President, Young Lawyers Section
April 2015, President's Message
When I started law school, I spent a lot of time trying to learn the meaning of the words used by my professors or written in my text books.
“The reason you don’t understand me, Edith, is because I’m talkin’ to you in English and you’re listenin’ to me in dingbat!” – Archie Bunker.
There were so many words I didn’t understand that I began to write them and their meanings in a book—a book I entitled, “Book of Words.” I stumbled across my Book of Words the other day and flipped through it. The first word I had written was “deference.” I can’t believe that I didn’t know the meaning of that word, and I am actually embarrassed to make that public. I bring it up, though, because I think my Book of Words is a good reminder that a person only knows what they know and not what other people expect them to know. My life experiences, including law school, have given me the context and filter through which I understand this world, which sometimes leads me to make assumptions about other people and their actions. And we all know what assumptions do.
I make it a practice in my life not to assume I know why someone did what they did in a given situation. It is hard, especially when I think the right decision is clear. I tell myself, though, that I do not have to agree with or condone another’s actions, but I will refrain from assuming I know what motivated them.
“You never really understand a person until you look at things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.” – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.
On Thursday afternoon during the Bar Convention, there will be a CLE intended to challenge your assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions about the people we serve. The CLE is an interactive simulation during which you will live one month of life in Realville, compressed into four, fifteen-minute weeks. Each person is assigned a family and a role in that family. Realville is a small community with a bank, homeless shelter, grocery store, pawnshop, mortgage company, utility company, community action agency, social services agency, police station, offices, and a school. The participants will show up for work, attend class, pay bills, respond to bill collectors, and purchase groceries. Random events—such as being robbed, getting fined, or having a car breakdown—can happen at any time.
Our facilitator is Barb Garcia, the Community Development Manager for the City of Rapid City. Barb has conducted these simulations across the State for our elected officials, city commissioners, teachers, nurses, and state employees. From my experience, I assure you that you will not regret attending this CLE. Intellectually, I was aware that those in poverty face housing needs, employment issues, educational barriers, lack of access to health care and legal services, etc. But my knowledge was abstract and based on assumption. I am thankful for the simulation, because it gave me a new filter to help understand others and a good reminder that one only knows what they know and not what I think they should know.
I challenge you—our State’s lawyers and judges—to check the accuracy of your assumptions and gain valuable insight on how to better interact with your community members.
Cheers until next month!
SD YLS President
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Bylaws of Young Lawyers
What Does Your Writing Say About You?
by Jessica L. Larson
In the legal field, first impressions are often made in writing.
Motions, memos, letters, and even e-mails will reflect upon the author.
Strong writing conveys a message that the writer is organized,
thoughtful, and has a clear understanding of the topic. However,
mistakes in writing, including grammatical errors and wordy or rambling
arguments, can make a person appear confused or even careless.
While legal writing courses in law school may teach you basic concepts, they do very
little to make a person a strong legal writer. And since writing is one of the main
components of most practices, it is important to continue learning and improving your
writing style throughout your career.
Good writing begins with clear thinking. Before you begin writing, you need to know
your audience, understand your goal, and know what you want to say. Take some time to
think about your message.
Legal writing should be clear, engaging, and reader-friendly. The four tips below can
help achieve this goal:
1) Use plain English. Write like you speak in every day conversations: simple, direct,
and unpretentious. Don’t make your reader read a sentence or a paragraph twice to
understand its meaning. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Don’t write merely to be
understood. Write so you cannot possibly be misunderstood.”
2) Use proper English and proof read your work. Buy a dictionary, thesaurus, citation
manual, and a writing usage book. Spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors in a
document submitted to the court, opposing counsel, or a client can undermine your
credibility as a legal professional. Don’t allow your message to get lost because your
reader cannot get past your mistakes.
3) Embrace simplicity. Say more with fewer words. Every word should contribute to
your message. Readability is the goal.
4) Summarize your main points at the beginning. Organize material to serve your
readers’ needs. Readers understand much more easily if they have a context. Don’t
make someone wait until the middle or end of your work to find the answers.
If you can accomplish these things, you’re already ahead of many of your colleagues.
But a serious commitment to improving your writing skills entails an ongoing effort. Some
resources to help you improve your writing include:
Richard C. Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers (5th ed. Carolina Academic Press
Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English: A Text with Exercises
(University of Chicago Press 2001)
William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style (4th ed. 1999)
Strive to become a better writer. It will serve you well throughout your career.
Jessica practices in Rapid City with Beardsley, Jensen & Von Wald. Her practice focuses on
insurance defense and general civil and business litigation.