Among the many Jobs I Didn’t Seem to Keep, teaching at a law school was one of them. (OK, my choice to leave all of them, with the exception of a short stint as a T.G.I. Friday’s bartender right between “stock broker” and “bomber navigator.” I’m not kidding.)
The law school where I taught—let’s call it the St. Scubiculus School of Law—had as a graduation requirement that each wannabe young lawyer complete (gasp!) an Original Piece of Legal Writing. Basically, 30 or 40 pages of mumbo-jumbo with lots of footnotes formatted in the inscrutable Harvard Blue Book style. Basically what in high school we used to call a Theme Paper, just a little heftier and with arcane citations. Seems a reasonable ask from persons seeking a career that requires, ummm let’s see, a Lot of Research and Writing.
In five years, I supervised north of forty of these required “scholarly writing requirement” papers. I even developed a reputation as the guy to whom one sent students who already had tried and failed to complete said paper—sometimes more than once—and were in their last semester (gulp). So my data sample on this is rigorous enough.
What I found was, in a nutshell, (which for non-lawyers, is also the name of cheater books you can buy that contain the contract law you missed by cutting or sleeping through Contracts I and II) your average law student at your slightly-above-average American law school Does Not Know How to Write. Certainly not very well, sometimes barely at all. Now keep in mind these are not first year undergrads—which would be bad enough—but second- and third-year Law Students.
I don’t Blame Them. I’ll admit sometimes I wanted to Slap, Choke or Throttle Them, but I don’t Blame Them. With the exception of a handful of great writers who restored my guttering faith in the next generation, this was an across-the-board problem at good ol’ St. Scooby’s. From what I heard from colleagues at other law schools, saintly and otherwise, this was not at all peculiar to my institution.
These weren’t stupid kids, mind you. A lot of them were A- or B+ averagers, very articulate and highly regarded by their professors. They’d been failed dismally somewhere—maybe everywhere—along the way in their educational journey, long before they got to us.
To frame this a little, here’s an example. One young lady came in for our regular weekly meeting and was obviously agitated about something. Turns out she was panicked over footnote formats. (Note to Non-Lawyers: this is exactly the kind of thing Lawyers get tied in knots about. At $700/hour.) She was using a few somewhat-out-of-the-ordinary sources and was in a tizzy over how she would possibly footnote them. Now, the aforementioned Harvard Blue Book has model citations for just about everything, including Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis and Botswanan Supreme Court decisions, so it was a fair bet it contained the cites she needed. I tossed one of my (many) copies of the Blue Book across the desk to her and watched as she started leafing through randomly. I said, “Look in the index.” She turned to the table of contents. I said, “It’s in the back.” She turned to the back and started leafing through again. I said, “It’s alphabetized.” She stared at the index for some long seconds and began to sob. OK, this writing requirement was traumatic for a lot of students and I kept a box of Kleenex on the edge of my desk for just such contingencies. Once she settled down, I found the cause of her emotional meltdown was… she didn’t know how to alphabetize. Never been taught what it means or how to do it. I asked, “How do you use a dictionary?” The answer—and many of you see this coming—was “I Google it.”
The reality is that over the last forty years or so, exactly paralleling the The Rise of the Internet, we in the US of A have wholesale devalued the importance of teaching the Humanities (and most of the Social Sciences) in our educational system, from top to bottom. Foremost among these subjects is… English. In particular, the Writing of the English Language. The reasons for this are many and varied, but I’m not going down that rabbit hole. Suffice it to say, this Circling of the Drain has been going on for a long time. When I was in junior high school 45 years ago at the height of coolness and hippiness among young teachers, “Language Arts” as English had been euphemistically rebranded, mostly consisted of sitting around on first-generation beanbag chairs and Writing in Your Journal while listening to Carpenters albums. That was at the Public Junior High School, however. I was a Catholic school student, where it remained undecided whether poor penmanship constituted a Mortal or Venal Sin. It was settled canon law that Sloppy Grammar was a clear and present threat to one’s chance at salvation. I mean, I learned how to Diagram Sentences, for crying out loud.
