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Monday, February 18, 2013

Alford: Why Is Academic Legal Writing So Bad?

Roger Alford (Notre Dame), Why Is Academic Writing So Bad?:

There is an interesting discussion by Stephen Walt over at Foreign Policy on why academic writing is so bad. It is a subject academics are reluctant to discuss, yet there is no doubt that much of what passes as legal scholarship is dull, disagreeable, undigestable. ...

My own sense is that legal scholarship is better than most academic writing because we are trained at law school and in law firms to be convincing and comprehensible. Once in the academy, we are further trained to reach two audiences: our academic peers and our student gatekeepers who hold the keys to the kingdom. Obscurity may be appropriate for one audience, but not the other. Our law student underlords save us from the trap of most other academics.

So why does legal scholarship still miss the mark?

First, legal scholarship is formulaic. There is an order and predictability to legal writing that stifles creativity. ...

Second, legal scholarship is prosaic. Many legal scholars are more interested in arguments than words. We love the research, but not the writing. We are “ideasmiths” rather than wordsmiths. ...

Third, legal scholarship has a footnote fetish. ...

Fourth, legal scholarship is technical. ... Great legal writing often is about taking dry and tedious ingredients and transforming them into agreeable fare. It will not keep your teenager from rolling her eyes when you explain what you did at work today, but it should keep your colleagues and students from giving up in frustration.

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Comments

I find most law review articles impenetrable because the author frequently wants to "sound smart," rather than be clear.

Posted by: andy | Feb 18, 2013 11:19:41 AM

Wasn't it Fred Rodell who said the only two problems with legal scholarship were style and content?

Posted by: michael livingston | Feb 19, 2013 2:18:44 AM