Bridging the Gap Between Substance and Skill

By: Abigail L. Perdue

So often I hear first-year law students admit to allocating less time to Legal Writing because it “matters less” than other “substantive” courses. Nothing could be further from the truth.

After all, Legal Writing is a substantive course. “Substantive” is defined as “possessing substance, having practical importance, value, or effect.” Doesn’t Legal Writing clearly meet this definition? For example, in my first-year Legal Writing course, students emerge with a deep understanding of key concepts in employment discrimination law from disparate impact to hostile environment sexual harassment. But as in the practice, they don’t just acquire substantive knowledge; they apply it in a practical way.

So too must a competent attorney bridge the intellectual gap between substance and skill.  An attorney must not only intimately understand the nuances of the relevant legal doctrine but also be able to effectively apply that knowledge in practical ways and communicate it effectively, both orally and in writing, to legal and non-legal audiences. Thus, Legal Writing matters because it empowers students to do just that.

In my course, students become intimately familiar with the intricacies of Title VII and read seminal cases interpreting it. Then they use a combination of substantive and practical knowledge to conduct a simulated client interview of the respondent-employer’s general counsel. The purpose of the interview is to acquire the facts necessary to determine whether Title VII applies to the employer and whether discrimination likely occurred. Students then use the facts they obtained to draft an effective and persuasive position statement.

This multi-part exercise teaches students how to bridge the gap between knowing and doing, substance and skill. Each year, bright students who can easily regurgitate Title VII’s definition of “covered employer” struggle to determine which question to ask the general counsel to obtain the facts necessary to assess coverage. Once they identify the basic question, they wrestle with how to precisely and clearly articulate it without converting the interview into an interrogation. After they finally obtain the necessary information, they still grapple with how to communicate the employer’s position in a succinct, sophisticated, and persuasive way.

Each day attorneys engage in these same mental exercises, translating substance into skill, knowledge into action. Bridging this gap is critical to effective lawyering. This is one of the many reasons why Legal Writing matters.

This post originally appeared on Suffolk Law School’s blog Legal Writing Matters and is reposted herein with permission.

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