My point however—and there must be one somewhere—is this. The Age of the World-Wide Inter-Web Net of Things & Stuff may have rid us of pesky anachronisms like Paper and Books, but it’s produced an unrelenting, dare I say an inexorably growing, demand for Written Stuff. Like this blog, for instance. And also the many thousands of blogs that, unlike this one, people actually read. Where would The Google and The Facebook be without clickbait, after all?
And regardless of what all the legislators and neurotic parents of college-bound kids say, English is the most important, relevant and useful BUSINESS course out there. In another Job I Couldn’t Hold, I was a partner in a reasonably successful consulting company. We hired a lot of people to, well, consult. Every single person we hired, including the receptionist, had to produce a writing sample. The single most important—even the deciding—factor in making a hire/no hire decision was… writing ability. As in, “Can this person move the paper?”
I have many friends, family, old colleagues, and passing acquaintances in white-collar professions who I’ve asked about this. Every single of them one concurred—English fluency and writing ability are both the most important job skills they seek and the hardest consistently to find. (Please note I did not split the infinitive “to find” in that last sentence. There will be a quiz later. With extra credit for accurate spelling.)
In every law course I taught—and I taught a lot of them—throughout the semester I looked for opportunities to pass out two Pieces of Important Advice to my law students, all of whom were psychotically panicked about Finding a Job After Graduation. First, if you’re already a good writer, use law school to become a great writer; if you’re a poor writer, use law school to become a competent writer.
(Please note my proper use of the semicolon in the previous sentence, to whit: separating two independent clauses. Also please note my proper use of the colon in the preceding sentence, meaning “note what follows.” Although it could be argued the colon is redundant with “to whit.” Shoot. Forget get it. Quiz canceled.)
Second, the way to make partner in a law firm is to become The Indispensable Junior Associate. And the most reliable way to become The Indispensable Junior Associate is to be the young lawyer who pops into everyone’s mind whenever they need some fast and fluent writing done. I dare you to find a partner in a law firm to argue this point, at least without paying them to do so.
So Mom and Dad, please no eye-rolls when little Johnny or Janey comes home at Christmas during their freshman year at Podunk State and announces he/she wants to major in English Literature or Creative Writing. They’ll have a decided leg up on all those Business Admin majors who can’t find the index.
What are your business experiences with the importance of writing? Am I missing something?
As an English major who works as support staff to neuroscientists, many of these otherwise brilliant researchers cannot write a coherent sentence. I once proofed a researcher’s abstract for our Chair who could not quite put his finger on what was wrong with that first sentence. It took me awhile to get past the science part, but it turns out there was no actual verb in the sentence. I figured this out by diagramming the sentence in my head. [Disclaimer: I went to the same Catholic school as Jeff.] If you want your child to be employable, tell them to major in English. Not only will they be able to write when they’re done, they will get to spend four years reading amazing books!
It is not just junior partners in law firms who are used by their superiors for their “Language Arts” skills.
I learned to diagram sentences in (public) junior high school, too, and I actually enjoyed it. I used to do it for fun, while everyone else was doodling.
After graduating high school in the early 80s, I intended to major in English, but was talked out of it by, well, almost everyone. So, I majored in Computer Science. With one exception, I was always the only woman working in the IT Department. I spent most of my career changing toner cartridges, dealing with the coworkers who struggled to learn to use the software (aka bothering the male IT staff), and rewriting my bosses’ management reports, emails, memos, etc.
Last year I decided to go back and do what I should have done, in the first place- get that English Degree.
I still enjoy diagramming sentences.
Nice blog. I look forward to reading your book. History was my original, 2nd choice major.
(We follow one another on Twitter, where I am known as sherherazad.)
What a wonderful and thoughtful post, Shari. Thanks for sharing. You only reinforce what I’ve been saying for years. It’s all about the writing, in the end. Even if you’re a techie, you gotta be able to write up your work. And I recognize the Twitter handle, too!
Excellent piece. I am a little surprised that you didn’t mention two very important pieces of advice: S-V-O will make writing easier to read, and re-write sentences to eliminate nominalized verbs. Finally, did you ever consider changing your middle name to Jerry?
During my 20 yrs in the Air Force, I was known exclusively as Jerry Jeff. I’m a big fan, too. Blogged about him last year.