An Interview with Professor and Legal Writing Coach Bev Meyers

Professor Bev Meyers

What do you do when you’ve retired from the state attorney general’s office and you’re looking to do good in the world? For Professor Bev Meyers, the answer was to solve a problem she’d seen in practice—how to make legal writing better. Professor Meyers created the Legal Writing Launch program to teach lawyers to write well in every circumstance, and she shared her process with us.

What do you do in your business, Legal Writing Launch?

My business is Legal Writing Launch. I've had it since 2020, and it's an intensive legal writing course. It's designed to have seven assignments, which are, I think, the most efficient ones lawyers will use in a litigation practice. What’s the bottom line? It is to improve people’s legal writing skills, right now. Stat. I tend to be the mentor that people never had.

There are three levels of the course, one level is all electronic and self-paced and then the second 2 levels are one with assignment editing they have these seven assignments. First, they write a paragraph so I can diagnose how they are mucking up the issues. In law we have a number of legal issues like, within negligence we might have proximate cause and damages. And we really do not want to confuse those for the reader. My rule of thumb is to hit the reader over the head with whatever you are trying to say.

After we do a paragraph, we do 2 styles of memos like those used frequently within a law office to go to a partner or a client. Next we do an opinion letter and a demand letter. An opinion letter is similar to a memo in terms of being more objective and laying out all the good, bad and the ugly. Then we do demand letter, which is where you ask the other side for something. You would be surprised how many people forget to say what they are demanding, which is the most important part. Then, of course, the basis of what you want. In law, we say you use a hammer, meaning, “if you don't do this, then these horrible things are going to happen to you, and they are going to happen soon. So that's why you want to do it."

Next, we have a short motion. Motions are the bread and butter of litigators in court. In my career, (I was at the Attorney General's Office for a little under 30 years. I was also a District Attorney and a city attorney in private practice briefly. 30 years!) I probably wrote or responded to 1000 motions. It just shows you it is the bread and butter of legal work.

Then the final assignment is an appellate brief, but nothing real “ivory tower.” This is to show people how to use the legal record, because it is important to reference the record and have evidence attached to the brief. This series of assignments helps people and is the most efficient way to proceed.

I edit all the assignments personally. The highest-level program includes the assignment, my editing, and zoom mentoring, where I meet with them after each assignment. For the higher two levels we also have a grammar component because you would be surprised by how many people need it. It is helpful in any kind of professional writing for your grammar to be impeccable. There's a platform called “Core Grammar for Lawyers” that I like, and I require people in the top 2 levels of the program to do assignments with it. It includes a test, pretest, and then a post-test. I encourage students to study for the post-test so they can do well. If they study, they'll sometimes have a 20 percentage point spread from the pretest to the final test.

The point of the whole course is to, number 1, improve analytical and writing skills, and number 2, to give confidence. The way it is set up, people can do it in as little as two weeks, or they can do it in a year. It is self-paced.

What made you decide to develop this kind of legal writing program?

I came to it because I had been a part time law professor and a full-time lawyer for at least 30 years. (I'm actually still a part-time law professor.) I felt like there was a need, and a way to have an intensive, compact program. That if people rolled up their sleeves and did the work, they would see the results. It is not plain doing nothing like is everybody's natural inclination, but if you really roll up your sleeves and do the work, (and I'm right in there with you), then there are very good results. I have had people who failed the bar multiple times take my course, really get serious, and then pass the bar.

I help new lawyers too. They are primarily who I have in the program, and I get them from all over. I have them in Canada, three in a New York firm out of Switzerland, and we work our zooms out accordingly. It is deeply, deeply fulfilling for me to help people in this way.

Tell me more about your background.

So I started Legal Writing Launch in 2020, and I'm a law professor at John F Kennedy School of Law at National University. Throughout my career I have always been some type of law professor. I work part time teaching, but my career was primarily as a Deputy Attorney General for the state of California. I worked there for almost 30 years, and I retired in 2016. (My last Attorney General—I served under five—was our current Vice President, Kamala Harris.) Then in working with my school in 2020/21, I was fortunate enough to receive this inaugural Delphi Award for Academic Excellence. I appreciated that a lot.

I give continuing education lectures and I have been on podcasts about them. For example, the first one I did was in 2021, a lecture called Effective Legal Writing for the Attorney Practitioner for the National Association of Continuing Legal Education. I also gave a lecture for the National Association of Continuing Legal Education on the George Floyd case. I talked about the verdicts and the evidence that supported them. I think it was well received. Now I’ve just recently finished a lecture for the NACLE on Dobbs and abortion in the post Roe V Wade era. I explained what liberty and privacy interests were in Roe V Wade and before that, and then I explained also how Dobbs overturned all of it (which, in my personal opinion, was a bad thing).

