An Interview with Director of Legal Writing Susie Salmon

Director of Legal Writing Susie Salmon

What is your role and how did you get to where you are today?

I’m currently the Director of Legal Writing and Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law in Tucson, Arizona. Before I became Director of the program in 2017, I served as Assistant Director for seven years. For the last two years, I have served as the President of the Legal Writing Institute, the largest organization of legal-writing academics in the world, with over 1000 members.

I was an English major in college, and it took me a few years to find my way to law school. I spent some time volunteering for political campaigns and working in the hospitality industry, where I learned some essential lawyering skills: I spent a lot of time nodding and smiling while people aired their grievances in my general direction, and then I tried to solve the problem. For various reasons, I didn’t think law school was for people like me. Ultimately, though, I didn’t feel my jobs at the time were a good fit for my skills or personality, and I briefly explored a career in teaching before deciding I’d take the LSAT and the GRE and see about graduate school. My LSAT score was encouraging, so I ditched the GRE and applied to law school. Within the first weeks of class, although I was overwhelmed and terrified, I knew I was in the right place. I loved almost everything about law school: the class discussions, office hours with professors, moot court, law review. I guess it’s no surprise that I eventually found my way back to the law school environment.

Before entering academia full-time, I spent almost a decade in private practice as a commercial litigator at large law firms in California and Arizona. I wrote constantly: motions, briefs, discovery responses, letters, emails, outlines of direct and cross examinations, and more. In my last two years of full-time practice, I also taught part-time as an adjunct in Arizona Law’s legal-writing program, and I fell in love with teaching law students. When a full-time Assistant Director position opened, I applied for it, thinking that there was no way I would actually be hired, but believing that I would build relationships that would make future opportunities possible.

Well, dear reader, I got the job. Every semester, I get to meet and work with a group of accomplished, brilliant, interesting future lawyers, most of whom are deeply committed to using their talents to make the world a better place. And I get to spend my time teaching and learning about a topic that interests me. Sure, it’s a lot of work, and at times it can be discouraging, but overall it’s a dream.

What are the top 3 to 5 characteristics of good legal writing?

Accuracy, brevity, clarity, and precision.

Why is good writing important to being a good lawyer?

Lawyers are professional communicators. Virtually every lawyer needs to be able to communicate legal analysis accurately and clearly to a variety of audiences, both orally and in writing. Even lawyers who seldom write motions or briefs frequently communicate through letters and email, or need to use language in a thoughtful and disciplined manner in examining a witness or arguing a case to a jury. Building strong written and oral communication skills is essential to successfully representing a client.

What is the biggest misconception the general public has about legal writing?

That “good” legal writing is difficult to understand and filled with legalese. I will never forget reviewing a contract with fellow members of a nonprofit board of directors. Frustrated with our struggle to decode the contract’s language, one of the members finally turned to me and snapped, “YOU teach them to write like this!” I had to explain that, no, actually, I teach them the opposite. For at least two generations, legal writing professors have urged law students to write in plain language. The best lawyers can explain a complex topic—from the science of DNA evidence to the nuances of the U.S. legal system—in a way that any person of reasonable intelligence can readily understand.

Many people—especially new law students—also don’t realize that legal writing is its own genre with its own conventions. Certainly, having strong fundamental writing skills will help law students become good legal writers, but habits that may have led them to success writing in other genres—whether through their undergraduate training or otherwise—may not serve a student or new lawyer well in legal writing. For example, often undergraduate professors require students to meet a particular word count or page count for a paper; by contrast, lawyers face word-count maximums imposed by court rules. Students may have been rewarded in the past for crafting impenetrable sentences laden with opaque language, or for inflating word count by over-seasoning their prose with adjectives and adverbs. Good legal writing begins by asserting a concrete conclusion or prediction; much academic writing leads with a more tentative hypothesis, venturing a conclusion only after thoroughly documenting the support for that conclusion. None of this means their previous teachers or professors were wrong or that the students were not “good writers” in those other genres; it just means that they need to learn and internalize the conventions of this new genre and be receptive to implementing constructive feedback.

What is the most frustrating part about becoming a good legal writer? How do you overcome it?

