Former New York Times Journalist Will Help UVA Law Students Shape Public Opinion About Law

Lincoln Caplan

"I once had an editor tell me: 'First get angry, then get writing,'" says Lincoln Caplan, who will teach the fall short course Shaping Legal Opinions.

September 17, 2014

Accomplished journalist Lincoln Caplan will teach a short course this semester at the University of Virginia School of Law for students who aspire to shape public opinion about law.

Caplan, who will explore several types of opinion writing and provide detailed feedback on student work, is the author of five books about law, including "The Tenth Justice: The Solicitor General and the Rule of Law" and "Skadden: Power, Money, and the Rise of a Legal Empire." He is a former editorial board member of The New York Times, for which he wrote about the U.S. Supreme Court for the 2010-12 terms, and was a staff writer for The New Yorker, among other national publications. In addition, he is a former Knight Senior Journalist at Yale Law School, where he now teaches as a visiting lecturer.

"One thing that judges, lawyers at law firms, and others who hire from elite law schools have consistently said is that graduates don't always write as well as they expect," Caplan said. "This is the texting generation. They're great talkers and thinkers, but they just have less reinforcement for the value of good writing and why it matters. A main goal of mine is to add to the other opportunities that UVA gives to students to write and get feedback about their writing."

While the course, Shaping Legal Opinions, may be of special interest to students who wish to write about the law for a general readership, it is also applicable to the everyday practice of law, he said, because students will need to develop the ability to explain legal issues to clients in accessible language.

One approach he takes with students is to show them that writing with emotion can often be more persuasive than simply emphasizing the logic behind a point of view, especially for a general audience.

"I once had an editor tell me: 'First get angry, then get writing,'" Caplan said. "But other emotions can be as effective in conveying the importance of a viewpoint. Sometimes, it's an elegy for something that's lost. Sometimes it's deep enthusiasm for a much-needed reform. Tone is something writers don't always think about and it's a powerful element of persuasive writing."

Caplan said it's not uncommon for his students to have work they generate in class published, and a few students, such as bestselling author and New York Times Magazine Staff Writer Emily Bazelon, have gone on to influential careers in journalism.

"I am now in the wonderful position of seeing former students having great success in journalism as well as law," Caplan said. "That's thrilling for a teacher."


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