I was also on a podcast for Ladies Who Law School (they are now Ladies Who Law because they eventually graduated from law school and became lawyers) a couple years ago talking about the third year of law school. There is an expression about law school: “The first year they scare you, the second year they kill you and the third year they bore you.” So, it was like, what can we do about the third year? We talked a lot about designing your own program because law firms and law offices these days do not expect people to come raw to them. They expect them to have skills where they can be up and running soon. How can you work your third year so you can get those skills? For instance, you could do internships or volunteering at a DA's office or PD's office or for the court as a law clerk. Just last Sunday, I was on Ladies Who Law to discuss the Dobbs case. So that's kind of it about me.

You have done a lot of cool, fascinating, important work!

Well, thank you! It is so funny too, because I'm in my third act. I am an older woman and I had gone through law school and all that and had a number of jobs—primarily the Attorney General's office—and I loved it. But it was time to retire in 2016. And then I was pleasantly surprised about how my third act took off, where I was doing more teaching. At John F Kennedy I'm teaching Evidence and sometimes the Legal Methods class (which is how to do law school and legal writing and analysis).

I have just started team teaching Advanced Legal Writing with a great colleague. It is primarily about the performance tests on the bar exam. The bar exam has essays (and I’m talking about California, but all are pretty similar), MBE which is multiple choice questions, and then a performance test essay. In this portion, they give you a closed library and ask you to do something like write a demand letter or a motion, which is similar to what my Legal Writing Launch course does. That is where it has helped people to get past the bar when they had been unsuccessful before. So, I enjoy that a lot.

You can see I spend a lot of my time on this. It is time consuming, but I feel like I am a pretty well-balanced person generally. I am a tennis player, I am a pickleball player, a swimmer; I have a dog. I live in San Francisco, walk the dog a lot. I have good friends, go out for meals. It is a pretty good life.

How is legal writing the same as essay writing? How is it different?

Well, if you think about it, they are both types of formal writing now. That said, it does not mean use the heretofores and the here and afters and all that. That is legalese, which we counsel people against using. But it still is structured essay writing. We may have a different structure in legal writing than we do in basic essay writing, but it is still about creating your points, supporting them with evidence, and drawing conclusions.

Let me give you an example of each one of those. In legal writing, we have a structure that we call IRAC or as I prefer, CRAC. What that means is that we take a legal element and then we structure a paragraph around it in a certain format. If you are doing CRAC, that means the first statement you make is an affirmative statement with a mix of law and facts. “John Smith, the landlord, did not have sufficient possessory interest to provide the police with valid consent to search defendant Jill Jones's bedroom.”

Okay, what's in there?

What's in there is the law, (possessory interest and consent), and the facts. It is the landlord providing this consent to search defendant Jill Jones’ bedroom. (If we wanted that to be IRAC we turn it into a question. “Did John Smith, the landlord, have sufficient possessory interest to provide the police with valid consent to search defendant Jill Jones’ bedroom.” That is the only difference.) IRAC is often taught in law school and it is good, but it's not used so much in practice because it’s a little too intellectual. You cannot use it if you are writing a whole long brief. You can't have every paragraph start with the same information when you're representing a client. You want to sound strong. You want to argue. You want to be an advocate for them.

So, our topic sentence is about consent to search, but we can't get to that unless we use our broader concept. So now we are talking about the rule. (That is the Rule in IRAC or CRAC.) We have to go from big to small. We can't immediately start talking about possessory interest and consent because nobody will know what we're talking about. So, we start bigger. “The 4th Amendment prohibits the police from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures.” That is where we would give our authority—the 4th Amendment. “Although the 4th Amendment favors warrants, consent is an exception to the warrant requirement.” Then we give a cite.

Law is all about giving a cite. Give a specific cite—a pin cite—whenever you state something. Your reader, who often is a judge, has to go find it and see if they agree that's what it says, and see about anything else it might say. If you have 100-page decision and you just cite the first page of it, rather than the specific, applicable information and its location, the judge is going to be mad. (And that is the last thing you want to do—make a judge mad.)

We go from 4th Amendment warrants, consents, and exceptions, and add “only a person with a valid possessory interest in the area subject to the search may provide consent to search.” Now we provide the specific law about possessory interest to consent, taking us from big to small to get to our point.

Next is the analysis part of CRAC or IRAC. “The officer obtained the consent of landlord John Smith to search Jill Jones’ apartment. The landlord’s consent was invalid to search a non-injured tenant’s home and the room of Sublessee Jill Jones.” We are applying the facts to the law and saying the landlord did not have enough possessory interest to allow this kind of consent.

Then you give your conclusion—that’s the final C in IRAC or CRAC. “In summary, landlord Smith lacked valid authority to provide consent for the police to search defendant Jones's bedroom.” This structure taking us from facts to laws to conclusions is specific to legal writing.

Is there a similar structure to essay writing?

This is how I perceive a quick and dirty way to look at a paragraph structure for non-legal writing. One thing I do is the simple paragraph structure of introduction (also called a point or topic) sentence, analysis, and conclusion. That's it.