I’d say the most frustrating part about becoming good at anything is that it takes time. Becoming a good legal writer is a journey, not a destination. It’s a journey on which I am still an active traveler; I strive to become a better writer with every article, brief, or essay I write. No magical trick will instantly make you a better writer. The process takes thoughtful, focused work over time. It requires making mistakes and learning from them. That process is not an inexorable or linear one. Progress may slow; you may even lose ground. But if you care about being a better legal writer, if you continue to seek challenging assignments, if you continue to be mindful of each choice you make in your writing and obtain and implement feedback from those with more knowledge and experience, you will continue to become a better legal writer until the day you stop trying.

We often say that writing is about communicating information to the reader, or even translating it, rather than just delivering information. Do you believe that’s true? How does it change your approach to legal writing?

An effective piece of legal writing is useful to its reader. We add value as legal writers by digesting facts, principles, and sources of law and then reassembling those in a way that provides guidance that our audience can easily understand and use. We need to do the work up front to make our reader’s decisions easier. Like any good writer, a legal writer should approach each writing task with audience and purpose in mind. Good legal writers anticipate questions their readers will have about their analysis and address them; excellent legal writers will know exactly where in the text those questions will arise and provide the answers right before that moment.

Do you think there is a difference between writing for litigation and for transactional purposes? Why or why not?

Of course, there is a difference—the audiences and purposes are different. But all good legal writing shares certain common traits: accuracy, brevity, clarity, and precision. If a contract does not communicate the deal terms accurately and precisely, the parties’ expectations may be frustrated, and breaches will be difficult to vindicate. A brief that misstates law or fact will lack credibility and thus lose persuasive force. Good legal writers deploy language deliberately, mindful of ambiguities and connotations. For strategic purposes, we may wish to be less clear or precise at times—for example, we may want some wiggle room in defining a term, or we may wish to blunt the impact of a negative fact. Ultimately, though, a good legal writer—whether writing for litigation or for transactional purposes—makes those choices mindfully and with an awareness of their consequences.

Is writing something you need to have an innate talent or instinct for, or is it something you can learn to be good at?

Writing is something you can learn to be good at, but over the years I’ve found that being a lifelong reader creates a huge advantage. People who read frequently from a young age develop more comprehensive vocabularies, a sense of appropriate usage, and an ear for the rhythm and flow of effective writing. People who grow up reading a lot of good writing also often absorb and internalize rules of grammar, punctuation, and style, whether they can articulate those rules or not. And of course, recent studies have suggested that reading well-written fiction enhances empathy, which is an essential tool for any good storyteller.

What do you think law schools get right and wrong about teaching writing?

Most law schools have improved legal-writing training—and indeed their entire experiential curriculum—over the past decades. Teaching writing is a labor-intensive, time-intensive endeavor, and the schools with the best programs devote resources to hiring full-time professors to teach legal writing, especially in the first-year curriculum, and keep class sizes relatively small to allow professors to provide the number of writing assignments and the detailed, individualized feedback that will help students internalize best practices. Professors who devote their careers—or at least this phase of their careers—to studying and creating knowledge about what makes for effective legal writing elevate the quality of foundational instruction students receive. Many law schools still do not recognize that legal writing is its own unique scholarly discipline and believe any reasonably smart law graduate—or even upper-level law student—can teach it effectively. But the best legal-writing professors generally combine rich practice experience with deep and constant immersion in the research and study of topics related to legal communication and rhetoric, advocacy, and related pedagogy.

Unfortunately, even the law schools with the best legal-writing programs still often limit required legal-writing instruction to the first year, which means that by the time students graduate, their formal legal-writing instruction is two years behind them. Some students—often the students who would most benefit from continued instruction and practice—never take another writing class or receive expert feedback on their legal writing again before entering practice. As a result, they sometimes forget much of what they learned. If I were queen of all law-school curriculum, at minimum I would require all law students to take a capstone legal-writing course in their final semester.

What is your writing process when you must write to length and deadline?

