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ReveleyWrite Well. Think Well.

W. Taylor Reveley, III ’68

If you want to be a lawyer, learn to write. Judges delight in law clerks who write well and flee from those who don’t. So do law firm partners. Good writing is not a luxury for lawyers; it’s a staple of life.

Why does writing matter enormously for lawyers? Unlike physicians or engineers, we lawyers do not have the option of skirting the written word. Producing it is crucial to what we do. We earn our living off the written word in letters, memos and opinions, in agreements, briefs and trusts, in constitutions, statutes and regulations, in countless documents of every sort.

Well-written papers serve many functions. They crystallize the critical issues, dissect error, solve problems, describe the common ground and, most important, persuade people. Badly written papers, if read at all, frustrate people and seriously aggravate them. The late George Gibson, a lawyer of extraordinary caliber, used to describe the reader as “a wary animal who will escape if any opportunity is allowed.” Gibson told generations of associates at Hunton & Williams that “a frustrated reader is a resentful reader, not a convert.”

A second reason why writing matters for lawyers is that writing and thinking walk hand in hand. Without effective thought, writing is full of ambiguities, gaps, and inconsistencies; it proceeds without coherent order in graceless fits and starts. By the same token, until we “write it down,” we do not know how effective our thinking has been. There is nothing like a draft to expose analytical and evidentiary flaws in our work. By way of analogy, the better marine architects and engineers think, the more their resulting vessel will be beautifully suited to its task; and, for insight into how well marine architects and engineers have thought, let them actually build and test the vessel.

In short, to write effectively is to think effectively. Even more vital for lawyers than being effective writers is being effective thinkers. Learning to write helps us learn to think.

How do we learn to write? At the threshold, good teachers are essential. To get the job done, the teachers not only must know how to write themselves but also must know how (a) to diagnose what’s wrong with other people’s writing, (b) to explain why it needs fixing, and (c) to describe how to go about the remedy. Then the student must attempt a remedy and return for another round of instruction, followed by yet another draft and critique. This three-draft process is central to progress, even if it takes the patience of Job on everyone’s part. The iterative drill needs to continue, assignment after assignment, until the student masters the basics of good writing.

Then comes practice. Like learning to play tennis or the piano, learning to write requires writing, writing and more writing, at ever increasing levels of excellence. There is no free kick when it comes to mastering the written word, any more than there is to mastery on the tennis court or piano bench. If we lack the determination to succeed, there is scant chance we will stick at it long enough to become genuinely good.

Finally, even the best writers benefit from knowledgeable critiques of their drafts. When a colleague is willing to take the time and spend the intellectual energy to read our draft carefully, make editorial suggestions and spot problems in the analysis, we should rejoice, not grind our teeth at having to think anew about a document in which we’ve already invested a lot of effort and which we like just “as is.”

Does graduating from an elite law school and landing a frisky job mean the new juris doctor can write his or her way out of a paper bag? Not necessarily, as many employers have discovered to their dismay. Cast a cold and suspicious eye on your writing. If it is not good, find a teacher quickly and work doggedly to improve. If your writing is already good, make it better. The rewards will be lush for those who depend on your work and for your own satisfaction as a lawyer.

W. Taylor Reveley, III ’68, is Dean and Professor of Law of the William and MaryLawSchool in Williamsburg, Virginia. Reveley began his legal career by clerking for Justice Brennan of the Supreme Court. He then practiced law at Hunton & Williams for 28 years, serving as managing partner of the firm for nine years and head of its energy and telecommunications team. He helped create the Virginia State Bar’s Section on the Education of Lawyers, chaired its board, and is now one of its governors. Reveley joined the faculty at William and Mary in 1998.

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