Q My Legal Research and Writing class is driving me insane. I understand why it is important to get citations exactly right. I do not understand why I have to use em dashes (which I’d never even heard of until last week) instead of parentheses or why my ellipses need to include extra spaces between the periods. I’m being told that my writing structure and legal analysis are generally quite good, but I’m being marked down for minute differences in word choice and other things that make no sense to me. Please tell me that there is actually a point to all of this. It has been suggested in class that if we don’t have near-perfect memos to use as writing samples, we’ll find it hard to get jobs this summer. What’s a 1L to do? Just how important is the em dash anyway?
A There is no point to it, sorry, other than to do like most monkeys and swing from the branches and eat the bananas they feed you. I think they call it the Blue Book but, honestly, I haven’t looked at a Blue Book in years. And I haven’t suffered for it, nor lost a motion on account of it, fucked up a case, or gone hungry. But that doesn’t stop the legal writing grammar Nazis, law review editors, and big firm grammar pornographers from believing that they are holding off barbarians at the gates by enforcing proper spacing between periods in an ellipsis. Imagine the conversation at the hiring end:
KIRKLAND: What do you think of Peterson? ELLIS: Good grades, went to Michigan, has decent experience. KIRKLAND: But she had the wrong spacing in an ellipsis. ELLIS: Yeah, I saw that. I think she italicized a period, too. KIRKLAND: Makes you wonder what they're teaching in law school these days. ELLIS: Don't get me started, bub. I say reject. KIRKLAND: Yeah, reject. Send the standard letter. Actually, she doesn't deserve a letter. Fucking retard.
That said, and having been a law school adjunct as well as a frequent editor, I have two pieces of advice that may help: 1) stop using the em dash; and 2) stop using ellipses except for indicating you have omitted text in a quotation. Like Asian Carp and other invasive species, these two trendy tricks of the punctuation trade will take over your writing, and you’ll abuse them for all the wrong reasons. To indicate a slight pause, to be clever, to call unnecessary attention to a phrase, to stop the reader in her tracks. Use a fucking period when you need a period. Or start a new sentence. So, avoid or use sparingly and you’ll improve your writing. Same goes for parentheses. Avoid, unless you want your writing to seem like you are constantly talking out of the side of your mouth.
So, sure, as a 1L it’s optimal to learn the rules and impress your teachers and potential employers with the flawless execution of an ellipsis. But I wouldn’t lose sleep over it or do anything more than note the need to correct it when it’s called to your attention and try to do the right thing next time. Understand the rules enough so that, when you break them, you understand the why and can make an informed choice next time or conclude that you don’t care.
One thing, though, stands out in your otherwise spot-on question. You mention being judged on “word choice.” Whoever is nailing you for poor word choice is right. It’s one thing to act like a proper monkey and get your spaces in an ellipsis all cuddly and correct. But it’s another if you’re saying “discreet” when you mean “discrete.” Proper word choice is a fundamental tool of our trade, so make sure you get at least that right.