Writing robustly

New S.C. Legal Writing Academy helps lawyers make their case in print

“‘What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.’

It’s the classic line from one of my favorite movies, ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ and I think of it often,” said Rob Wilcox, dean of the University of South Carolina School of Law.
“In our profession, knowing how to communicate effectively, accurately and concisely is so vital. And so many times it’s when we don’t communicate well that problems come up.”

Wilcox was speaking to members of the inaugural S.C. Legal Writing Academy, a new initiative of the law school aimed at promoting the mastery of written communication among practicing attorneys.

“This is an important part of taking the role of the law school beyond just the J.D. and seeing how we can continue helping lawyers improve their skills,” Wilcox said. “When we ask our colleagues what are the most important skills needed to succeed, number one is ethics, but a close second is the ability to write and communicate effectively.”

During the academy, held in April, five lawyers from across South Carolina worked in intensive, interactive sessions with assistant directors of legal writing Jan Baker and Amy Milligan on grammar and citation, objective and persuasive writing techniques, self-editing and peer review. At the conclusion of the course, the five were named fellows of the academy.

Baker and Milligan began planning the academy in 2013, with the goal of bringing lawyers to campus for a robust writing experience.

“We didn’t want this to be a typical CLE,” Baker said. “We wanted the academy fellows to have space and time to concentrate on improving their writing, but we also wanted to give them a chance to hear from and get feedback from those who have to read their work in an official capacity.”

Judge Aphrodite Konduros, a member of the S.C. Court of Appeals, helped kick off the academy by not only humorously extolling the virtues of brevity from her side of the bench, but also speaking with participants about the practical and ethical considerations related to written communication.

“Written submissions and oral arguments are the cornerstones of advocacy,” said Judge Konduros. “Lawyers may argue before a judge on any given case once, maybe twice, but written submissions will be perused many times. Use this opportunity to advance your case.”

Federal law clerks Brittany Clark, Brandon Gottschall, Deborah Morgan and Sara Svedberg led a panel discussion and engaged academy fellows in a question and answer session on best practices in written and oral advocacy.

Class members practiced what they had learned by writing a client letter and a trial memorandum. The law clerks and Lisa Eichhorn, a law professor — serving as honorary academy faculty — joined Baker and Milligan to review the fellows’ work and conducted one-on-one consultations with each one.

Marghretta Hagood, a newly named fellow who practices in Spartanburg, described the academy as a great skills-building seminar. “There are few CLE programs where participants actively participate or actually do something to develop skills,” she said. “Getting feedback on my writing was extremely helpful.”

Plans for the next academy class are already underway. Baker and Milligan hope to build the academy into an elite writing experience for lawyers in South Carolina and beyond.

“This was one of the best teaching experiences I have had in my career. I can’t wait until we hold the next one and can grow the program further,” Baker said.

For more information on the S.C. Legal Writing Academy, visit http://sclegalwriting.org.