and recommendations may not go far enough to help a lawyer or client understand the relevant legal context and possibilities.

Learning a new variation of a skill doesn’t mean ignoring what has worked in the past, but it does mean being willing to reflect and modify. Professor Teri McMurtry-Chubb has written a handbook for translating various disciplinary backgrounds into strong legal writing in Legal Writing in the Disciplines: A Guide to Legal Writing Mastery.

It’s harder when people are watching.

Not knowing how to do something can feel very embarrassing. Swimming around other actual swimmers was a psychological obstacle. I would leave the pool rather than share a lane. I saw other people—kids and adults—working with swim coaches. Part of me wanted to get some advice too, but I felt really embarrassed.

When I finally let a swimming coach see me swim, her advice made a world of difference. She quickly diagnosed and suggested specific, effective corrections for the mistakes I was making.

Similarly in beginning legal writing, it can be excruciating for some students to share their work, or any of their thoughts. Raising a hand is the last thing many students would do. Even turning in early assignments just to the professor can be stressful. Just the thought of letting someone reading a piece of writing can interfere with the writing process.

But most of the time, almost everyone in the room is dealing with the same questions and issues in their work. Sharing one’s work is a huge step towards getting a genuine assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. No matter how bad the first attempt, it won’t be the worst piece of legal writing an experienced professor has ever seen. And it probably has some predictable patterns that can be recognized and re-shaped to create much more effective work.

Working with a coach is great, but the coach can’t do it for you.

The coach spent 45 minutes with me and vastly improved the efficiency of what I was doing in the water. She showed me what I needed to be doing with my arms and legs and breathing, correcting my misconceptions. She also let me know about some of the conventions of swimming that didn’t seem important to me but in fact are important to real swimmers. For example, you always touch the wall. Stopping a few inches short because “whatever, it’s just a few inches,” is not what real swimmers do.

As the lesson went on, my brain started to overload and my body started to tire. I got frustrated and may have dropped a particular profane word. The coach could have given me more advice, but I couldn’t learn. She ended with a gentle admonition: “You just need to swim. Are you going to come out here and practice?”

Students must have a similar experience when meeting with their legal writing professors. Skillful feedback can help a new legal writer cut through a lot of ineffective habits. The professor can help the student understand that some practices—such as sticking with the same legally significant term instead of resorting to the thesaurus—need to be accepted for the student to become a real legal writer.

But there’s only so many writing points that a writing conference can cover. At some point, the student (understandably) has maxed out on taking advice. And then the student has to leave the conference, go out, and just write.

Sometimes you need a break. Sometimes you should keep going.

Swimming is really, really tiring. And people who are tired make mistakes. With swimming, at best this means slowing down. It can also mean a noseful of water and coughing fit in the middle of the lap lane. At such moments, the best thing seems to be just to calm down and reset for another try.

And so it is with learning legal writing. Sometimes the writing muscles just get tired. Just sitting at a computer does not lead to writing. As John Wooden once said, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” The writing activity in marathon writing sessions may be particularly vulnerable to mistakes. And the problem there is not just sloppy or confusing writing but substantive mistakes that could affect legal advice to a client.

But that does not mean quitting at the first sign of fatigue. It doesn’t mean all mistakes signal break time. Any athlete must push the boundaries of fatigue to improve. As an adult-learner in the swimming world, my workouts are pathetic by lifelong swimmer standards. But challenging myself to do an extra lap or another short set will be what moves me forward.

Similarly with writing, pushing through the frustration is often crucial to making actual progress.

Accomplishment comes in tiny moments at first.

Breakthroughs can be subtle. At some point I started stretching out in front of me and “pulling” more water. (See how I used the word “pulling”? I am pretty sure that’s a real swimming word!) I was able to rotate in the water instead of swimming like a floating ironing board. Progress was slow, but the time in the pool made a lot of difference, and I knew I was getting better.

Similarly for new legal writers, real progress can be halting at first: Read a case and highlighting an important quote. Make an outline and look at how it has a point A without a point B (yikes!). Write a sentence and realizing that it is too specific to start a new paragraph; it’s a detail, not an idea about the law. Nobody else will be there to see these brief flashes, but they are so important.  The progress is subtle and private—but real.

The lesson and the learning are never really “finished.”

I’d like to say I’m a great or even just a strong swimmer now. That’s just not the case. But I’m a lot better. I wear a one-piece, cap, and goggles, and take a lane. I will continue to consult coaches from time to time and work on my own.

Learning legal writing is much the same. At the end of a year in legal writing, the transition is underway but incomplete. There is much to learn from the experts and from continued effort and experimentation. My hope for the students is that they know what to do to get better. My hope is that they feel the satisfaction of gaining a new skill.

Photo Credit: WordPress Photo Library

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