Young lawyers’ written communication skills

… aren’t up to much – apparently.

Young lawyer drafting a note of advice
From Young Lawyer 30/07/14:

The number of training contracts available has risen, yet the calibre of candidates is unremarkable [.]

The number of LPC registrations has dropped for a second year running, while the number of training contracts on offer has risen. You may think that candidates can now afford to be more optimistic. However, speaking with law firm recruiters, it seems that many candidates still have a way to go before catching the golden training contract snitch.

I don’t know why I’m so uncomfortable with the word “snitch” but I am. It’s always made me slightly nauseous and involuntarily pull a ‘I’m-eating-raw-lemon’ face. Strange.

One aspect still of great concern to a number of firms during the recruitment process is poor written expression. A recruiter in one City law firm said: “It makes me so sad to read these applications. Their academics are very good, but they use text speak and can’t structure sentences properly.”

That doesn’t surprise me. By no means do I hold myself out as a paragon when it comes to the correct use of English, but even I’m shocked at the sentence structure that some of my younger colleagues trot out. I’ve seen large block paragraphs of text punctuated only by a string of commas presented proudly as ‘finished work’.  Besides being awkward and embarrassing for the reader, it makes the author look downright incompetent.

I remember from my schooldays being taught about good sentence structure and having lessons focused on using different types of punctuation correctly, but I know a lot of others my age who claim their English lessons never strayed into those topics (perhaps they were off sick those days!). 

I think the general standard of English usage in the UK is clear proof that proper sentence structure needs to be actively taught in schools, rather than assuming that pupils will pick it up naturally at some point.

For me, it’s clear the time has arrived to go back to first principles and teach the mechanics of basic English to kids and to only focus on exploring those less-used nuances (iambic pentameter anyone?) once those basics have been mastered.

As Paul Rylance notes in his excellent book, Writing and Drafting in Legal Practice, “good writing is clear thinking on paper”.  If the lawyers of tomorrow aren’t properly equipped to practise that, I dread to think of the standard of written legal advice that’ll be churned out in the years to come.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, a one day elective module on the professional skills course focused on ‘effective written communication’ or whatever won’t cure 15 years’ worth of bad habits, I’m afraid. This stuff should start at the earliest stages of primary school and it needs to get itself firmly back on the curriculum ASAP.

Comments

  1. To be fair however, I've noticed that quite a few seasoned lawyers (even at partner level!) can't write very well, either. I've secured a training contract to begin in 2016, and in the meanwhile I'm working in business development for a London firm. Part of my job is updating the fee-earner's website profiles, as well as their briefings and commentary. I am often shocked by just how many run-on sentences, comma splices, subject-verb disagreement, and other grammatical mistakes their content contains! And this is stuff written by lawyers ranked in Legal 500 and Chambers! While I appreciate that legal writing and writing articles / briefings for the lay person are different stylistically, I don't think it's a generational thing per se. Either way, if I ever have children, I'm definitely teaching them how to diagram sentences! :)

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  2. Yeah, you might be right about it not being a generational thing. But that means the English curriculum has been fundamentally flawed for even longer!

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