Lawyers practicing in Moot Court

The Legal Apprentice

Students from all disciplines have the opportunity to publish their work in a St. John’s University undergraduate journal, The Legal Apprentice.

The Legal Apprentice features articles about many topics, such as endangered species, ballot selfies and engagement rings.  The journal was created by Mary Noe, J.D., Professor of Legal Studies.  She continues as the editor.  Undergraduate student-authors write relevant case summaries, research, and opinions that reflect their respective interests and backgrounds. “No legal training is required” Noe said, “this is about good writing, not legal knowledge.”  The articles are interesting, informative, and well written.  The Legal Apprentice welcomes articles from all St. John’s University students.

Articles are submitted to the Advisory Board and judged in a “blind review” process. Each issue contains a note on writing from an esteemed member of the legal profession.  Past editions included Judges from the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York such as Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska, Judge Deborah Batts, Judge P. Kevin Castel, Judge William H. Pauley III, from the Connecticut Superior Court, Judge John F. Blawie and from St. John’s University School of Law, Associate Dean Jeanne Ardan,. 

Students interested in writing for The Legal Apprentice should contact Professor Mary Noe at noem@stjohns.edu

Judicial Thought Leaders Weigh in on Legal Writing

Good Legal Writing Is Simply Good Writing: Words Of Welcome
Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska†

Justice Scalia, receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Scribes, The American Society of Legal Writers, surprised his audience by telling them “I do not believe that legal writing exists. . . .”1 He continued “Someone who is a good legal writer would, but for the need to master a different substantive subject, be an equivalently good writer of history, economics or, indeed, theology.”2 Put another way, good legal writing is simply good writing.

Observers of the game of basketball may point out that “You can’t coach height,” meaning that a player’s height is an immutable characteristic. But proficiency in writing is not a genetic trait. It is a skill learned over a lifetime. We evolve and improve with practice. More writing begets better writing. I see this with my own law clerks who become better writers over the course of a single year. Because it provides students with an opportunity to practice and perfect their writing skills, I applaud the creation of The Legal Apprentice. Professor Mary Noe, her faculty colleagues and the student competitors and authors have created a worthwhile showcase of fine writing.

The Court of which I am Chief Judge is no stranger to Professor Noe’s students. Since the fall of 2009, they have served as interns working in our Clerk’s Office assisting with important work. These students have also worked directly in the Chambers of four Judges of our Court. On behalf of the Court, I thank them for their valuable contributions. I close with the wish that The Legal Apprentice continues and thrives for many years to come.

___

† Chief Judge, United States District Court, Southern District of New York; B.A.,
The College of Saint Rose; J.D. Fordham University, School of Law; LL.M., New York
University, School of Law.
1 ABA Journal News, Scalia: Legal Writing Doesn’t Exist (posted Aug. 9, 2008)
www.abajournal.com/news/article/scalia_legal_writing_doesnt_exist.
2 Id.

“You may find it hard to imagine yourself writing or speaking to a national audience at a moment of crisis. But nearly everyone will have a dispute with a cable or cell provider, bank, landlord, employer or government agency. Persuasive writing skills are important not just to lawyers but to everyone. . . . Showing frustration or anger in a complaint letter—EVEN IN SOLID CAPITAL LETTERS WITH EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!—may make you feel better, but it is not likely to persuade. Persuasive writing is an acquired skill. It can be learned and can be practiced... Conciseness and clarity are of paramount importance....”

—Hon. P. Kevin Castel, United States District Judge, Southern District of New York. St. John’s University, B.S., J.D. LL.D. (Hon.). Judge Castel is a graduate of the College of Professional Studies and served as president of Student Government. Professor Jack Franzetti, a member of the Advisory Board of The Legal Apprentice, taught two semesters of World Literature to Judge Castel.

“Writing is such a basic form of communication that we sometimes forget that it is also (or can be) an art. Poets, historians, authors of fiction, philosophy and humor know that they write so others can read, understand, think about, enjoy and appreciate their work.

Of course, all writing is not art, but all writing has a purpose... When I read it again I tried to be objective about whether I had actually said what I had wanted.

I asked myself if the order of my sentences and paragraphs helped people follow it or did it confuse them? Did I say actually what I had wanted to say? Did it say it the way I wanted to say it?”

—Judge Deborah Batts is a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York. She received her J.D. from Havard Law School, B.A. from Radcliffe College. She was awarded an honorary degree from the City University of New York School of Law. Judge Batts was appointed to the federal bench by President Clinton in 1994 . Before taking the bench, Judge Batts served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York and Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law.

“Of course to ensure professionalism in your application documents, it is imperative that you use proper spelling, grammar and formatting....Proofread your documents multiple times and ask another trusted person to proofread them for you, as it is always good to have a second set of eyes review your work.”

—Jeanne Arden, Associate Dean for Career Development, St. John’s University School of Law.

One of the overlooked ways to become a good writer is to spend time reading great prose. During my undergraduate years, I read many of the so-called “great books.” Without realizing it, I was learning how some of the finest writers and thinkers in Western civilization used language to express their ideas and engage the reader.

To this day, I make a habit of reading novels, periodicals, op-eds, book reviews, and collections of articles deemed by editors to be worth reading, like Longreads....

Reading a wide variety of writing in different subject areas not only expands your mind; it refines and refreshes your writing. I often find that phrases and literary devices I come across in newspapers and magazines wind up in my judicial opinions, making them more accessible to the public.

Of course, writing is an introspective process that encompasses much more than a physical act or a toolbox of techniques. Before starting to write, you should think about what you want to say....

So here are a few guideposts that have served me well over the years:

  1. Take the time to make whatever you write simpler and shorter. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes—a pre-eminent legal writer—authored opinions spanning two or three pages that cut to the heart of the issue and resolved it.
  1. Listen to the cadence of your writing. For example, say out loud the opening eight-syllable sentence of Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Its cadence is lyrical, and its simplicity gives it power.
  1. Beware of adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice because they detract from the force of your statements.
  1. Minimize or eliminate footnotes because they distract the reader from the flow of your narrative. Footnotes weigh a piece down with gratuitous marginalia. Remember, if it is not important enough to be in the text, it is probably not worth bringing to the reader’s attention.

—Judge William H. Pauley III, Senior United States District Judge, United States District Court, Southern District of New York; A.B., Duke University; J.D. Duke University School of Law.