By: Professor Joe Regalia (UNLV)
“We’re not like computers,” explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos at the University of Sheffield. Our brains are not wired to pick up every detail, at least not without enormous work. Editing right takes forever. Some say that it should take as long to edit as it does to draft. A busy lawyer (or law student) may not have time for that.
We have two problems: (1) We can’t catch everything when editing our own stuff, and (2) even if we could, we don’t have the time.
These are problems for all lawyers. And so as a law professor, I spend a lot of time trying to help my students work through the same problems. One solution that I have turned to is technology—and most recently, Ross Guberman’s BriefCatch.
BriefCatch is a Word plugin that offers detailed editing feedback on legal writing. BriefCatch is something different from programs like Grammarly. Because BriefCatch is made for legal writing. It helps you spot more than grammar. Instead, it provides live editing suggestions on your legal prose, ranging from citation advice to wordsmithing recommendations and persuasive writing tips.
For legal writing teachers, BriefCatch could be a game-changer. We all lament how much law students and young lawyers struggle with basic writing style. Now, for the first time, we have a tool that can help students train legal writing techniques using their own writing.
That all sounds good, but I wanted to put it to the test. So several law professors and I created a working group to incorporate BriefCatch into first-year legal writing curriculum. Our goal was to use the tool to help students train many of the basic writing-style techniques that we don’t have time to drill in class.
Each week, along with their substantive writing work, students were asked to run BriefCatch on their assignment and to pay attention to a single type of editing recommendation. They recorded on a chart how many times the tool recommended that type of edit and how often the student agreed with it. The next week, students did the same thing but with a new type of edit.
Feedback from both the professors and students has been overwhelmingly positive. Students love that they can use the tool at their own pace. They love when they find new suggestions for word choice. And best of all, because they are the ones using the tool and calling the shots, they are learning to use these techniques themselves.
Of course, BriefCatch can’t replace a good writing teacher or a good editor. Tools like this are a powerful supplement to help train and spot style techniques; they are not meant to teach aspiring lawyers how to put together the meat of a brief.
But that’s the beauty of a tool like BriefCatch: it lets professors devote time and energy to what we do best while shoring up our students’ skills in ways they don’t even realize.
How do you use technology to improve your students’ legal writing skills? Share your good ideas at TeachLawBetter.com, and we might just post them.