The introduction should have a mix of facts and whatever your critical concept is. The objective is to make one’s writing clear and easy to follow using a strong topic sentence, no matter what the format is. Next is the analysis, which is a discussion of the evidence as it relates to the point. And then finally a conclusion.

Here's an example:

Our topic sentence, which is introduction point is “In America's Mass Shooting Epidemic is Contagious,” (and then give the site for the Atlantic article), “Derek Thompson opines ‘mass shootings are often committed by lonely and unrooted men, suffering from both grandiose aspirations and petty grievances,’ which spread like a virus to yet other loners.”

Let's look at the analysis. I won't go into all of the details because I'm taking an entire 2-3 page article and reducing it to a paragraph.

How do I make it efficient, punchy, and clear? “One never hears that the shooter was ‘warm, welcoming and the most popular kid in school.’ Although the mass shootings are not necessarily terrorist acts, commonality between these shootings and terrorism is that there is a dark ideology of ‘self-aggrandizement [and] a bid for greatness [requiring] the destruction of others.’ It may be that the white male mass shooting phenomena is driven by a ‘media inspired religion of grievance and greatness.’”

Finally, here is the conclusion. “The author notes that this is ‘a mass-distributed sickness for which male outcasts are most vulnerable to infection.’”

I hope I conveyed the similarities and distinctions in legal writing and non-legal writing.

What are the common pitfalls you see in any professional writing?

The common pitfalls I see are particularly a lack of a strong topic sentence, and the writer not guiding the reader through the analysis.

I would like to clarify that people should also do this in their emails. I have a blog post at about business emails for the law practice. Sometimes people write informally in emails, and that is a mistake.

You should write with topic sentences, support, and conclusions, and if you are making several points, then consider having an introductory paragraph. (Conclusions are not as important.) Introductions are really important to guide the readers. It is the first thing they hear. You might have several paragraphs in your e-mail. Make sure that your topic sentence reflects what is in the body of each paragraph. (I'm not saying don't use conclusions. I'm trying to convey the importance of introductions.)

When I was at the Attorney General's office, that was important too, because that is where you got your reader. You could also see a similarity with academic writing—the importance of that abstract. It is critical to write a sound abstract, because it's possible that your reader may not read after that. Or if they do, maybe they'll read your headings—that was a concern we had with judges when they were very busy. We knew they had read our introduction. It was really for us to lose after that if we had written a good introduction and strong headings. They call them memos of points and authorities—if you make certain points and you make them in headings, they might just read them. I think that is critical.

Grammar is critical too. Let me just tell you a couple of my pet peeves. First, passive voice. People should try to use active voice rather than passive voice. Active voice means subject→verb→object. “A jury convicted John Jones of manslaughter.” That is active voice.

Passive voice, on the other hand, is where the object comes first. “John Jones was convicted by a jury.” It is object→verb→subject. Good writers find it a distraction. It's not the end of the world, but if there's too much of it the reader comes to disrespect the writer. It was our opinion at the Office of the Attorney General that you should not write in passive voice.

One trick, since sometimes it is hard to know if you're writing in passive voice, is to see if you can add “by zombies” at the end. If you can, then it is probably passive voice. “The bicycle was ridden.” By whom? By zombies! Again, when I was the law clerk supervisor for our section in the AG's office I'd get packages of resumes and cover letters. Honestly, even if somebody seemed to have great credentials, if they had too much passive voice in their cover letter, I would put it out in the pile. It was that distracting.

Another point—avoid colloquial expressions or slang. “The judge called him out.” Instead, you want to say, “the judge criticized the defendant.” Where I find that to be the biggest problem is in verb choice. There is an easy fix for that though, which is to run your verbs through a thesaurus, and make sure you're using the most specific or articulate verb you can.

I have many more tips in my course, but those are the main ones. Remember, organization is everything because you want the reader to be going “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh, huh. OK, you win.”

About Bev Meyers

Professor Bev Meyers (Professor Meyers) is a longtime legal educator and lawyer. She worked at the California Office of the Attorney General (AG) for almost 30 years. In her practice, she handled motions, trials, and appeals. She was a Deputy City Attorney and Deputy District Attorney, where she tried criminal cases, and handled criminal motions.

Also, she has taught legal writing as an adjunct professor in the Bay Area for over 30 years, including presently at John F. Kennedy School of Law at Northcentral University, where she teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, and Evidence. In 2021, Northcentral University gave Professor Meyers the Inaugural Delphi Award for Academic Excellence. She has a business teaching an online legal writing course, Legal Writing Launch, which is available here.

Professor Meyers is a lecturer for the National Academy of Continuing Legal Education and the United Institute for Continuing Legal Education. In 2020, Professor Meyers developed and presented Effective Legal Writing for the Attorney Practitioner. In 2021, she developed and presented The George Floyd Case: The Evidence, Arguments, Sentence & Verdict in the Criminal Case against Derek Chauvin. Both lectures are available nationally and for continuing legal education credit.

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