The random thoughts of an architect-turned- lawyer from the deep south living in Washington, DC...

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Journal Write-On Competition

In my recent "Law-Rah" Landers style of using this Blawg as a fairly useful method of offering advice, I figured I should post a realistic entry regarding the GW Write-On Journal Competition. I am not sure how other schools handle their journals, so I am not sure how universal this post will be. But, for my evening friends and anyone that comes along later, I offer some advice:

With all of the moaning and complaining from everyone regarding the Journal Competition, I must admit that I actually enjoyed it. It was an intense four/five days that forced me to learn the things I have been ignoring in LRW all year. Regardless of the outcome (of which I will not hear until July), I must say that I thought it was a great learning experience for me.

First piece of advice: do not treat the words of current journal members as sacred. We were offered many tip sessions by different organizations where current members of each journal told us how they handled the competition and subsequently made the journal. Although they emphasized that this was what worked for them, I scrupulously wrote down every word figuring if it worked for them, it will work for me. This is not so! An example for you: everyone I spoke with said to do the Bluebooking portion first. The theory is to get it out of the way and then hit the reading and writing sections hard. Well, as someone who is absolutely horrible with the bluebook, this proved to be excruciatingly painful for me. I sat down that first night with the sources and the bluebook.Two hours later, I had nothing to show for it. By the time I went home, I was so intimidated by those 15 sources, my enthusiasm and determination stayed at school. I slept on it and decided to start over the next day...this time with the reading. We were also advised to become familiar with and tab the bluebook in advance. I only heard this advice a day before we started and therefore did not have time to do this. During the competition, I seriously regretted not taking the extra time beforehand.

The reading was the most painful part for me. Granted, the topic was interesting and the cases were colorful, but that does not overcome the tremendous amount of reading. The subject case gave me hope, as it was printed in what appeared to be 16-point font. I thought at that rate, how bad could 213 pages be? Considering the next source was printed in 8-point font in two rows on the sheet, my smile quickly faded. The sources contained a mixture of cases, newspaper articles, speeches, etc. Personally, I liked mixing things up a bit because a Washington Post article was a hell of a lot easier to read than a Supreme Court case. I was warned ahead of time that I need not read all of the source material. I ignored this advice thinking "whatever, I will read every last word." That did not last long. I ended up leaving two of the cases for skimming purposes, as I knew they would not greatly contribute to my argument. (Keep in mind many of the sources are cited in the other sources so you can skip right to the important stuff.) Still, by the end of the day, it was all beginning to sound the same to me. I hit one of those blocks where you reared a paragraph five times and still do not know what it says.

I did have one fairly major mishap in my planned system based on tip sessions. We were told to read, reared and get to know the subject case, as this is what your entire paper will be based on. Good call. We were also told to come up with a theme or opinion in the beginning. This way, you can have your theme in mind when you read the rest of the cases. I had my theme and it was a damn good one. Apparently, so good, that when I got to one of the later sources, I realized some dude had written 23 pages on my theme. Um...I don't guess I could just write a paper on why I think that guy is smart? I went home after having read the source material and just let it sink in. This (for me) proved much more fruitful, as I could spend the rest of my evening with it all swirling around in my head.

By the next morning, I had made sense of it all and was developing a new theme. I tried the Bluebooking again and it was not QUITE as hard this time. Advice: write down every BB note/rule/page you use. I only began doing this on source 7 or 8. After bluebooking all 15 sources, you are surely going to have to go back and check over them (hopefully). Having a citation and not knowing how you got it can prove frustrating. On half of my sources, I had jotted down BB rules and page numbers, so checking my citations was easier.

After the reading and bluebooking, I hit the ground running on the paper. I had briefed the subject case, so the objective portion of my note was really just copy and paste. (HIGHLY recommend briefing the case. Not only does it help you to understand the rule and application...but it also saves you writing time later.) When I got to the subjective portion, this is where Ambimb's advice came in:

free-write your argument quickly, writing it like you would if you were writing a note to a friend or something casual, your own language, just getting the points down that you want to make. Then go back and revise and expand that into something slightly more formal and support it all w/good citations.

This was by far the best advice ever! Not only was this good for the journal, but I think it is good for me overall. I have always been a fairly good writer (although the Blawg may not seem so) and I have always had my own style. Since coming to law school, I have been struggling with legal writing. It was not until the Journal Competition that I realized why. All of our writing classes are so focused on teaching us "how" to write, not "what" to write. What happens when the how does not work the same for everyone? Why not focus on examples of actual memos and briefs and casenotes? You just tell me what I need in the end, and I will get there...my own way. This being said, I have struggled with this stringent "week 1-writing plan; week 2-outline; week 3-point headings" way of doing things. I work much better if I can just sit down and write. Granted, my first draft may have contractions, first person, and even some "there are"s. However, it will be thorough and it will be clear. I can, and will, always go back to formalize it. I realized that legal writing is just adding another step...legalize it (add relevant caselaw and citations.)

I decided to use the Journal Competition as a way of testing my way of writing. I put all of the source material away and just wrote. I had over four pages of an argument written before I took a breath. After that, I condensed it, played with the grammar, legalized it, and called it a day.

Last words of wisdom...be prepared for anything to go wrong in the end! The casenote was due at 8pm and I had no intention of waiting until then. Right before I left my house, I noticed the last page of my casenote was missing the last line. No clue where it went. CRAP! I fixed it, reprinted, and still got to the Metro at 6:30 with plenty of time to get to school and make my twelve copies. In waiting the 11 minutes for the Metro, I decided to look over my paper one last time. Good thing I did, because I had my social security number very wrong. CRAP! That will be points off. Mental fight over whether or not to just go to school, white it out and re-write it. Hell no! I did not spend this much time to turn in a less-than-perfect paper. I left the Metro and jogged the ½ mile back to my house (in 2" heeled boots and jeans) to re-print. Entering freak out mode. My roommate had just gotten home from an actual jog and agreed to drive me to school. On the way, we stopped at Kinkos to print my 12 copies. In stapling together all of my copies, I noticed page 5 was missing. CRAP! That will be major points off. After a good few minute panic and going out to Catherine's car to get my old copy with the wrong SSN, I realized the copy machine had merely stuck p.5 and 6 together. Whew. Un-staple, copy p. 5, sort, re-staple. Got to school, turned it in, took a breath, then went out for a cold beverage or two.