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February 2007
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April 2007

Ultra Hal

Back in my law-review days, we would proofread in pairs, one member of the pair reading aloud to the other. Now Eric Waltmire has found some free software that takes the place of your law-review proofreading partner. “The Ultra Hal Text-to-Speech Reader application will read your documents out loud in one of its many high quality voices. This can be a great tool for proof reading because hearing your text out loud helps you spot all mistakes.” Says Eric, “The voices in the reader are not the most human-like but it gets the job done.” (Hat tip to Law Dawg Blawg.)

How to write like a lawyer

All first-year law students take a class called Legal Writing. The purpose of this class, says Prof. James D. Gordon III in this article, is “to make you write like real lawyers as little as possible.”

To elaborate: The legal-writing teachers recommend “concise language and simple, everyday words.” Whereas1 real lawyers know how to lay it on thick while pulling out all the stops.2 Prof. Gordon offers this comparison: Suppose you want to give someone an orange. You could use “the simple, everyday phrase, ‘I give you this orange.’”3 But then anybody with a working knowledge of the English language can write a simple, five-word declarative sentence. It takes a lawyer to write it this way:

Know all men by these presents that I hereby give, grant, bargain, sell, release, convey, transfer, and quitclaim all my right, title, interest, benefit, and use whatever in, of, and concerning this chattel, otherwise known as an orange, or citrus orantium, together with all the appurtenances  thereto of skin, pulp, pip, rind, seeds, and juice, to have and to hold the said orange together with its skin, pulp, pip, rind, seeds, and juice for his own use and behoof, to himself and his heirs in fee simple forever, free from all liens, encumbrances, easements, limitations, restraints, or conditions whatsoever, any and all prior deeds, transfers or other documents whatsoever, now or anywhere made to the contrary notwithstanding, with full power to bite, cut, suck, or otherwise eat the said orange or to give away the same, with or without its skin, pulp, pip, rind, seeds, or juice.3

Besides taking on legal writing, Prof. Gordon riffs on the entire law-school experience, from LSATs through the bar exam. Somehow his article was printed in the Yale Law Journal, but despite that liability, it’s a delightful read.

(Hat tip to Cappy-Lawling.)


1 Real lawyers sprinkle their writing with words like whereas. Also, they often write ungrammatical things, e.g. this free-standing dependent clause.

2 Not to mention mixing their metaphors (unless you’re a sexton who uses lots of Pledge on the church organ).

3 Prof. Gordon credits Plain Wayne, Wis. B. Bull., Feb. 1975, at 61.

Georgia on my eyes

If you’re writing something that will be read on screen rather than on paper, consider using Georgia typeface. Georgia is a serifed typeface designed specifically for on-screen reading. You can read about it here and here, and if you don’t already have it, you can download it here. (In case you’re wondering what Georgia looks like, the posts on this blog are presented in Georgia typeface.)

Even if you don’t blog, I’ll bet you write dozens of things every day intended for on-screen reading. Those things are called “e-mail.” If you use Outlook or Outlook Express to handle your e-mail, you can change the settings to put the e-mail you write in Georgia, and to display any plain-text e-mail you receive in Georgia. Click on “Tools” in the menu bar, then select “Options,” then follow your nose. I recommend the 12-point size for easy reading. I guarantee that you’ll find 12-point Georgia easier to read than the default 10-point Arial you may be used to.

Secrets of successful legal-writing students

Seattle U. Law School legal-writing director Anne Enquist studied a sample of second-year law students, comparing the highly successful legal writers to the so-so, to find out what the successful ones did to set themselves apart. She describes her study and its results in a paper you can download here. The study suggests (not surprisingly) that a systematic, organized approach is the key:

[T]he study reveals not only the results of working harder but the specifics of working smarter. The secrets to working smarter included note-taking and note-reviewing strategies; how to divide one’s time between researching, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading; how to research and read cases efficiently; strategies for efficient time management; techniques for organizing one’s research and staying organized while writing; and accessing the professor as a primary resource. Pitfalls to avoid included procrastination, poor management of distractions, and scapegoating.

How to read, Part II

Last year, Prof. Leah Christensen published a paper showing a correlation between the way law students read legal texts and the grades they earn.1 Now she’s followed up that study with another paper, this one comparing the way the “experts” (judges and lawyers) read a judicial opinion with the way “novices” (law students in the top half of their class) read. Here’s part of the abstract:

Whereas the experts read efficiently (taking less overall time), the beginning law students read less efficiently. Where the experts read the text flexibly, moving back and forth between different parts of the opinion, the novices read inflexibly. The experts connected to the purpose of their reading more consistently than the novices and drew upon their prior knowledge and experience with the law. The results of this study suggest that we can give our students the following advice in order to read like legal experts: (1) Read with a purpose; (2) Use background knowledge to situate the case; (3) Establish the context of the case before beginning to read; (4) Evaluate the case and have an opinion about its outcome; and (5) Read flexibly; skim and skip when appropriate. By examining the actual transcripts of lawyers and judges reading a case, this article illustrates how we can teach our students to read like legal experts. The earlier they achieve these skills, the better for the individual students, the more likely their success in law school and the better for the legal profession as a whole.

1 See blog post dated 15 Sept. 2006.

When “may” means “shall” “may only”

In Louisiana statutes, “[t]he word ‘shall’ is mandatory and the word ‘may’ is permissive.” La. R.S. 1:3. That is, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise. In Colvin v. La. Patient’s Compensation Fund Oversight Board, 947 So.2d 15 (La. 2007), the Louisiana Supreme Court holds that the word may in a venue statute means may only, which comes awfully close to the mandatory shall.

The lesson: Context matters.

A good way to impress people at parties. Not.

What do you call the symbol ¶ ? Thanks to BeldarBlog, we now know that it’s called a pilcrow. The history and etymology is at the mostly reliable Wikipedia.

It seems that § does not have a sexy name like “pilcrow”; it’s just called a section sign.

Incidentally, if you want to type a ¶, hold the ALT key down and hit 20 on your numeric keypad (make sure the NumLock is engaged). To type §, same instructions, except hit 21 instead of 20.

I don’t recommend this, but ...

Now we all know that the best way to get under a page limit is to write concisely. But sometimes, like Blaise Pascal, we don’t have time to make it shorter. And sometimes, like the J. Geils Band, we do get desperate. With that in mind, here’s a video showing how you can stretch a writing to fill a page quota by changing the size of the periods from 12-point to 14-point. Maybe the same thing works in reverse, squeezing a 21-page brief into a 20-pager. If you want, give it a try, but you didn’t hear it from me.

Civil Law Dictionary wiki

Vicenç Feliú; Foreign, Comparative and International Law Librarian at the LSU Law Center, is overseeing a Civil Law Dictionary wiki. Civil law is the legal system observed in Louisiana, continental Europe, and many other jurisdictions. Common law, on the other hand, is the legal system observed in England and the United States (excluding Louisiana). If the Civil Law Dictionary wiki is successful, it will help folks who need to translate civil-law terms into common law, and vice-versa.

If you’d like to join the community of editors for the Civil Law Dictionary wiki, follow these instructions.

(Hat tip to beSpacific.)