Why Grammar Matters: not just the Oxford Comma

If you don’t care where the comma goes, you may want to re-think becoming a lawyer.

Long before bloggers at Lawyerist.com began debating  the Oxford Comma, I always made this point to prospective law students during the years that I worked in law school career services.
Lawyers’ writing, which includes much more than briefs and court documents, requires an astonishing amount of precision. When ambiguity trumps precision, the door to expensive and embarrassing litigation may open. Saying “I’m sorry” will not insulate you:

  • from the difference between $4,000 and $400,000,000 of Officers’ and Directors’ Liability Insurance in a signed contract;
  • from your clients’ skepticism about your competence should your documents be littered with typos and grammatical errors (“I can spell. Why can’t my lawyer? What else is wrong with her advice? ”) [props to the excellent lawyer and writer Maura O'Connor]; or
  • from the understandable rage of a prisoner whose statute of limitations for appeal tolled because you weren’t clear about the difference between working days and calendar days.

All too often, law students want give short shrift to Legal Writing because it is either pass/fail or has fewer credits than other first year courses. This is a foolish and short-sighted attitude which law grads live to regret.

In addition to the task of teaching legal reasoning and writing, Legal Writing instructors care deeply about grammar, and they have a wonderful platform in which to share their concern and their passion. In a post on the Legal Skills Research Blog, Deborah K. Hackerson (St. Thomas, Minneapolis) links to an excellent post from Stanford Law Library's Rachel Samberg called How to Use Legislative History to Teach Grammar which describes a "might comma" teachable moment.

Teaching bright students who come from a variety of disciplines with a broad range of attitudes toward grammar rules is a challenge. In Statutory Interpretation in the Age of Grammatical Permissiveness: An Object Lesson for Teaching Why Grammar Matters , Susan J. Hankin (Maryland) makes many excellent points, not the least of which is that legal writing is, indeed, different from other kinds of writing. I once met with a 1L who was a poet who was distressed because she thought that her legal writing instructor was stomping all over her creativity. "No," I said, "you are learning a different kind of writing. After all, if your toaster were to burn down your house, would you send a  poem to its manufacturer, or would you write a stern letter outlining duty, breach, causation, scope of liability, and damages?"

In the rush to learn "legal reasoning," students may neglect the fact that grammar (and spelling) are two critical components of legal writing which make their work useful and accessible to clients. 

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