Chapter 14 Guidance to answering the practical exercises

Writing and drafting

Q1. Think about your own writing skills. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What can you start doing now to address your weaknesses in good time before you start to apply for, or begin, graduate employment?

My experience is that it is increasingly common for candidates to let themselves down by their poor use of grammar and punctuation. In most professions, it is vital that this is up to scratch. Sophisticated clients may not be able to ascertain if your legal advice is wrong, but they will be able to spot when your command of the English language is substandard and they will judge you on that. Potential employers may be persuaded not to give you an interview despite a CV glowing with content, if your covering letter reveals an issue with your use of grammar. I would say that the incorrect use of apostrophes and of ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’ (ironically through an ill-advised attempt to sound more professional) are the most common errors I see on a daily basis with the potential to irk the lawyers who might be marking your work or seeking to employ you. alerts you to these and some other common errors which you can practice avoiding from now on, and the further reading section contains some helpful resources (including the BBC Adult literacy website and books by Parkinson and Truss). Schools now recognise this as a common problem which must be addressed and have well-stocked libraries and writing projects to seek to help address it. If this is a problem for you, I’d encourage you to engage with those right now.

In terms of essay writing, to provide a really good answer to a question you must be confident enough to draw a clear conclusion, which is justified by your objective analysis but which also sets out your subjective opinion where appropriate. Don’t ‘sit on the fence’ (“it depends what the courts decide”), which may feel more comfortable but will not score as well in any mark scheme. To improve, you could consider, for example:

  • what do you think the court is most likely to decide if they are following legal precedent?
  • do you agree that this would lead to the right decision?
  • what do you think is the right decision?
  • would the courts have any latitude to decide in this way?
  • what needs to change?
  • is your view common?
  • is there a movement or campaign to support your view?
  • is your view unequivocal?
  • if not, what doubts do you have?

There is a lot of information in chapter 14 (14.1.3 and Table 14.1 in particular) to help you with your critical thinking and analysis at an early stage in your studies so that you can practice this technique (and reap the rewards) now.

Law students tend to be naturally drawn to and talented at critical analysis once they have overcome the hurdle of learning exactly what this phrase means.

Q2. When reading a newspaper, try to read one article critically for proofreading errors. Did you find any? If so, what steps would you take to prevent such errors in your own writing?

Proofreading is an essential skill for lawyers in particular. We have to be sticklers for detail, because if we are not, the meaning of our documents could change and we will not have provided the client with the protection or rights they are expecting and have paid for. Truss’ example in Example 10 demonstrates this so well. When you have honed your proofreading skills, you will find them to be a blessing, because the accuracy of your writing will look impressive, but also a curse because, as this question suggests, you will begin to see errors everywhere, including when you are relaxing with the Sunday newspapers. and Example 13 provide helpful guidance as to how you can take steps to make sure your work looks as you intended it to. As an author I appreciate that it can be more difficult to spot errors in your own work than it is to spot errors in the work of others…and this is a skill which improves with practice. It will help you to become more self-aware, recognise your most common errors, and devise strategies to spot and address them efficiently.

Q3. Reflect on an instance where correspondence (which you either wrote or received) did not go as you had planned. Analyse what went wrong and how it was, or should have been, corrected.

You will each have your own experiences, on which you can enjoy reflecting to inform your future practice. In my experience, students can make mistakes when e-mailing their lecturers, because they adopt a tone that is too informal, or even more suited to a text. Whether delivering a question, feedback, or a complaint, a suitable tone is what is needed. Use these interactions with your lecturers to practice getting your tone right (and ask for feedback). No-one minds if you don’t quite get it right while taking care to do so, but any lack of care about how the recipient might receive your communication does speak very loudly, make no mistake. If you don’t address any issues with striking the right tone now, it will repeat itself when you begin your graduate role, so now is the time to work on it.

Q4. Do you think it is fair for clients to expect a lawyer’s written work to be entirely free from any proofreading errors? What are the arguments for and against? Which are you most persuaded by and why?

This question brings together issues about writing and ethics. It is topical and could be asked at interview. Opinions are divided. Some would argue for this point on the basis that they perceive lawyers’ fees to be expensive and this is a standard of work which is achievable and which they would expect to be reflected in those fees. Others would argue against the point on the basis that while, technically, it may be achievable, lawyers work under time and other pressures which make it practically impossible to achieve. They may also make the point that a good, business-minded lawyer should seek to focus on the main areas of risk but resist the temptation to be a perfectionist (using arguments based on the Pareto principle (or 80-20 rule) introduced in 20.2.2). You can consider your own view. In relation to legal practice I would say that open discussion with a client on this matter would always be a good idea, to manage everyone’s expectations. It is not unknown for lawyers to strive to meet standards that their clients would not prioritise as highly, and yet completely fail to prioritise those issues which their clients do rate highly (and some of the Further Reading for Chapter 9, you will recall, support this, such as the Bellweather Report). The Belbin test (15.4.2) might reveal that many lawyers tend to be completer-finisher perfectionist types, who might tend to agree with this statement and put themselves under pressure to achieve this level of perfection. The question is, what do their clients (or lecturers and examiners) want, need and expect? There are various references throughout Part II to tailoring what you to to meet the needs of your audience, and to communicating well with that audience. This question invited you to apply these concepts to it.

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