Monday, March 11, 2013

Dunning-Kruger Effect & Legal Writing

This month's edition of the ABA Journal includes a story with the catchy headline: "Why Lawyers Can't Write."  The story essentially argues that most lawyers are not very good writers and, critically, they often do not recognize that they are poor writers.

This general lack of awareness is encapsulated in a principle identified by two Cornell psychologists about a decade and a half ago: The Dunning-Kruger effect.  The principle posits that those who are not skilled often do not realize their inadequacies.  This would apply, some suggest, to lawyers and their writing ability.  The psychological argument is expanded to also suggest that the unskilled are unable to recognize genuine skill in others and think of themselves as skilled.  Sadly, the psychologists not that studies have found that the unskilled are only able to reverse this only after "highly effective training."

Long story short:  Many lawyers are poor writers and don't realize it.  This is a recipe for a career of inadequate submissions in all forms--from briefs to blog posts.

More specifically, the ABA article argues that there is a woeful lack of focus on style.  Obviously substance is key in legal writing--you've got to get the legal principles/arguments right.  But far too many place all emphasis on substance and next to nothing on style.  This is a huge mistake, particularly when it comes to legal blog writing.  If failing to address style in a legal writing piece submitted to the court is inadequate, failing to address style is a law blog post is crippling.  A blog post is simply wholly inadequate if the writer has no appreciation for writing style.  The reader of an online piece will mostly skim, and they won't give more than three seconds focus to a post if it is too dense and unreadable.

Improving vs. Perfecting
To be fair, we do not for a moment envy the job of legal writing instructors.  On many levels, it is next to impossible to change a lifetime of habits that students have developed over a twenty to twenty five year period.  A few legal writing classes mixed in over the course of a law school career cannot work miracles.  Of course, that is not to say that improvements cannot be made, but it takes a yeoman's efforts to go from inadequate to top of the class.

The same principle is relevant in legal blog writing.  Of course individual attorneys can be trained to improve their writing ability generally and blog writing ability specifically.  However, there is a far cry from "improving" and "doing very well."  At the same time, most "blog training" is highly inadequate.  It usually involves an SEO professional at a website company talking with the attorney on the phone a few times and explaining how to insert links, keywords, and categories.  None of the "training" has anything to do with writing quality itself, and it offers only a cursory look at the issues.

That is one of the reason that law firm utilize our services--understanding that it is far more effective to outsource the task to those who are drilled in that particular service.  Please contact our office if you could benefit from the support of our legal blog writers.

1 comment:

  1. Great! I'd like to come back and read it :) Is there any chance I'd get an email when you publish it?Law Firm SEO