A Legal Writing Journey

June 7, 2021
Adjunct professor Alicia Penn shares her approach to writing for clerks

Alicia Penn approaches her legal writing as a journey. “There should be stopping posts, clear headings, a road map to where we’re going,” she explains. This year, she brought that approach to students at Richmond Law in her “Writing for Clerks” course.

All students are required to take a Legal Analysis and Writing Course in their first year. For those who want to dig deeper into a niche area, “Writing for Clerks” provides an extra layer of depth, with a particular focus on writing bench memos and helpful initial drafts of opinions. But “even though the course is called ‘Writing for Clerks,’ my goal was preparing them to be a clerk, and that involves a lot more than just writing,” said Penn. She explained that clerks often have other duties, such as managing case flow, monitoring dockets, or reporting legal research orally to the judge. 

As a first-time adjunct professor in a relatively new course, Penn consulted with local judges and clerks, as well as other faculty members. She created records for students to sift through, and created assignments for students to draft bench memos, participate in a mock opinion conference, and draft an initial opinion. She also brought in guest speakers, including the Hon. Cleo Powell, as well as a panel of judicial clerks. The students “were very engaged,” said Penn. “[They] were phenomenal.”

A 2019 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, Penn currently serves as clerk to the Hon. Bernard Goodwyn of the Supreme Court of Virginia. She offered her top tips for law students who are interested in clerkships – tips that happen to be helpful reminders for any lawyers looking to brush up on their writing skills too.

  1. Know your audience. I’m going to teach you the tools for how to be a good clerk– but if your judge tells you something else, they win. That’s important not only as an employee but as a lawyer generally. How you’re going to write a brief persuasively versus how you’re going to write a bench memo are very different tones, and it’s because of who the audience is, and the purpose of the writing.
  2. Structure is your friend. Organization is your friend. We have a tendency as lawyers and law students to want to sound very smart, to use big words, to explain everything, sometimes to over explain. That leads to long paragraphs, clunky sentences, run on sentences, and a lot of legalese. My philosophy of writing generally, and especially legal writing, is that I think a person who doesn’t know anything about a case should be able to pick up your piece of writing and understand it, and have maybe one or two questions.
  3. No rules are set in stone. There are a lot of legal writers or grammatists who will say don’t use contractions, don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’ Or don’t use semicolons. Or don’t use too many commas. But you have to figure out your audience, your judge, what’s going to be best for them, what’s going to best help them understand the import of what you’re saying.

 

Photo credit: Molly Lichten