For years, I struggled with perfectionism and resulting writer’s block, which meant that I often dithered for hours in front of a blank page—writing, deleting, and rewriting the same handful of sentences—before drafting the document in a frantic rush right before the deadline. Often that meant that the result was not as polished as it could have been, and always that meant that I suffered needless anxiety, lost sleep, and lost leisure time. Over time, I learned that I needed to force myself to just get something down on paper without deleting anything until I had completed a full first draft. Often, that full first draft was just as good as whatever I would have produced at the last minute, only now I had time to revise, edit, and polish it. I call that first draft my “thinking draft,” where I use the writing process to generate and capture thoughts and ideas. First drafts are selfish; subsequent drafts become more audience focused, and I look for opportunities to be more precise, concise, and interesting. This process also often allows me the luxury of setting the piece aside for hours or even days so that I can conduct a final proofread with a little distance (and fresh eyes!).

In the age of AI, is good legal writing a valuable skill?

Good legal writing will remain a valuable skill for the foreseeable future. I view AI the same way I view samples. Practicing lawyers often refer to—and borrow from—sample documents in drafting legal documents, including both litigation and transactional documents. Samples save the lawyer time and the client money. That said, to recognize an appropriate, high-quality sample, a lawyer needs to know best practices in legal writing. Some samples in form books, in law office databases, or floating around on the Internet are filled with errors, misstatements of law, incorrect citation, bad writing, and antiquated phrasing. Good legal writers will be able to sort through the junk to select documents that provide a good starting point and then will apply their knowledge and skills to tailor those documents to their audience and to their client’s purpose and needs. And of course, any ethical lawyer would thoroughly vet any sources cited or assertions of law made in the document.

Similarly, a good lawyer might use AI tools to provide a starting point, but they still need to apply their training and judgment—including their legal writing skills—to ensure that the end product is accurate, polished, and effective. AI is like any other tool: it works best when used by someone who has the judgment to use the tool correctly. Lawyers have been using AI in some form for ages. Spell-check and grammar-check, for example, are both AI-powered tools. But both can lead inattentive legal writers astray when they either fail to catch errors (“statue” is a word, so you won’t see that red, squiggly line beneath it, but it doesn’t mean the same thing as “statute”), or when the writer lacks the judgment to determine whether what AI identifies as an error actually is one.

Where do you see young writers struggling most? How can technology help them improve their skill and judgment?

Many young writers struggle—like I did—with the blank page. Generally, it’s much easier to revise text than to generate content from nothing. AI can be a great tool to brainstorm or get some initial language down on the page that the writer can then mold into something more useful and appropriate. I have used AI to create flawed legal-writing samples for my students to critique (alongside human-created—and also flawed—samples). Some AI tools can help legal writers better recognize common usage errors like passive voice, nominalizations, or comma splices. AI can also be useful for project management and calendaring. For example, when I wrote a book last summer, I used an AI tool to help me set a drafting schedule; it gave me word count goals for each day and even built in time at the end of the process for revision.

About Susie Salmon

Susie Salmon is Director of Legal Writing, Clinical Professor of Law, and Distinguished Public Service Scholar at the University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law. A lifelong voracious reader, Susie studied literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, earning her Bachelor of Arts in English. She received her J.D. magna cum laude from University of California College of the Law, San Francisco. After graduation, she spent five years practicing commercial litigation at a massive international law firm in Los Angeles and then four years at a mid-sized firm in Tucson, Arizona. Susie joined the College of Law as a full-time instructor and administrator in 2010 and became director of the legal-writing program—currently ranked #8 in the country—in 2017. Susie has held several leadership positions in the national legal-writing community, including as a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Legal Writing Directors, and she currently serves as President of the Legal Writing Institute. An active member of the Arizona Bar, she also served as President of the Southern Arizona Chapter of the Arizona Women Lawyers Association. She has published several articles, book chapters, magazine columns, and blog posts on topics related to legal writing and rhetoric. For the past fifteen years, Susie also has coached one of the College’s moot court teams. She co-authored the Moot Court Advisors Handbook and recently published A Short & Happy Guide to Moot Court. A distance runner who has completed eight marathons, she loves dogs (especially the three who live with her), travel, music, film, food, the beach, and brainstorming novels she may never write. You can find her on LinkedIn.

About the Legal Writing Interview Series

WordRake founder Gary Kinder created the software to help legal writers edit for brevity and simplicity. In continued dedication to the most effective legal writing, this Series highlights the experience and advice of experts from professors to writing coaches to litigators. Looking to help boost your legal writing skills? Get a free 1-week trial of WordRake here.

Our Story

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggested changes appear in the familiar track-changes style. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.