Listening to your 1L voice

Listen Like a Lawyer has been on hiatus during a busy time for first-year legal writing students and professors. As the students wrote and finalized their first appellate briefs, I located my own old 1L appellate brief. Even without the 1996 date, the blue paper and Courier font are like a voice from the past.


Maybe this “voice” should really be “voices”: I can hear the words of my professor in sentences that I never would have written on my own. For example: “The district court’s ruling can be comfortably affirmed under the first or third parts of the test.” What 1L comes up with the words “comfortably affirmed”? Also any use of the Code of Federal Regulations was purely a product of what she told the class to do. I had no idea what I was doing.

And that leads to another voice: the voice of doubt. When in doubt, many people return to their comfort zone. For me, the comfort zone was description–basically, just summarizing the facts and holdings of cases. Several sequences of paragraphs consist of nothing more than “In one case, xyz happened. . . . In another case, abc happened . . . .” This brief was guilty of the incredibly common 1L mistake of the “book report,” as described by Kristen Tiscione in her article on classical rhetoric, Paradigm Lost: Recapturing Classical Rhetoric to Validate Legal Reasoning. Yes, those paragraphs should have had stronger topic sentences developing an actual legal standard. In “listening” to it now, I can hear the voice of a 1L who was just not sure what to say.

Although there is much to criticize and pity in the brief, there are also moments of confidence. Good writing often corresponds with appealing rhythm and pace–features that one can hear when reading sentences out loud. In describing the client, who had been fired due to tobacco addiction and possibly his age as well, the brief juxtaposed his seniority against what the CEO wanted: “[The plaintiff’s] age and his advanced career actually hinder him; companies want ‘new blood that will stay forever.’ (R. 18).” The brief even reached for a figure of speech: “HIs tobacco addiction resulted in the Defendant’s firing him and the doors of the biotechnology market simultaneously shutting in his face throughout New England.” There is no doubt I stated these words — verbatim — at my 1L oral argument.

Legal writing scholars debate the existence of “voice” in legal writing. As Chris Rideout has written, legal writing has a “professional voice” but not so much a “personal voice.”  Legal writing professors walk the fine line of trying to teach the professional voice while not crushing the personal.

Perhaps the voice of legal writing occupies a middle ground, as Rideout suggests: the voice comes from a “discoursal self” that performs a discourse tradition in its own way in that context, at that moment. The appellate brief, for example, embodies a certain tradition, yet the brief-writer has the opportunity to contribute to and even change the tradition in performing it.

And my old brief was certainly a performance. The words reflect the very personal effort of a fledging grownup, trying on and testing out the professional voice of a lawyer. My actual voice as a 1L probably sounded a lot like it does now, because the human voice remains relatively stable from age 20 to 60. But my “voice” as a writer and a lawyer has developed so much since that 1L brief, with one of the most obvious improvements being stronger topic sentences. They could hardly have been worse.

And now from the past to the future. Law students: Without falling victim to hoarding, maybe you should print out a hard copy of your 1L brief. Who knows whether your memory sticks and cloud servers will still be easily accessible 20 years from now? And consider saving your actual voice as well. What about doing a video time capsule to yourself? Tell your future self what you’re doing. Talk about the law generally, or describe your most recent writing project or your favorite class. Show the way you think. Use an app such as SpeakingPhoto to narrate what you were thinking when a particularly photo (yes, even a selfie!) was taken. Your future self will likely appreciate the chance to hear your voice when you were just a “baby lawyer.”

And experienced lawyers: maybe find a way to “listen” to the young lawyer and law student you used to be. Dig up some old work or find an old tape from a trial-advocacy class. Naive? Cynical? Confident? Scared? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Sometimes it’s enlightening to listen to your own voice.

The author dedicates this post to Stephanie Feldman-Aleong, a former colleague at Emory Law School and professor at Nova Southeastern, who passed away in 2008. Stephanie inspired me in many ways such as by sharing her own 1L work with students.

Thanks to Beth Wilensky of the University of Michigan Law School for comments on an earlier draft of this post.